In real life, dialogue often occurs when people have nothing to say and no goal in mind. When you ask a stranger, “How are you doing,” you probably don’t want an answer and you have nothing you want from that stranger. In the movie world, every dialogue depends on having a purpose based on conflict.
Dialogue is always based on conflict and always involves one character trying to achieve a goal while another character gets in the way. If you wrote straightforward dialogue, your screenplay risks being boring and unrealistic.
In “Vicky Christina Barcelona,” there’s a scene where an American woman is living with a Spanish artist. Then the Spanish artist’s ex-wife shows up, which creates tension. The American woman doesn’t want the ex-wife to be living with them and the ex-wife doesn’t want the American woman near her ex-husband.
Each woman has a goal of masking their hatred for the other woman. In one conservation, the ex-wife asks the American woman if she speaks any foreign languages. The American woman says she studied Chinese. Then the ex-wife asks why and the American says because she liked the sound. Now the ex-wife asks to hear some Chinese.
Instead of immediately giving an example, the American woman stares blankly and says, “Me?” This highlights her feelings of awkwardness and insecurity because she only speaks English while the ex-wife is fluent in English and Spanish.
Just by avoiding a straightforward answer, this simple tangent helps illuminate the conflict and the characters and their goals all at once while a straightforward answer would not have accomplished any of this.
You almost never want your dialogue to be a straight line from point A to point B. In real life when people are in conflict, they rarely go straight to the point. Instead, they hint and babble before finally boiling over and saying what’s truly on their mind. In the process of avoiding the real message they want to say, they reveal more about themselves, which helps create richer characterization.
In “Chasing Amy,” there’s a scene where a friend confronts the hero, but rather than tell him what he thinks, the friend draws a picture of an intersection with four roads leading to the center. There’s a picture of Santa Claus, the Easter bunny, a happy lesbian, and a man-hating lesbian. Then the friend asks the hero which one will get to the middle of the intersection first.
The friend guesses the man-hating lesbian and the friend says that’s right because the other three are imaginary creatures so they don’t exist. That’s a far more powerful way of getting a message across than simply saying it up front. Not only does this get the point across, but it also does so in a memorable way that further highlights the friend’s background as a comic book artist. Dialogue should not only convey a message, but also reveal something about the speaking character at the same time. Even though we know that the friend is a comic book artist, his way of making a point further demonstrates who he is so that makes the dialogue far more interesting.
So go through your dialogue and try to eliminate as much as possible. Then look for ways to spice up your dialogue so it’s not so straightforward. Just by making your dialogue more roundabout and evasive, you can make your dialogue more realistic and interesting by making the characters speaking the dialogue far more realistic and interesting too.