7 Screenwriting Secrets From the Masters of Great Dialogue
You don’t strive to write more eloquent and poetic scene description. Beyond those written words within a screenplay lies the dialogue. And yes, the dialogue is what screenwriters often obsess about most — and rightfully so.
Great dialogue can take a small concept and make it big. A conversation between two characters during a dinner (My Dinner with Andre). Bank robbers stuck in a warehouse (Reservoir Dogs). A teenager dealing with a pregnancy (Juno). Salesmen hoping to land that real estate deal with their jobs on the line (Glengarry Glen Ross). These are all examples of otherwise small concepts that were elevated by their dialogue.
Now imagine matching such great dialogue with more engaging concepts. A superhero on a quest of vengeance (Deadpool). A young F.B.I. cadet confiding in an incarcerated and manipulative killer to receive his help on catching another serial killer (Silence of the Lambs). A group of professional bank robbers starting to feel the heat from police (Heat). A mobster and his friends working their way up the mob hierarchy (Goodfellas). A professional general manager attempting to assemble a baseball team on a lean budget by employing computer-generated analysis to acquire new players (Moneyball). A gigantic great white shark menacing the small island community of Amity as a police chief, marine scientist, and grizzled fisherman set out to stop it (Jaws).
Great dialogue is what completes the circle within the writing process of any given screenplay or eventual film. It’s the cherry on top of that delicious sundae.
Here we have seven secrets from the masters of dialogue that can help you find that great dialogue of your own that you’ve been hoping to someday write.
Characters Never Say What They Truly Want
It’s all in the subtext. Ernest Hemingway said it best with this now famous quote: "If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water.”
That’s one of the greatest secrets to writing great dialogue. It needs to be learned and honed, sure, but if you can accomplish what he states in that quote, you’re well on your way to becoming a great dialogue writer.
It would have been utterly boring for Mr. Orange in the first act of Reservoir Dogs to outright tell Mr. White, “Look, I’m a cop. Thank you for saving my life and I’m sorry, but please don’t let them kill me.” Instead, his dialogue never truly reveals what he wants until the end, but we’re given clues to what he really wants throughout the whole film.
In Glengarry Glen Ross, Alec Baldwin’s character isn’t there to inform the salesmen of the latest rewards for the top sellers. He’s not there to offer them support and advice. He’s there to scare the s*** out of them and flaunt his own success as a favor to Mitch and Murray.
When the characters outright say what they want, there’s no room left for discovery, thus there’s nothing to keep the audience listening.
Ask Yourself, “Does the Character Need to Convey That Information?”
David Mamet is quoted as asking this question and further elaborating, “If the answer is no, then you’d better cut it out, because you aren’t putting the audience in the same position with the protagonist — I try to adopt that as an absolute tenet. I mean, if I’m not writing for the audience, if I’m not writing to make it easier for them, then who the hell am I doing it for? And the way you make it easier is by following those tenets: cutting, building to a climax, leaving out exposition, and always progressing toward the single goal of the protagonist. They’re very stringent rules, but they are, in my estimation and experience, what makes it easier for the audience."
Cut as much of the dialogue as you can. Down to the meat. Then make sure that the dialogue is building to something. Each scene of dialogue has to build to a climax, each story act of dialogue has to build to a climax, and each screenplay’s dialogue has to build to that ultimate climax at the end.
Avoid Dialogue That Drops Exposition
“This means all the little expositional scenes of two people talking about a third. This bushwah (and we all tend to write it on the first draft) is less then useless, should it finally, God forbid, get filmed,” Mamet told his writing staff on The Unit years ago.
We understand that there is a time and place for exposition within screenplays. It’s necessary to feed the audience with the information that they need to explain some turning points and revelations. However, it’s how you deliver that exposition that matters most.
While a fine conceptual film, Inception is guilty of delivering exposition in a terrible manner. The character that Ellen Page plays is strictly one that was created in order to deliver or introduce the opportunity for heavy exposition. You can argue that the film’s complicated concept and conceptual rules needed such scenes, however, that doesn’t take away from the fact that her scenes are perfect examples of bad exposition that would fail in most other films.
Find creative ways to deliver exposition. Instead of dropping it in a long and obvious paragraph of dialogue from one character, spread it out in a conversation between two or more. Whatever you need to do in order to avoid pulling a scene to a halt by directly informing the audience with information through an exposition drop, do it.
Remember That Action Speaks Louder Than Words
“If you pretend the characters can’t speak, and write a silent movie, you will be writing great drama,” Mamet once coached his writing staff.
Great dialogue is often the result of not writing any. That may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s true.
We learn most about our characters through their actions and reactions. While those may be delivered with lines of dialogue, all too often, they’re not.
Look how much we learn about the character of Anton Chigurh in his opening scene within No Country for Old Men.
He’s a ruthless killer with no hesitation. We learn this through his actions and reactions. And the beauty of this is that when he does say something — he’s a character of few words within this film — you listen and it matters.
Look at a film like There Will Be Blood. The opening sequences are masterful in revealing the lead character. Not one word is spoken but we know that this character is driven by one thing, and one thing alone — success. And he’s ruthless when it comes to attaining it.
And once again. When a character presented like this (action over words) speaks, the audience listens.
By using less dialogue and focusing on action and reaction, you enhance the dialogue that is present.
Conflict Is Everything
The best dialogue comes from two or more characters in one scene that want different things. It’s as simple as that. If you have that present in almost every scene of your script, the dialogue will pop off of that page and eventual audiences will be engaged by the back and forth, waiting to see who is going to win the argument.
We go to Moneyball for a perfect example of characters wanting different things.
Conflict is everything. You have the GM of a poor team that is sick of playing the same game each and every season pitted up against a room of veteran scouts set in their traditional ways that clearly don’t work anymore.
And that conflict is enhanced at the climax of this storyline.
Aaron Sorkin, who wrote this film, once said, “Anytime you get two people in a room who disagree about anything, the time of day, there is a scene to be written. That’s what I’m looking for.”
Supporting Characters are Called Supporting for a Reason
All too often, screenwriters make the mistake of giving lines of dialogue to characters that don’t deserve them. Sometimes it’s to offer exposition (usually bad exposition). Sometimes it’s for comic relief (usually bad comic relief). Sometimes it’s unexplained beyond the fact that the writer is overwriting their dialogue.
Mamet once wisely stated, “Without question, one of the biggest mistakes I see from amateurs is characters who are only talking because they’re in a scene. If characters are only talking because a writer’s making them, the scene will be maddeningly boring."
Every line of dialogue in the film has to matter and move the story and characters forward. Giving lines to characters “in the room” for the mere sake that they are in the room is a very common mistake that takes away from the rest of the dialogue that should be in the script. They are there to support the lead characters and the story. If what they are saying isn’t accomplishing that, it should be cut.
Forget the Notion That Great Dialogue Sounds Real
Great dialogue in movies does not sound real and does not sound how you or anyone you know really talks. It is amplified reality, meant to capture the emotion of the moment in a nutshell of one to a few good lines at a time.
To whittle it down to the core, great dialogue is what we wish we could say, but don't. Start from there.
Let’s use Juno for example. While many feel that the film stands out because of its dialogue, listen to the popular lines in the film carefully.
We don’t speak like that in the real world. We stutter. We utter words like um, like, ah, etc. We go on tangents. We start a story, back track when we miss details, start again, etc. If we wrote dialogue as we truly speak in the real world, nobody could stand to listen to it in the movie theater. Instead, we go to movies like Juno to listen to some entertaining cinematic poetry. We watch and listen to films as characters say things like:
- “You complete me.”
- “You had me at hello.”
- “Go ahead make my day.”
- “Love means never having to say you’re sorry.”
- “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow.”
That’s not how we talk. So avoid the often given advice to listen to real conversations and emulate them. Yes, you want to avoid wooden dialogue. Yes, you want characters to interrupt each other and speak in fragments as we often do in real life. But if you truly listen to how we really talk and compare that to some of the best cinematic dialogue, you’ll quickly understand that movie characters speak in hyper-realistic dialogue peppered with entertaining, engaging, and sometimes poetic flare. They speak to the beat and the pacing of the story at hand.
Dialogue master Quentin Tarantino said it best: “I think that in my dialogue there’s a bit of whatever you would call it, a music or poetry, and the repetition of certain words helps give it a beat or a rhythm. It just happens and I just go with it, looking for the rhythm of the scene.”
Writing great dialogue like the masters — Tarantino, Mamet, Hemingway, Sorkin, Coens, Leonard, etc. — isn't easy. It will take some work to get even close to what they've accomplished in their films, plays, and stories. Even if you accomplish a small percentage of what they emulate in their written words, you'll be ahead of most of the screenwriters out there.
Go through your scripts that you have right now. Keep these seven secrets from the masters in mind and see if you can't come out the other end of "the tunnel" with dialogue that truly matters and pops off of the page.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies