Dialogue is too often a crutch. To learn different ways to use dialogue, study screenplays and stage plays.
If you look in a library or used bookstore, you may be able to find a copy of National Public Radio’s scripts for a radio version of “Star Wars.” The writer, Brian Daley, expanded the original “Star Wars” script to include additional scenes. If you get a copy of both these radio scripts and the original screenplay, you can see the difference in dialogue.
A screenplay is a visual script that conveys information through what we see. A radio script is like a stage play in that everything relies on dialogue. That’s why you’ll hear characters say things that normal people would never say, such as “As you know, Harold, my brother-in-law of fifteen years, I have always been fond of my home where I’ve been born and raised.”
Stage plays and the “Star Wars” radio scripts have to use dialogue to convey information because there is no other option. In the “Star Wars” radio script, Luke is looking for R2D2 after he has escaped, and while looking through his binoculars, Luke suddenly shouts, “Hey’s what’s blocking my vision?”
Of course in the “Star Wars” screenplay, Luke doesn’t need to exclaim this since we can see one of the sand people stepping in front of Luke and blocking his vision.
The trick to writing dialogue in a screenplay is to avoid writing it as much as possible. Write your scenes with as little dialogue and try to convey information visually. If two people are angry at each other, they can slam a door in the face of the other person, stomp away in disgust, or just start reading the newspaper while another person is trying to talk to them. That helps convey anger more visually than just having two characters shout at each other.
Most screenwriters write dialogue that’s too “on the nose,” meaning that if two characters are arguing, they write the dialogue as an argument. A more interesting technique is to write a dialogue that opposes the dialogue. For example, if two characters are arguing, it’s boring to see them scream at each other in the privacy of their home. Put them in the middle of their wedding where they can argue while putting on a false front in front of their friends and relatives.
By choosing an inappropriate setting, you can make specific dialogue more interesting. Characters who argue are loud, so put them in a library where they can’t be loud. Put them in a funeral where they have to keep their voices down too. Put them in an elevator where their argument will make the other occupants embarrassed. In other words, put conflict into your dialogue.
Nothing should ever come easy for your characters. Even the simplest act of ordering a sandwich should be tough, as seen by Jack Nicholson in “Five Easy Pieces” where he’s trying to order a sandwich and the waitress won’t let him order exactly what he wants because it’s not on the menu.
Imagine writing your movie as a silent film where the visuals have to carry the story. In silent films, they only beak occasionally to show dialogue when it’s not possible to carry the story visually, but notice that reading dialogue on the screen isn’t as interesting as seeing action on the screen. That’s the effect dialogue has on any screenplay.
Dialogue can stop, slow down, and interfere with your story just as subtitles interfere in a silent movie. Use dialogue sparingly and you may find yourself telling a more visually interesting story.