I am just at the beginnings of a screenplay that I hope to film myself, sometime over the next year or so…no pressure.
So, it occurred to me, as I develop these characters and the plot and the subplot and the “why” of everyone and the world they all live in, that it is incredibly important and quite hard in fact to write good dialogue, at least dialogue that feels real and that isn’t boring.
If you listen to the way most people speak, earwigging conversations while waiting in line at the bank, most of it is incredibly boring, especially if it’s one end of a cellphone conversation. Although you could have lots of fun imagining what the person on the other end is saying I guess. But basically, to make the dialogue in your screenplay sound real, you shouldn’t rely on ‘real’ conversations. Does that make any sense?
It’s also worth watching a few films that you particularly like and soak in the words.
How did the screenwriter do such a good job? What style did she use? Can you tell the difference between characters just from the dialogue? Does the dialogue move the story?
What do you like? Scorsese? John Ford? Tarantino? Don’t copy their style, but certainly learn from it. We can’t all be Aaron Sorkin…one of my faves. But we can watch and listen and learn.
All artists learn first by mimicking the greats…just don’t get sued.
Once you realize that the dialogue shouldn’t tell the story, the images should do that, then you can really have some fun with the words, rather than excruciatingly relaying details and important facts and, heaven forbid, plot twists. Film is a visual medium. "Show, don’t tell” really is a thing.
I’m lucky because I have an intent to shoot the feature I am writing, so I can pick places, people and plots that I know I can recreate, at least for this film. My next film could be set in the future, or on the moon, which might cost a little more to do, but maybe I’ll have the cash to do it by the time I finish writing…who knows!
But back to dialogue. Listen to people talking. Do they speak in clear sentences? Do they wait patiently before speaking? Are they completing their thoughts? Or do they constantly interrupt each other and never make any sense? Most of the time that’s exactly how they speak. So use that but make it interesting. Instead of the price of meat, it’s the next bank heist, replace melons with heart surgery and maybe you’ve got something.
Before I start writing dialogue I already have all my characters, and they all have a back story, one that almost never makes it into the film, but I can draw from if I’m wondering how they would react or who they might side with in an argument. And I always know the end of all of them. Do they die? Will they speak out? Are they insane? It all helps.
Once I have done a first draft of a scene I then go back over it to see what I can lose, which is usually a lot. Remember, if you can understand your film without any dialogue at all, just from the stage directions, then you are a genius…but that’s what we are really going for. A scene where two people can communicate with each other with just a look is always a scene to remember, and that is written. Writers don’t just write dialogue after all. Some of the best writers write very little in fact.
Make sure your conversations aren’t just an excuse for your characters to give each other information, make it more interesting than that. Plus your primary goal as a screenwriter is to relay information to the audience, which you can do without any of the characters knowing at all. The bridge collapses behind them. We see it from the camera mounted on the hood of the car shooting between the two people sitting in the car’s front seats...they have no idea. It’s more exciting for the audience if they know something no one in the film does, something terrible or something wonderful. As long as it moves the story along it’s great.
Film dialogue is how characters would speak if they had a few extra seconds to compose their thoughts between lines. It’s just slightly optimized. But it’s very easy to overshoot and end up in soap opera land. Keeping dialogue real but efficient is one of the hardest challenges in screenwriting.
Once you’ve written it and are happy, always, always leave it for a few days (weeks, months or even years) and go back and you will cut it in half, lose it altogether or, at the very least, change it to something infinity better. Space from your work can be all you need to make it great. Just do whatever it takes. There’s nothing worse than crappy dialogue in a film that is otherwise great - great story, locations, premise, etc. But the way the characters communicate with each other lets it all down. After all, a good actor can only do so much with poop. Read it aloud…a lot and with others. It’ll be worth every minute.
And for heaven’s sake don’t forget a joke or two even if it’s a thriller, or a horror, or a historical drama. Even Shakespeare had the bit with the dog in it! It’s one of the most human things that humans do when the poop is really hitting the fan, or the lights go out, or there’s a gun in your face when you least expect it. Be a bit funny…or at least have someone try to be. It could be the best moment of the film.
Well, I have to get back to my screenplay and you have to get back to your very interesting lives. And don’t forget, if you can write it, you can shoot it. So grab a camera and make a film. It will make you a better writer at the very least.
A caveat to all of this is that, in the end, you write what you like…and nobody really knows anything…