“Speech is often used less to express genuine feelings and thoughts than to hide, veil or deny them.” — Alice Miller
The number one mistake novices make in writing dialogue is having their characters explain exactly what’s on their mind. This creates unnatural dialogue that’s actually boring to hear. What’s far more interesting is when characters speak their minds without actually speaking what they’re thinking. This creates a far more natural effect while creating a mystery that forces audiences to actively listen.
Imagine the following dialogue between two people:
MAN: I’d like to get to know you.
WOMAN: I might want to get to know you too.
In the right context, this dialogue could be interesting, but by itself, it’s deadly dull because there’s no conflict and no mystery. The characters say exactly what’s on their mind and the conversation comes to a screeching halt.
Now consider this dialogue between a man and a woman who meet on a train in the movie “Silver Streak”:
MAN: Hi there. Can I buy you a drink?
WOMAN: I have one. Thank you.
MAN: Do you go all the way?
MAN: I said, do you go all the way…to Chicago?
WOMAN: Oh. Yes, I do.
MAN: Well then, maybe we can do it together.
WOMAN: Do what?
MAN: Go to Chicago.
Notice that both the man is trying to get the woman interested in him without directly coming out and saying it. That’s more realistic with the way people act and speak and reveals character as well as make the overall dialogue far more interesting.
Start by identifying what each character wants in the scene and then write dialogue that says exactly what they want.
Then disguise their true meaning and hint about what they truly want. This will create far more interesting dialogue and let you reveal the personality of each character at the same time.
Dialogue is never meant to provide information. Rather, dialogue is meant to force the audience to interpret and decipher each character’s dialogue to get the true meaning. Don’t think about revealing information in dialogue. Think about hiding, disguising, or even denying that information.
For example, if two people hate each other, it’s far more interesting if they pretend to others that they’re still a couple. That way we can watch them squirm as they fight each other while putting on a phony front when confronted by others. This contrast between what they truly want and how they act to hide what they truly want makes a scene far more compelling to watch.
Dialogue can be the most crucial tool in any screenplay so use it wisely and sparingly. The less direct your dialogue, the more interesting it is likely to be.