Dialogue is Spoken Action

There’s a reason why characters speak and it’s never to give out information to the audience, although that’s the side effect. The main reason characters speak is so they can get what they want.

Dialogue typically serves three functions:

  • To provide information to the audience
  • To help the character get what they want
  • To emphasize and supplement any physical action in the scene

In “Nightcrawler,” the hero is a sleazy man who works as a freelance video recorder and sells his gory videos to a local news station. When he takes the station manager out for drinks, he starts negotiating for a raise. The station manager doesn’t want to give him a raise so the hero ups the ante by explaining why she needs him more than he needs her.

First he explains that there are other news stations that would want his videos. Second, he tells the station manager that she only tends to last two years in a job before getting fired and her two years are coming up. Third, he says that her news station is in last place and in desperate need of ratings for the coming sweeps week.

By using all this information against her, the hero not only negotiates his way to a raise but also explains the motivation of the station manager in a way that feels natural, not forced or contrived.

Providing information to the audience should never be the primary goal of dialogue, but always a secondary goal. Besides telling us information about other characters, dialogue can also tell us something about the character doing the talking.

In “Good Will Hunting,” there’s a monologue where the hero is being interviewed by the National Security Agency and asked if he would use his brain power to help them. Rather than just say no, the hero launches into a detailed monologue that precisely explains why he’s saying no as follows:

Why shouldn’t I work for the N.S.A.? That’s a tough one, but I’ll take a shot. Say I’m working at N.S.A. Somebody puts a code on my desk, something nobody else can break. Maybe I take a shot at it and maybe I break it. And I’m real happy with myself, cause I did my job well. But maybe that code was the location of some rebel army in North Africa or the Middle East. Once they have that location, they bomb the village where the rebels were hiding and fifteen hundred people I never met, never had no problem with, get killed. Now the politicians are sayin’, “Oh, send in the Marines to secure the area” cause they don’t give a shit. It won’t be their kid over there, gettin’ shot. Just like it wasn’t them when their number got called, cause they were pullin’ a tour in the National Guard. It’ll be some kid from Southie takin’ shrapnel in the ass.

And he comes back to find that the plant he used to work at got exported to the country he just got back from. And the guy who put the shrapnel in his ass got his old job, cause he’ll work for fifteen cents a day and no bathroom breaks. Meanwhile, he realizes the only reason he was over there in the first place was so we could install a government that would sell us oil at a good price. And, of course, the oil companies used the skirmish over there to scare up domestic oil prices. A cute little ancillary benefit for them, but it ain’t helping my buddy at two-fifty a gallon.

And they’re takin’ their sweet time bringin’ the oil back, of course, and maybe even took the liberty of hiring an alcoholic skipper who likes to drink martinis and fuckin’ play slalom with the icebergs, and it ain’t too long ’til he hits one, spills the oil and kills all the sea life in the North Atlantic. So now my buddy’s out of work and he can’t afford to drive, so he’s got to walk to the fuckin’ job interviews, which sucks cause the shrapnel in his ass is givin’ him chronic hemorrhoids. And meanwhile he’s starvin’, cause every time he tries to get a bite to eat, the only blue plate special they’re servin’ is North Atlantic scrod with Quaker State.

So what did I think? I’m holdin’ out for somethin’ better. I figure fuck it, while I’m at it why not just shoot my buddy, take his job, give it to his sworn enemy, hike up gas prices, bomb a village, club a baby seal, hit the hash pipe and join the National Guard? I could be elected president.

When written well, dialogue should uniquely identify each character as something only they would say and think. Not only does dialogue reveal the character speaking, but it also reveals what that character is trying to get.

In every scene, every character needs to have a goal. In the absence of physical action, each character needs to that clash with the other character’s goal. That creates verbal conflict.

In the opening scene in “Inglorious Basterds,” the Nazi Jew Hunter is talking to a French farmer. The French farmer is trying to convince the Jew Hunter that he has no idea where the Jewish family he’s looking might be. In return, the Jew Hunter is convinced that the French farmer is hiding the Jewish family somewhere in his farm.

Rather than physical action, the two characters verbally spare and disguise their goals with apparently friendly bantering. In the end, the Jew Hunter succeeds in winning over the French farmer, who shows them that the Jewish family is hiding under the floor boards where Nazi troops will eventually machine gun them to death.

Even if you have physical action, you can still use dialogue to emphasize the meaning of that physical action. In “Rambo Part II,” Rambo finally confronts the villain who had left him to die in a Vietnamese prisoner camp. After shooting up the office, Rambo plunges a knife in the desk near the villain’s face, sparing him. The sparse dialogue that Rambo grunts out before and after his actions simply emphasizes his feelings.

Dialogue is never meant just to provide information but to reveal something new and interesting about the characters speaking those words. Dialogue is always a way for characters to get what they want.

Dissect your screenplay scene by scene and make sure every bit of dialogue is a tool for each character to get what they want. If the characters in your scene don’t have a clear goal or if their dialogue isn’t being used as a tool to help them achieve their desires, then it’s time to rewrite.

Make your dialogue work in every scene. Give us new information, reveal the character speaking, and make sure every sentence tries to get each character closer to their goal. Do this in every scene and you’ll have a much stronger story as a result.

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