Great dialogue involves your reader or viewer in a conversation completely. Read 10 tips from movie dialogue pros, from Hitchcock to Mamet and others:
1. Make written dialogue visual like movie dialogue
In beginners’ dialogue, characters often read like floating talking heads in a void. The acclaimed director and producer Alfred Hitchcock emphasized the importance of visual elements in dialogue:
Dialogue should simply be a sound among other sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.
Hitchcock, Interview in Hitchcock (1984), Truffaut et al., p. 222
When you write dialogue ask:
- Where are characters and what are they doing while the conversation unfolds?
- What gestures, expressions and other visual details could add specificity to this scene?
2. Use ordinary words creatively
Memorable movie dialogue, those lines that film fanatics love to quote (such as Rhett Buttler’s ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn’ in 1939’s Gone with the Wind), is mostly made up of ordinary, plain language. Yet it is where dialogue is placed, how ordinary words are arranged, that gives it power.
For example, the above line gives Rhett Butler’s final words to Scarlett O’Hara, when she tearfully asks ‘Where shall I go? What shall I do?’. It’s a brutal response. The final gesture of severing ties shows total indifference, with the strongest curse word kept for last. Timing and placement of this dialogue amplify its dramatic effect.
The French writer and director Robert Bresson gives this advice:
The most ordinary word, when put into place, suddenly acquires brilliance. That is the brilliance with which your images must shine.
Robert Bresson, in Unraveling French Cinema: From L’Atalante to Caché (2011) by T. Jefferson Kline, p. 76
Jefferson Kline quotes further good advice from Bresson here (that applies equally to writing dialogue for a novel):
See your film as a combination of lines and of volumes in movement apart from what it represents and signifies … To move people not with images likely to move us, but with relations of images that render them both alive and moving.
Bresson quoted in Jefferson Kline, p. 76.
3. Keep action in focus
Dialogue that builds momentum furthers action.
In addition to using movement, gesture, facial expression and other details, ask, ‘What is the occasion for this conversation?’ Is one character consoling another? Are bank robbers planning a heist?
Making dialogue build towards further action gives it an underlying sense of purpose and momentum.
Pulitzer-winning playwright, screenwriter and director David Mamet puts it thus:
A movie is a juxtaposition of images. We don’t need dialogue in a movie. Never. How do we know? Because when we’re on the airplane, we’re looking across at the other guy in the next seat watching a movie and we get fascinated. We can’t hear the dialogue.
David Mamet, interview with No Film School.
In a novel, of course, the reader is not looking over someone’s shoulder watching a film. Yet you can write dialogue that contains the visual and action elements that create this effect, that get readers fascinated.
4. Write effective dialogue from memory
In an interview for SiriusXM, screenwriter and director Quentin Tarantino describes how he’d go to the movies and write dialogue scenes from memory:
I would go and watch a movie and then I could remember the scene … I’d go home and write the scene down and whatever I didn’t remember I’d fill in the blanks myself.
Tarantino, interview for SiriusXM, available here (from 00:02:03)
Copying out dialogue from memory this way is also an exercise you can do with good dialogue in books. Then compare your ‘filled-in’ version to the original. What is different? What made the original particularly effective?
Truly examining and internalizing skilled dialogue this way will help your craft.
5. Include dialogue’s subtext
Dialogue is a powerful writing device because it can say more than the words characters hear. What is the underlying situation leading to a conversation? Could there be tension between what a character says and what they are privately thinking or feeling? How could you show this inner conflict?
Actors are founts of insight into writing true dialogue. Because they know how to bring a character to life – how to turn words on the page into a living, flesh-and-blood person.
Actress Viola Davis (who has won the so-called ‘triple crown’ of acting – an Oscar, Emmy and Tony) puts subtext thus:
Your internal dialogue has got to be different from what you say. And, you know, in film, hopefully that registers and speaks volumes. It’s always the unspoken word and what’s happening behind someone’s eyes that makes it so rich.
Viola Davis, interview for Cinema Blend
6. Know your characters inside out
Great dialogue begins with knowing your characters well. What are their:
Lawrence Konner, screenwriter behind TV hits such as The Sopranos, gives this advice:
I think the first thing you should do before writing a script is to sit down and write a biography of that person.
Lawrence Konner, quoted by WILDsound Festival
Create a detailed character profile for each character in your story using the easy step-by-step prompts in our story outlining tool.
7. Structure dialogue around set-ups and payoffs
Brilliant dialogue is often like a well-executed joke in structure. There’s a preamble and a punchline, though in a tragedy the punchline may provoke tears rather than laughter, as screenwriter John August says.
I suddenly recognized that all writing is like writing a joke. There is a set-up, and there is a payoff […] The set-up is extraordinarily important, and you can’t get to the punchline until you’ve established all the points along the way.
John August, interview for The Oscars
Think back to the example from Gone with the Wind:
Scarlett: What shall I do? Where shall I go?
Rhett: Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.
Scarlett’s questions set up the response. Rhett’s reply is similar to a punchline in that there is an element of surprise (in that it doesn’t address the what and where of Scarlett’s question). It nonetheless also continues the thread of what Scarlett said.
8. Use silence and pauses, too
In effective dialogue, moments of pause, silence, interruption also speak volumes. What questions does a character respond to? When do they fall silent? Why? Punctuating dialogue with moments of tension and unease also helps to up suspense.
Screenwriter and film-making lecturer Susan Kouguell, in an article for Script Magazine, puts it thus:
Consider the silences and pauses your characters use, or another character’s interruptions, to further convey tensions, actions, moods, and emotions.
Susan Kouguell, ‘Tips on Writing Dialogue that’s Truthful’ for Script Magazine
9. Say your dialogue out loud
Whether you’re writing movie dialogue or dialogue for a book, saying your dialogue out loud is classic advice many writers give. Aaron Sorkin, who won the Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay for The Social Network, told Collider this:
I try to let David Mamet get into my bloodstream, I try to let Tom Stoppard get into my bloodstream – any number of writers whom I revere, but I can tell you that when I’m writing I’m talking out loud – I’m playing all the parts in my head. And one of the things I think that helps with is that you’re less likely to write a line of dialogue that’s unspeakable.
Aaron Sorkin, interview for Collider (from 00:02:57)
10. Play and enjoy writing dialogue in your voice
When asked about writing dialogue for her indie movie success Juno, Diablo Cody described what she learned about screenwriting, and dialogue specifically:
[When writing Juno] I was just having fun, and you can hear I was having fun. And in a way, I was having too much fun, if that makes any sense. I needed to be pulled back a little. When I watch it now, the dialogue seems very self-indulgent and undisciplined. But that’s one of the things people like about the film, so I can’t argue.
Diablo Cody, interview with Chad Gerwich for Writer’s Digest.
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