How Not to Write Dialogue

If you watch the movie “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” you can see a perfect example of how not to write dialogue. The main problem with the dialogue in this film is that it’s too direct with little sense of subtext. Essentially, characters say exactly what they mean, which destroys all sense of discovery for the audience.

The proper way to write dialogue is to disguise each character’s intentions. Each character has goals, but they don’t come right out and say it. Instead, they hint about their goals while talking about something else. Then they fight each other until one wins and the other loses.

In “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” characters say what they mean and there’s no subtext. As a result, the dialogue isn’t that interesting because each scene serves only to advance the plot while ignoring character development. We never get to know what any of the characters think or want. Instead, scenes are simply rushed to get to the point to move on to the next scene to hurry the story along. The end result is visual eye-candy with special effects of giant robots punching monsters, but being empty of story and character development.

Of course, people say they simply want action, but action without story or character development still offers weak entertainment compared to a movie with strong story and character development. Just compare the original “Star Wars” movie to the three lousy prequels to see how the importance of story and character development (“Star Wars”) triumphs over more action (“The Phantom Menace”).

To learn more about dialogue, read the screenplays of good movies. Notice that every scene begins with two characters sparring to get their goals and one finally losing. Each scene also reveals more about each character so we get to know them as people, not just as puppets to advance the story as in “Pacific Rim: Uprising.” In “Sister Act,” a woman is sent to a convent to hide from an organized crime boss who wants to kill her. In the scene below, a bishop wants to convince the Mother Superior to allow him to hide the woman in the convent but the Mother Superior does not want a street person threatening her convent or its current members. Notice that the scene not only advances the story, but also reveals more about who the bishop and Mother Superior are as people and what they want:


     The office is bare and austere.  MOTHER SUPERIOR sits at 
     her desk with her hands folded.  Like all the nuns at the 
     convent, she wears the traditional full-length habit and 

     Mother Superior is in total command of all she surveys, 
     and she seldom raises her voice or her blood pressure as 
     she rules.  Control is her passion; within the walls of the 
     convent, she has created a world she can trust because it's 
     a world she controls.

     But Mother Superior is not in control at this particular moment.  
     BISHOP GEORGE O'HARA stands before her with a majestic 
     presence and some bad news.

                               MOTHER SUPERIOR
               Absolutely not.  I am very sorry, but 

               We can save this young woman's life, and 
               imprison a parasite -- all in one 

                               MOTHER SUPERIOR
               But she's been exposed to the underside 
               of life.  She is the underside of life.

               And therefore an ideal prospect for 

                               MOTHER SUPERIOR
               We're a small convent, Bishop.  Surely 
               there are... more appropriate shelters.

               Your small convent is in danger of 
               closing, Reverend Mother.  The Las Vegas 
               Police Department has offered to make a 
               generous financial donation.

                               MOTHER SUPERIOR
               But, Bishop...

               St. Katherine's is a Benedictine Order. 
               You have taken a Vow of Hospitality.  To 
               all in need.

                               MOTHER SUPERIOR
               I lied.

               I know.

Since “Sister Act” is a comedy, notice that this short simple scene also plays on humor while discussing a serious topic. Also notice that we get to know who and what type of person Mother Superior is just in her dialogue alone. If this scene were written in the style of “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” the entire dialogue could be condensed to look like this:

                              MOTHER SUPERIOR 
               I don't want this woman. 

               She's coming anyway.

Notice how being direct drains dialogue of all tension and suspense. By studying dialogue in good movies, you can see how to tease and draw out conflict between two characters. By studying dialogue in a bad movie like “Pacific Rim: Uprising,” you can see how not to write dialogue.

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