Better Dialogue | Script Revolution


Better Dialogue

When the topic of writing better dialogue comes up, the response is often focused on the superficial side of speech (how it sounds) rather than the motivation behind the speech (what it means). Better dialogue is really a factor of the two and you may have found you are already talented in one area.

More Realistic Dialogue

This is really the art of the mimic and down to your ability to pick up on how different people talk. Rhythm, patter, and flow are some factors but also the choice of wording people use. Much like any set of mannerisms, these are complex and often nuanced. If you are good at connecting with many different kinds of people through conversation, you have probably found you have a chameleon like ability to adapt your speech so you can relate. This is all down to being a good listener, a sponge that retains the essence of personality as you experience it, an essential part of being a relatable storyteller. Unless you’ve been living under a rock with zero exposure to pop culture for your entire life, you have this ability, believe me.

You can exploit this side of your brain to write more realistic sounding dialogue which helps give your characters their own unique sounding voice. The hack is to simply have people you can imitate well “play” your characters in your head as you write. Note: You don’t have to be able to imitate them vocally, just be able to imitate them on the page. Those people can be anyone you choose from family and friends to actors and reality TV stars. All that matters is that you’re familiar with how they talk.

Suddenly, “I’d like a caramel latte and a ham and cheese panini, please” when ordering in a coffee shop becomes…

Character #1 (inspired by Samuel L Jackson) - “Hey, how you doin’? A caramel latte if you may and how about one of those ham and cheese paninis?”

Character #2 (inspired by Sandra Bullock) - “Morning! Can I get a caramel latte? Please… and maybe a ham and cheese panini too? Thank you!”

Character #3 (inspired by Jack Nicholson) - “Caramel latte, ham and cheese panini. Thanks, I appreciate it.”

Character #4 (inspired by Kristen Stewart) - “Hey umm, can I get like, a caramel latte?… Oh, and a ham and cheese panini! Thanks so much!”

Okay, maybe I not going to be ghostwriting for any of the Hollywood elite any time soon but I’m sure you catch my drift. Same intent, four different ways of delivering it. This is how you get characters to sound different to one another.

Quick tip: You don't have to go out into the big wide world or cycle through endless TV shows in the hope of running into the right person to "voice" a character. You can easily go through YouTube to find people that fit. This can be particularly useful for more technical dialogue such as law enforcement, pilot chatter, or legal discourse. 

More Dramatic Dialogue

This side of dialogue is less talked about but it’s where the rubber meets the road. Dramatic dialogue is where intent faces challenge and thus we get conflict. The dynamic behind the interaction makes it compelling to witness in real time as our brains engage on an intellectual and emotional level. Think about the dullest conversations you’ve had in your life, the most painstaking and drawn out, if you can remember them. There were most likely during a situation where neither you nor those you were trying to converse with had any good reason to talk other than to fill a void of silence. Introverts will especially know the pain of making small talk. Other painful conversations will probably include those which were one-sided, where someone dumped a stream of information on you in which you held little value  knowing or put any information into extracting. On the flip-side, the conversations which really stick in your mind are most likely arguments, debates, and discussions that you were passionately invested in at the time. Asking a crush if they would like to go on a date, a boss if they can give you a raise, or a parent to accept your sexuality aren’t necessarily pleasurable conversations to approach or navigate but they come with high stakes and adversity that make them memorable.

This is the real problem I most often see behind a screenwriter’s dialogue issues. It’s not that the speech itself is clunky, it’s just that the characters have no good reason to talk other than to state the obvious. The result tends to be scenes where everybody is simply trying to get from A to B with characters attempting to fill the void with smalltalk about what’s going on around them, usually the plot, or worse still, relaying exactly what the audience just watched unfold in the scene prior before discussing what they’re about to do in the scene that’s coming up. There is no immediacy nor suspense.

Dialogue is a lot more interesting when there’s drama behind the words. Let’s go back to our characters and add conflict to their situation…

Character #1 (finding nobody at counter) - “Hey hello? Anyone in today? Service please?”

Character #2 (distracted by point of sale) - “Oh man, do you have to put the paninis on display like that? I’m trying to stick to a diet here!”

Character #3 (alienated by product line) - “What is a caramel latte, anyway? What’s wrong with regular coffee? Why’s everything gotta be a dessert now?”

Character #4 (discovering a stock issue) - “Dude, I need sugar and caffeine like, so much right now. You cannot be out of syrup.”

Now we have dialogue that’s in a unique voice and going somewhere because what we have here is a “beat”, a moment that carries our story forward.

So, how do we get those beats. The easiest place to start is with good scene structure which should help us establish our character’s motivations and lay out the hurdles they’ll face getting toward their goal. However, we can go deeper than that if we incorporate theme. By bringing theme into the equation, each character can present their own perspective on the subject at hand. This isn’t necessarily something that’s done in an obvious way. It can be anything from sub-text to off-handed comments to full blown monologues. A good example of this is the opening scene of Reservoir Dogs which does nothing to tell us about the plot but gives us significant insight into the characters, their views, and their relationships with one another. This only makes the plot more entertaining as it unravels as we can already predict some of the personal drama it will cause.

Let’s go back to the coffee shop and our characters and talk life affirming values such as our relationship with destiny…

Character #1 (believing life puts up obstacles) - “Seriously? Well ain’t that the truth! Just when a man needs sustenance the most, suddenly everyone’s on some union downtime bullshit!”

Character #2 (believing life spites them) - “You know, it’s weird. Too weird. I start a new diet and you guys have precisely what I can’t eat on offer the next day. Which one of you bugged my house? Is it you? It’s you, isn’t it? I recognise you.”

Character #3 (believing life is out to get them) - “So, now I gotta worry about my heart rate AND my cholesterol when all I wanted is a pick me up. Is it me or is corporate America trying to kill us all off? Who benefits from that? Am I the only one here NOT getting my card stamped for this suicide pact?”

Character #4 (believing life is fatalistic) - “Fine, whatever, I knew it. I knew the second I decided I was gonna treat myself it wasn’t gonna work out. I don’t care. I’m over it already. That’s just like, my tragic little life.”

To summarise, better dialogue requires us to hone a wide set of skills and combine our ability to build characters, story theme, and scene structure with our ability to take someone’s voice and channel our own through it. Ultimately it is us that’s speaking but we’re doing in the most entertaining way we can by having a variety of interesting characters speak for us as they battle through their own existence. This way, not only does our dialogue feel richer, it feels based in much bigger universe where even something as mundane as ordering lunch can deliver just enough conflict to reveal someone’s entire view on life itself.