I was having trouble thinking about what to write about this week, so I asked for suggestions on Twitter. I got a bunch of good suggestions that I will address in the coming weeks (and feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments). But producer Ken Aguado, my co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, suggested I discuss writing good dialog. It’s a great topic – and one that could fill several posts. Today I will offer five of my best dialog tips.
I’m going to break the tips up into two groups. The first are things you should think about before writing a scene. The second are things that you would apply in the rewrite phase. Why the distinction? In the first draft you need to turn off your inner critic and let your imagination run free. In the rewrite phase, you apply more critical skills to hone your dialogue.
Just because you are letting your imagination loose in the first draft, however, doesn’t mean there is nothing you can do to encourage good dialog. This first group of tips are things you should think about before starting in on the first draft of the scene:
1. Characters should have distinctive voices. There’s a saying that in a good script you should be able to black out the character names and still be able to identify who’s speaking. A character’s background and personality should affect how they use language. I write diary entries in my major characters’ voices until I can hear them in my head. Then I know I’m ready to write for them.
2. Strong goals mean strong dialog. Dialog should be action. To achieve this, characters should speak in order to achieve a goal, whether it’s to hide something, convince someone else to do something, hurt someone or comfort someone. Of course, there needs to be some obstacle to that goal or else the dialog will quickly become passive. In dialog-driven scenes this obstacle is often another character with an opposing goal, or a goal that is mutually exclusive from the main character’s goal.
If you have characters with distinctive voices and strong opposing goals when you start to write, two thirds of your dialog job is done.
3. Reveal exposition in conflict. Expository dialogue (dialogue that reveals crucial information for the audience) is the most difficult kind to write. In real life, the most dramatic reason people speak information is to support an argument. So if you need your characters to give crucial information, create a disagreement that will prompt them to bring that information out.
4. Good dialog has subtext. This means that underneath what is being said, there is an unspoken scene going on. In real life people seldom say exactly or entirely what’s on their mind. Dialog without subtext is called “on the nose” – and that’s almost always a bad thing. If the dialog in your scene seems too direct, give your character a reason not to reveal their goal. For example, maybe it would embarrass them, or maybe if the opposing character knew what the main character is trying to achieve they would be less cooperative. Maybe the main character just doesn’t want to make themselves vulnerable.
I learned from Matt Weiner, the brilliant creator of Mad Men, that subtext is all about preparation. In order for the audience to grasp the subtext of the scene, they must know the context in which the scene is taking place.
Tip number four is both a first draft and a rewriting tip. You should try to have subtext in your first draft, but very often you will still find yourself writing on-the-nose dialogue. In your revision, try to find a reason for the character to be less direct. Here’s another dialog rewriting tip:
5. Cut the boring parts. Movie dialog should have verisimilitude, meaning it should seem like real speech but not actual mimic real speech. In real life people ramble, digress, repeat themselves and eat up a lot of time with pleasantries. If we mimicked this on screen, a simple conversation might take up half your movie. So you want to cut all the boring parts.
Particularly watch out for pleasantries like greetings and farewells. Try to cut into the scene as late as possible and out as early as possible. And only include the part that’s relevant to the story – if a scene takes place in a restaurant, don’t show the characters ordering (unless that’s critical to the drama). If you have a scene of a character shopping we almost never need to see them at the cash register paying.
Let’s look at a brief bit of dialog from Shaun of the Dead. In this scene, Shaun has learned that a strange man has bitten his stepfather, Philip. Shaun knows this man was a zombie and that Philip will now become a zombie. He races to his mother’s house to save her. The only trouble is, Shaun arrives before Philip has turned. So in this scene, he’s struggling to tell his mother, Barbara, that he has to kill her husband. (Remember what Matt Weiner said about subtext needing context? Shaun and the audience know something the other characters don’t, and Shaun has a reason not to speak directly – he doesn’t want to cause his mother emotional pain.) We pick up where Shaun has gone into the kitchen to help his mother prepare tea.
Shaun: how much do you love Philip?
Barbara: Two sugars, is it?
Shaun: I haven't had sugar in my tea since 1982.
Barbara: Oh, yes. Will you cut me some bread, love?
Shaun: Mum, how much do you love Philip?
Barbara: Oh for goodness sake Shaun, must we go through all this again?
Shaun: I’m sorry but… what would you think if I told you that he has, over the years, been quite unkind to me?
Barbara: You weren't always the easiest person to live with.
Shaun: Mum, he chased me with a piece of wood!
Barbara: Well, you did call him a “you know what.”
Shaun: Did he tell you that?
Barbara: Yes he did.
Shaun: Sorry, Mother... Mum! Did you know that, on several occasions, he touched me?
(Barbara flashes Shaun a look.)
Shaun: That wasn't true. Made it up, shouldn't have done, sorry. You don't understand...
Barbara: No, you don't understand. Philip is my husband and has been for seventeen years. I know you haven’t always seen eye to eye but I would at least expect you to respect my feelings. You must be more adult about these things.
(Philip appears in the doorway.)
Philip: (Growling) Yeah. Come on, Shaun. There comes a time when... you just... gotta be a man.
(Shaun looks at the knife in his hand)
Notice how each character has a distinctive voice – Shaun’s is impatient and a bit pouty, almost childish. Barbara starts out sunny and only snaps when pushed. Also, notice how Barbara says “you-know-what” instead of swearing, while Shaun has no problem swearing. Plus, you get a sense of their relationship in the way they interact.
Shaun has a clear goal – to convince his mother they need to kill Philip, and a clear obstacle – his mother loves Philip. This also gives him good reason not to state his case directly. Moreover, Shaun knows that his mother is not likely to believe in zombies, meaning he has to broach the subject cautiously.
Barbara gives a lot of exposition about the family relationship in this snippet of dialog. Shaun would already know all this information. But it doesn’t seem false because Barbara is using it to justify and defend her position.
You may wonder about the inclusion of the dialog about tea and bread. Isn’t this the boring stuff I said to cut? In many scenes it would be, but here it reflects Barbara’s goal. She wants the family to sit down to a nice snack together. This actually provides an obstacle to Shaun – he has to get her to change the focus of her attention. (This business also justifies why Shaun has a knife at the end.) Every line in this section of the scene advances the plot. Everything else has been cut out.