In every scene, characters want something. Unless your scene involves physical action such as fighting or fleeing, most characters have to get what they want through dialogue.
Essentially, every character’s dialogue is a sales pitch.
Each character is trying to convince others to give them what they want. Some common ways dialogue works as a sales pitch include:
- Threats and coercion
- Facts, logic, and reason
- Indirect talk
For an example of how a character can use threats to get what they want, watch this scene from “Full Metal Jacket.” Just be aware it contains plenty of profanity and disturbing topics but there’s no doubt that the drill sergeant is trying to get his men to respect him.
Pleading is often a sign of a character arguing from a position of weakness. Think of every horror movie where the killer has someone trapped and that trapped person is pleading for their life. Yet in the following scene from “Kelly’s Heroes,” a tank commander is behind enemy lines and is trying to convince an army buddy to send him a bridge so he can cross a river.
Even though the tank commander is arguing from a position of weakness, he dangles the bait that there’s gold and if he can cross a river using a bridge, he can get the gold and share it. So the tank commander has a goal to get a bridge and he’s using the appeal of gold riches to convince his army buddy to do it.
Facts, logic, and reason help create a more intellectual conversation as characters attempt to convince others of their point of view or try to dig out someone else’s ideas. In the following clip from “The Artifice Girl,” the conflict occurs between an artificially intelligent program (a young girl) and a black scientist who is trying to understand what this AI girl is thinking.
The most common type of dialogue is indirect talk where characters don’t say what they want, but through the subtext of their words, it’s apparent what they want. In the following scene from “Little Miss Sunshine,” the characters appear to be talking about ice cream, but what they’re really talking about is whether you should enjoy life or try to be someone you’re not.
The father tries to convince his daughter that she needs to avoid ice cream so she can stay thin while everyone else is trying to argue that she should enjoy life while she can.
Watch individual scenes from any good movie and you’ll often find characters using dialogue to “sell” the others by convincing them to their point of view. Dialogue is never about exposition. Instead, think of dialogue as a sales pitch that each character gives in a scene.
One character makes a sales pitch to get what they want and other characters give a sales pitch to get what they want. Then by the end of the scene, someone wins and someone loses.
If you think of all your characters as trying to close a sale in every scene, you’ll write with more urgency and directness, and that’s what scenes need to create compelling dialogue that will grab an audience’s attention.