The Real Purpose of Dialogue in a Screenplay

Dialogue is always meant to enhance what we see, not replace it. Don’t use dialogue to explain everything to the audience because it comes across as phony and contrived, like villains explaining their entire plan to the hero at the end, which becomes a boring monologue where nothing happens. Any time there’s dialogue, look for ways to add action to enhance that dialogue.

In “Under Siege,” the villain explains his plan, but he also shows the hero the radar screens of the cruise missiles heading towards Hawaii. By combining verbal description with action, the villain shows the hero and the audience what’s going to happen, and that lessens the dependence on dialogue alone.

Dialogue should focus less on explaining information to the audience and more on revealing the personality of the characters in the scene. In “Erin Brockovich,” the hero (Erin Brockovich) and a lawyer are trying to work together. The conflict occurs when the lawyer treats Erin Brockovich like she’s an idiot, causing Erin Brockovich to fight back.

While physical conflict is easy to see, verbal conflict can be far more satisfying because of the back-and-forth nature of the verbal jousting. Such verbal sparring requires creativity in coloring what each character says.

A poor screenwriter might have characters speak on-the-nose dialogue, which means they state exactly what they mean. In “Erin Brockovich,” this could have occurred by having Erin Brockovich simply claim that she knows what she’s doing. Instead, Erin Brockovich sets up a challenge to the lawyer.

When the lawyer asks for phone numbers of different people, Erin Brockovich could have said she didn’t write them down because she memorized them. Instead, Erin Brockovich recites personal details about each person to show she knows far more than simple written notes could have done.

After Erin Brockovich clearly demonstrates her research is detailed and complete, the lawyer tries to make up to her by saying, “Look, I think we got off on the wrong foot here.” That’s when Erin Brockovich responds, “That’s all you’ve got lady: two wrong feet in fucking ugly shoes.”

The art of writing dialogue is to say something indirectly. Erin Brockovich could have simply said, “You’re an idiot,” but that direct statement would be dull, far less memorable, and reveal nothing about Erin Brockovich as a person. By telling her, “That’s all you’ve got lady: two wrong feet in fucking ugly shoes,” that reveals far more of Erin Brockovich’s personality while being memorable and colorful at the same time.

Some other examples of memorable phrases include:

  • “Yippee-ki-yay, motherfucker” (“Die Hard”)
  • “I’ll be back.” (“The Terminator”)
  • “We’re going to need a bigger boat.” (“Jaws”)
  • “You had me at hello.” (“Jerry McGuire”)

Read this particularly memorable monologue from “Good Will Hunting” that clearly reveals the hero’s thoughts and personality:

“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.”

The lesson is to write your scenes with direct dialogue first, then go back and rewrite dialogue to be as indirect as possible to reveal personalities while being memorable. The best dialogue rarely says anything directly but says it indirectly in the most colorful, awe-inspiring manner possible, and that’s what will make your dialogue in any scene far more interesting to grab and hold someone’s attention from start to finish.

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