How to Give Dialogue Extra Meaning

Far too many screenwriters think of dialogue as a way to give information to the audience or as a way to mimic reality. Don’t do this.

When you write dialogue solely to give information to the audience, it feels like an information dump and brings your story to a screeching halt. When you write dialogue to mimic reality, characters say words that serve no purpose to further your story.

What you really need to do is use dialogue as a way to say something without actually saying it, and you can do that through repetition.

In the movie “Pinball: The Man Who Saved the Game,” a young man meets an attractive woman and meets her for coffee. When she admits that she wants someone serious because she has a son and wants to get married to a man who will give her a solid relationship, the woman asks the man if she’s already scaring him off. That’s when the hero simply says, “I’m still here.”

That simple statement hints that he’s still interested in her anyway. When he describes his background being divorced and having no job, he asks the woman if that scares her, but she replies, “I’m still here.”

That repetition’s subtext lets each of them know that they’re interested in each other. When the couple breaks up and the hero realizes he truly loves the woman, he calls her and explains himself. When she doesn’t say anything for the longest time, the hero thinks she may have hung up on him but she whispers, “I’m still here.”

Hearing that same sentence for the third time reveals the subtext: she’s still interested in him.

The first time the hero said that line, it’s a unique way of saying that he’s still interested in her. The second time the woman says that same line shows that she’s still interested in him.

When the hero talks to the woman over the phone and is afraid he might have lost her for good, her reply, “I’m still here,” reminds us of the first two times these characters said those words to each other and it’s true meaning, which is that they’re not leaving.

Such repetition of a simple phrase gives far deeper meaning. If the characters only said, “I’m still here” once, it would lack the subtle meaning behind that statement. When the characters repeat “I’m still here” twice, that further cements its meaning in our memory.

Then when the woman says that same phrase, “I’m still here” a third time, its meaning is clear and emotional precisely because it’s not obvious on the surface. This subtext makes us realize the characters’ relationship with each other still may work out after all.

When writing your own screenplay, think of a catch phrase or saying that your characters can use to say something without saying it. Then repeat this catch phrase again, and use it for the climax near the end.

Use this simple technique and you may be surprised at how much more impactful your story can become just with a little repetition and subtext to hammer that point home in a subtle but memorable way.

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