One of my favorite bad movies of the past year is “The Last Airbender,” and one of the reasons why I love to hate this movie is because of the incredibly inept dialogue the characters speak. If you want to avoid these same mistakes, take care that your dialogue isn’t too direct.
One of the worst parts about “The Last Airbender” was the way the characters spoke to each other, saying things like, “As you know, I’ve been the leader of the Fire Nation for the past ten years” or something equally inane as that. Dialogue should mimic reality, and “The Last Airbender” makes characters provide exposition by talking about things that no sane person would ever say in their life.
Tomorrow morning, do you think you would start a conversation with your wife or husband by saying, “As you know, we’ve been married ten years…” or “I really don’t like the way you spoke to me just now.”
In the first example, nobody would ever say anything that both people already know, so stating something like “As you know, we’ve been married for ten years…” serves no purpose other than to provide information to an eavesdropper (the audience). Yet it sounds fake and meaningless since nobody talks that way.
The second bad example is when characters say exactly what’s on their minds. Imagine a shy boy mustering the courage to ask a girl for a date. What sounds more realistic?
Example #1: “Hi, my name is Bob and I’ve had a crush on you for the past three months until I’ve mustered up the courage to ask you for a date. Would you like to go see a movie this Friday night?”
Example #2: “Do you know where the bathrooms are?”
The first example is totally ridiculous and unbelievable. Would a shy kid state exactly what’s on his mind? Probably not. In the second example, the dialogue might not even seem to relate to the issue of asking a girl out for a date, and that’s the point.
A shy kid would most likely be searching for a way to ask a girl for a date without appearing to be asking for a date. He might make smalltalk to gauge the girl’s interest in him before asking her out. Then he might be afraid to do so as well, but the dialogue would be more realistic and more interesting because we’d get to hear the tension in his dialogue as we wonder how he will ask her out and what her response might be.
Most dialogue isn’t about what’s happening at all, but what the characters really want.
Think of a movie like “Battle: Los Angeles” where the soldiers see an alien machine attacking them and say something like, “I’ve never seen that before!”
That’s too obvious and direct. Now imagine if a soldier said the following to a fellow soldier when an alien machine suddenly appears, “I don’t think we’re in Kansas any more.”
This second sentence might sound ridiculous, but it conveys the soldier’s awe in the face of an alien machine and conveys the feeling of being overwhelmed and outmatched without coming out and saying that.
In real life and in movies, characters rarely state what they want, but say stuff that hints at what they want without coming out and saying it.
Think of a guy trying to pick up a woman in a singles bar. He would never say, “Hey, I want to sleep with you.” Instead, he might say something like, “I love your fingernails.” The subtext of the second sentence implies that the man finds the woman attractive or wants to compliment her, but the first sentence is too direct and also less interesting.
When characters speak, we want to hear their thoughts without them telling us their thoughts. Think of a really insecure person you may know in your life who brags and boasts as a way to cover up his insecurity. This guy would never say to someone, “I’m insecure, so please don’t hurt me.” Instead, this guy may boast about his sexual conquests the weekend before, but his stories sound so strained and shallow that we eventually read between the lines and see that he’s really an insecure person.
With dialogue, give the audience something to figure out. That’s half the fun of seeing a movie is probing into each character to find out what makes them tick. If that character simply states exactly what they’re thinking and what they want, they’re no longer interesting.
Tease your audience by having your characters speak almost in riddles. In a romantic comedy, the man and woman rarely state their affection for each other from the start. Instead, they may say everything but how they feel towards each other, but the way they talk makes us realize that they do share feelings for each other.
Dialogue is a game. Tease your audience and make them actively dissect your dialogue to fully understand what’s happening. Your story will be more interesting as a result.