The biggest mistake novices make with dialogue is that they use dialogue to provide information to the audience. Don’t do that. Instead, make the audience work for that information by watching the action on the screen.
In “Django: Unchained,” there’s a scene where the villain has just cheated the hero and his mentor out of a large sum of money and is sending them away. To seal the deal on forcing them to buy the hero’s wife for a huge amount of money, the villain tries to taunt the mentor by shaking his hand. Here’s the most direct way to write this dialogue:
Villain: I want to make you feel even worse for trying to deceive me so I’m going to make you shake my hand to further humiliate you.
Mentor: I hate you. (Pulls out a gun and shoots the villain.)
Notice how boring this dialogue is because it’s so direct? Yet that’s the best way to write dialogue because it forces you to define the purpose of the scene and the motivation of the characters. With this direct dialogue, you know exactly what motivates both the villain and mentor. The villain wants to taunt the defeated mentor and the mentor feels helpless to fight back. Writing direct dialogue like this helps you focus on what the scene is really all about.
Of course, you don’t want to keep such direct dialogue in your screenplay. Instead, you want to show the meaning of this dialogue through action. In the actual scene in “Django: Unchained,” the villain won’t let the mentor leave because he says a deal isn’t a deal in the South until it’s sealed with a handshake. So with a smile, he offers his hand to the mentor.
Now if you know the direct dialogue result, you can draw out the moment for suspense. Instead of the mentor coming right out and saying he hates the villain, he warns the villain by saying, “You really don’t want to shake my hand.”
Suddenly this makes us (the audience) wonder what’s going on. The villain insists that he does want to shake his hand, but the mentor warns him that he really doesn’t want to shake his hand. The villain insists once more so the mentor slips out a gun hidden up his sleeve and fires a single shot, killing the villain.
When you know the direct dialogue of a scene, you can draw out the actual result through suspense, foreshadowing, and tension to make the scene far more interesting. But you would never know how to make a scene interesting if you didn’t know the direct dialogue of that particular scene.
Consider a love scene. When two characters get together, the direct dialogue might look like this:
Woman: I love you
Man: I love you too.
Boring, right? That’s because there’s no suspense. To create suspense, you need to create a possibility of failure and hope. Once the audience has a goal to hope for, they also need a fear of failure to create tension and conflict.
In “Sleepless in Seattle,” the hero and his true love finally meet at the top of the Empire State Building. After they identify each other, there’s a moment’s pause where the hero says he and his son better get going. That momentarily creates a moment of failure. Then the hero reaches out, grabs the hand of the woman, and the two of them walk to the elevator together, showing that they’re going to live happily ever after. By reaching his hand out to the woman, the hero reveals his direct dialogue.
Here are the steps to writing dialogue in a scene:
- First, write direct dialogue where characters say exactly what they think and want.
- Second, write their real dialogue to hint and disguise their direct dialogue.
- Third, create action that shows what they really think.
The direct dialogue is for your purpose only so you can identify the purpose of the scene. The real dialogue is to create subtext in a scene where two characters are battling for power while trying not to seem too obvious about it. This lets the audience read into the character’s dialogue and infer for themselves what the characters must really mean. By engaging the audience, this method makes a scene far more interesting than turning the audience into passive observers by telling them what they need to know.
Finally, the actions of the characters reveals the true meaning of the direct dialogue. The actions tell us the direct dialogue while forcing us to watch and interpret the meaning of these actions, so that keeps the audience engaged.
The next time you need to write a scene, try this three-step method of writing direct dialogue, writing real dialogue that disguises the direct dialogue meaning, and finally creating action that does reveal the direct dialogue meaning. By using this three-step process, you’ll find writing scenes far easier and more structured than ever before. If your existing scenes feel flat, rewrite them using these guidelines. You may be surprised at how this simple step can dramatically turn a flat scene into a far more active and compelling one.