For many, strong dialogue is considered to be part of the holy trinity for screenwriting success (along with developed characters, and raging alcoholism). Given that, it’s ironic there’s so much bad advice out there for struggling screenwriters about how to improve their dialogue. Usually, it’s some dusty old cliché about writing “realistic dialogue”. Develop your ear for dialogue. Listen to the way people speak in the real word and learn to duplicate it on the page.
Sorry, but that’s a load of bullshit.
If you ever actually follow that advice and spend any time listening to the way most people actually talk, you’d realize two things almost immediately:
1) The way that people talk is extremely convoluted, repetitive, and boring as Hell.
2) See point No. 1.
My aim here isn’t to diminish the role that dialogue plays in a great script. It’s vital. The blood that courses through the structural veins of a scene. But very rarely is good dialogue and “real” dialogue the same thing.
Alfred Hitchcock has a famous quote, “A good story is life with the dull parts taken out.” It’s pretty much the same deal with good dialogue.
For a prime example, let’s take a look at…
Dialogue and L.A. Confidential
Brian Helgeland’s script for L.A. Confidential reminded us all of how cool a good noir could be, and a big part of how we painted that picture of a corruption-filled Los Angeles is by writing some amazing dialogue. It leaps off the page and burns itself into your brain (you know – in a good way).
Here’s a great scene where Bud shows up at Patchett’s home to do a little digging around.
EXT. 1184 GRETNA GREEN, BRENTWOOD (PATCHETT'S) - DAY A big, pink Spanish mansion with lots of tile. Also last seen outside Hollywood Liquor on Christmas Eve, Pierce Patchett is in the front yard, chipping golf balls over a koi pond. They land in a tight grouping. As he tees up: BUD (O.S.) You must slay 'em at the country club. Bud's halfway up the walk. Patchett sees the cuffs hooked to his belt. Patchett is cool as can be. BUD Are you Pierce Patchett? PATCHETT I am. Are you soliciting for police charities? The last time, you people called at my office. BUD I'm a homicide detective. Where were you last night? PATCHETT I was here, hosting a party. Who was killed and why do you think I can help? BUD Richard Stensland. PATCHETT I don't know him. Mr... BUD Officer White. How about Susan Lefferts? You know her? PATCHETT (sighs, concedes) You know I do or you wouldn't be here. How did you find me? BUD We met outside Hollywood Liquors on Christmas Eve. This is where Lynn Bracken's booze bills go. PATCHETT Of course... BUD Sue Lefferts died at the Nite Owl. I'm investigating.
Great dialogue? Absolutely. But realistic? If it were realistic, Bud and Patchett would spend three pages exchanging pleasantries and working their way towards the meat of the conversation. And even once they got there, Bud’s questions and Patchett’s answers wouldn’t be nearly at short and sweet.
Good dialogue should be crisp. Efficient. You should strive to fill your dialogue with conflict. Every word should move your story forward in some way, and it should say only what needs to be said - not one word more. This will help keep the action moving forward and make for a much more engaging read.
When you think of realistic dialogue, only think of it in terms of each character. Is what they are saying real for them? When you put words in their mouth, stop and think – would this specific character say these words? In this place, at this time, with this inflection? That’s the test.
If it’s true to the character, then it’s real, but when you go to put it on the page, remember to follow Hitchcock’s advice and take out “the dull parts”.
- Specs & The City: Monologues and 'Good Will Hunting'
- Meet the Reader: How I Do What I Do
- Balls of Steel: Editing is Murder
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