Avoiding On-the-Nose Dialogue

The surest sign of a novice screenwriter is dialogue where characters say exactly what’s on their mind. Imagine a love scene between two people where the man says, “I love you,” and the woman responds, “I love you too.” Boring.

Now imagine that same scene but make it more subtle. In “The Founder,” which is a story about how Ray Kroc screwed the McDonald’s brothers out of their own restaurant and franchise, there’s a scene where Ray meets his future wife, Joan, in a restaurant. The big difference is that Joan is still married and has her husband with her.

So there’s Joan, her husband, and Ray in a restaurant when Joan mixes a milkshake drink for Ray and while she stirs the shake, she tells him, “Good things come to those who wait.”

Then she hands it to him so he can drink it. When Ray takes a sip and puts the shake back down, Joan picks up that same cup and drinks from it too, prominently leaving her lipstick stain on the edge of the cup while smiling and staring at Ray. That action and minimal dialogue pretty much says, “I love you” without actually saying it. As a result, that scene in “The Founder” is tense (because Joan’s husband is sitting right next to her) and subtle because the two characters are trying to tell each other, “I love you” without coming right out and saying it.┬áIf both characters had blatantly said, “I love you” to each other, the scene wouldn’t have been as interesting.

One way to make dialogue in a scene interesting is to make it more subtle. Just like that scene in “The Founder” where Ray and Joan Kroc can’t express their love for each other because Joan’s husband is sitting right next to them, so imagine that the characters in your screenplay can’t say what they really want to say out of fear, uncertainty, or tension from another character in that same scene.

Another technique for writing dialogue is to have characters say the exact opposite of what they really feel. In “La La Land,” an actress is auditioning for parts and before she can finish a complete sentence, the casting director cuts her off and tells her that’s enough. When she tells them that she can read it another way, the casting director politely tells her that’s not necessary. That’s when the actress pastes a fake smile on her face and says, “Well, that was fun.”

At that point, we know exactly that she’s feeling miserable but she acts like it was fun just to maintain a good impression in front of the casting director. Saying the opposite of what you really feel is a far greater way to emphasize a character’s true emotions rather than blurting out exactly what they may be feeling. What’s more effective? The actress pretending everything’s fine by saying, “Well, that was fun,” or the actress suddenly ranting and complaining? Complaining might be more visually interesting but unless it serves a purpose, it’s better to avoid having characters say exactly what’s on their mind.

So two techniques for writing dialogue are:

  • Pretend that the characters can’t say what’s really on their minds
  • Make characters say the opposite of how they really feel

Either technique will likely create a more interesting scene than characters simply stating exactly what’s on their mind, and that will make every scene interesting to read.

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