In too many cases, novice screenwriters write dialogue that explains too much. You can see this in bad movies when the villain tells the hero (and the audience) his or her entire plans. This monologue typically serves no other purpose than exposition so it’s dull. What dialogue needs to do is provide something new that can’t be told visually.
In every scene, dialogue must first enhance what’s being seen. So when outlining a scene, think first about showing the action without dialogue at all. In a dialogue-heavy movie called “Before Sunrise,” an American man meets a French girl in Vienna on a train and they have exactly one night to spend together. With little physical action, the two simply talk and yet their dialogue is absolutely captivating because it’s full of subtext and revelations.
In one scene, the couple are in a bar, playing a pinball machine. The man is telling the girl about how he wound up in Europe because he was visiting his ex-girlfriend in Spain and she didn’t want him to show up, so he was stuck in Europe as a result. The girl meanwhile tells the man about her ex-boyfriend who was an alcoholic and a loser. Because both the man and woman are frustrated about their past boyfriend/girlfriend, their body language in playing the pinball reveals this frustration as they bang, slap, and hit the pinball machine as they play.
Strip away the dialogue and it simply looks like a couple aggressively playing pinball, but add the dialogue and the visual action enhances the meaning of the dialogue. Ideally, try to tell your story visually, but since that’s not always possible, tell your story through dialogue and enhance that meaning of that dialogue through visual action.
Think of how different that scene would have played if the couple were talking about their ex-boyfriend/girlfriend while sitting at a candlelit table in a restaurant, or if they were simply riding bicycles down the street. The setting and the characters’ action must supplement the dialogue.
What makes dialogue especially interesting is when the characters reveal something new. By constantly revealing new information, the dialogue becomes interesting. In “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the the two outlaws are constantly learning something new about each other, which makes their dialogue interesting. In one scene, the pair are about to jump off a cliff into a river, and that’s when Sundance reveals he can’t swim. Just debating whether to jump is scary enough, but to reveal new information about not being able to swim makes the idea of jumping into the river even more dangerous but also funny at the same time.
The biggest crime of dialogue is telling too much so make your dialogue interesting by using subtext. In other words, have your dialogue indirectly say what the characters really want to say. In “Silver Streak,” there’s a scene where a man and a woman are attracted to each other, but instead of each person coming out and saying that, they ask questions about flowers and how to care for flowers. In the process of doing this, their dialogue gets sexually suggestive, revealing the true meaning between the two characters.
So when writing dialogue, follow these general guidelines:
- Try to eliminate dialogue completely by telling your story visually like a silent movie. If you can do this, then your dialogue is unnecessary.
- If you must have dialogue, find a way to enhance it through the visual actions of the characters.
- If you must have dialogue, find a way to reveal new information that shocks the audience and the other characters.
- If you must have dialogue, identify the true meaning and then disguise this true meaning with indirect dialogue.
Dialogue is necessary but it should never be boring. Dialogue always must have a purpose so enhance that purpose with physical, visual action, subject, and new information. Do this and chances are good your dialogue will be much improved.