Write Dialogue to Attack Other Characters

Never write realistic dialogue because realistic dialogue is boring. Just record a typical conversation and play it back. Real dialogue is boring precisely because it lacks a direction and purpose. So if you want to write realistic dialogue, just write dialogue that has no direction and purpose and you’ll wind up writing a lousy screenplay.

However, if you want to write a great screenplay, start by writing dialogue that has a direction and a purpose. Even better, write dialogue that deliberately attacks another character and makes them uncomfortable, forcing them to respond. Watch the following short film to see how the dialogue between two men starts off innocently enough, but then becomes increasingly revealing as to the purpose of the dialogue.

In the above short film, one man’s goal is to enjoy a quiet lunch by himself but the other man’s goal initially seems like he just wants to chat and be friendly. Then he starts revealing details about himself and his past, slowly revealing his true motive. That’s how you need to write dialogue. Always think how can one character use dialogue to get what they want from another character.

When characters know what they want from another character, their dialogue serves to achieve that goal. The trick is that dialogue rarely comes out and says what the character wants. In the above short film, the unseen man in the beginning doesn’t come out and say he knows who the stranger is and warn him that he knows about his sordid past.

Instead, the unseen man dances around the subject and lures the other man in through seemingly logical and friendly conversation. One way to write dialogue is to clearly state what each character wants to achieve. In the above short film, the goals of the two men could be stated plainly like this:

  • Unseen man wants to let the other man know that he knows his past and he’s coming to kill him.
  • The other man wants to be left alone and convince the unseen man that he’s not the guilty man he’s looking for

When you clearly know what each character wants in a scene, then you can write dialogue that gradually gets that result. The key is “gradually” because you don’t want to rush the dialogue since that would feel unnatural.

First, make the dialogue start achieving the character’s goal without the audience quite knowing what’s going on. The trick is that this opening dialogue must grab our attention by knocking the world out of balance. The short film above does this by having an unseen man disturb another man sitting at a table by himself.

Second, the dialogue should give us more hints at what each character wants while keeping the purpose of the dialogue a mystery.

Third, the dialogue should finally let us know what each character wants.

Fourth, the dialogue must end by letting us know who got what they wanted or not.

Always think of dialogue as a weapon that one character can use against another. The more you focus on writing dialogue to get characters closer to what they want, the more tightly focused and interesting your dialogue will be.

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