Here’s the biggest mistake of most novices. They write dialogue that does nothing but provide exposition. The end result are characters who speak unnaturally by saying things like, “As you know, Bob, since we’ve been Marine Corps buddies for the past 20 years when your wife left you after we came back to the States, you can always stay at my house on 2198th Street in the dead end by the ravine.”
First of all, dialogue that serves only to reveal information is not only unnatural, but deathly dull. Secondly, dialogue that reveals only information drains a scene of any action, tension, or suspense. You might as well just have characters speak directly to the audience and state their entire history.
Nobody wants to hear facts. Everyone wants to hear a story, and part of telling a story means hiding the history of each character but revealing it bit by bit.
Think of “Thelma and Louise” where the two women are on the run from the cops and Louise insists that they don’t go through Texas. That by itself seems odd until later one we learn that Louise had been raped in Texas. Suddenly that simple revelation late in the story explains why Louise doesn’t want to drive through Texas and why she reacted by showing Harlan in the parking lot when she caught him trying to rape Thelma.
Imagine how awful that information would have been if Louise had simply dumped these facts on us in the beginning by saying, “Thelma, I was raped in Texas 15 years ago so that’s why I don’t want to drive through that state since it will bring back bad memories. Plus seeing Harlan trying to rape you brought back my past so I saw myself being raped and I wanted to kill my rapist by shooting him.”
Such clumsy dialogue would kill the story’s momentum dead in its track. So the first clue in writing dialogue is to make sure that dialogue creates intrigue. Instead of dumping backstory on the audience, dialogue should tease out bits and pieces of information for the audience to put together like a puzzle. Then when the audience gets all the pieces, they’ll suddenly have that “Ah ha” moment where they out everything together.
That moment creates a huge emotional impact that an information dump in dialogue can never do.
So not only should dialogue gradually reveal backstory in bits and pieces, but dialogue should also reveal character. What someone says and how they say it can go a long way towards shaping a character’s personality.
In the 2004 remake of “The Ladykillers,” Tom Hanks plays a southern gentleman who’s a criminal mastermind. When a woman’s cat runs up a tree, he doesn’t just say, “Will the cat come down on its own?” Instead, he says:
“I am so terribly sorry, madam. But won’t the feline eventually tire of his lonely perch and, pining for his master’s affection, return on his own initiative?”
That way someone speaks and the words they use reveal character, and that’s what dialogue should do.
Dialogue should also be subtle. That means dialogue should contain hidden motivations of the characters that may not be obvious at first, but becomes apparent much later.
In “The Ladykillers” when Tom Hanks shows up at a woman’s house to rent a room and her cat gets stuck up a tree, she tells him, “Look, I don’t want no double-talk. If you ain’t gonna fetch him down I guess I gotta call the po-lice…”
Notice how this southern black woman speaks compared to Tom Hank’s more sophisticated southern gentleman. As soon as this woman mentions “the po-lice…” that jolts Tom Hanks into action. Although we don’t know this yet, since Tom Hanks is a criminal, the last thing he wants is for the police to show up. That’s when he says, “No need to call the authorities.”
The subtext is that as a criminal, the last thing he wants is for the police to show up.
In “Thelma and Louise,” Louise is ready for a trip with Thelma but Thelma hasn’t even told her husband, Darryl, that she’s going anywhere. When Louise yells at Thelma to tell Darryl, she tries to bring up the subject by saying, “Hon.”
Then Darryl responds annoyed, “What?”
That’s when Thelma simply says, “Have a good day at work today.”
Thelma’s dialogue says a lot by what she doesn’t say. In other words, by not telling him she’s leaving, that reveals her relationship with him, which is not open and trusting. Sidestepping the topic is her way of revealing a huge amount of character.
Similar to sidestepping in dialogue is simply dead silence. If someone asks you a question and you simply stare at them, that silence could mean a lot. You could be mad, angry, upset, or just bored. But that silence says far more than dialogue could ever do.
So here are the six ways to use dialogue:
- Reveal backstory
- Reveal character (by the words spoken)
- Reveal subtext
- Sidestep a question
- Stay silent
Any of these techniques will be far better than dumping exposition on the reader in dialogue so trickle out exposition subtly through one of these five techniques and your screenplay will likely improve as a result.