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The Simple Trick To Make Your Dialogue Sound Like REAL Movie Dialogue

 

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July 15, 2016 6 comments
Movie Dialogue

The following is a guest post by Ashley Scott Meyers from Selling Your Screenplay

The first question we need to ask is: What makes for good movie dialogue?

Dialogue in films is like paint on a car: it’s the last thing that’s put on but it’s the first thing everyone notices.

And most of the time, people know good dialogue from bad dialogue… but if you ask them why one line is good or one line is bad they probably won’t be able to tell you.

There’s no point talking about really bad movie dialogue, since any writer with any talent won’t make their characters sound like Tommy Wiseau.

No, it’s far tougher getting your dialogue from fine to great.

There’s plenty of wit and characterization involved to be sure, but there are some fundamental choices you can make that will lead to a talky scene jumping off the page and crackling with energy and eliminate the one of the most dreadful curses known to screenwriters: on-the-nose dialogue.

Great Movie Dialogue Is All About Not Talking

Confused? Don’t worry. When it comes to character scenes, there’s a great trick that can put you on the path to writing strong dialogue:

Have your characters say something without saying it directly.

It may sound ridiculous, but if your characters need to talk about how one of them is a jerk… don’t bluntly have one of them call the other a jerk.

Instead, have them discuss something that demonstrates their views and shows that character being mean or having mean opinions.

A great example of this is in the film Midnight Run. Jack, an ex-cop turned bounty hunter, is hauling a Jonathan (a white collar criminal who stole from mob boss Jimmy Serrano) from NYC to LA so he can collect a huge bounty.

While they’re having dinner on a train, instead of Jonathan starting the conversation by bluntly telling Jack he’s a bad guy… he starts by grilling him on his dietary choice of fried chicken which, of course, is really just a metaphor for his life in general:

Jonathan: Why would you eat that?

Jack: Why? Because it tastes good.

Jonathan: But it’s not good for you.

Jack: I’m aware of that.

Jonathan: Why would you do something you know that’s not good for you?

Jack: Because I don’t think about it.

Jonathan: Well, that’s living in denial.

Jack: I’m aware of that.

Jonathan: So you’re aware of all your behavior and yet you continue to do things that aren’t good for you. That sounds sort of foolish don’t you think so, Jack?

If they were actually straight up talking about Jack’s life situation, this wouldn’t work. But since they’re talking about fried chicken… no one has a problem.

Even better, Jack then turns the conversation around on Jonathan, calling him out on stealing millions from a mob boss and giving it to charity:

Jack: No. Stealing 15 million dollars from Jimmy Serrano sounds foolish.

Jonathan: I didn’t think I’d get caught.

Jack: Now that’s living in denial.

Jonathan: I’m aware of that.

Jack: So you’re aware of your behavior and yet you continue to do things that aren’t good for you. Sounds kinda foolish to me, don’t you think John?

By reversing the conversation, we not only get necessary back story and exposition… but we get it in a way that’s steeped in character interplay.

The reversal of power in the scene switches from Jonathan to Jack by turning the first half of the conversation on its head.

Taking beats from the first half of a conversation and then flipping them later in the scene is a great trick that not only makes you seem witty, but also makes the moment very dynamic.

But we’re not done yet, right after Jack’s zinger Jonathan responds:

Jonathan: It was foolish. But taking 15 million of mob money and giving it to charity was good for a lot of people.

Jack: Oh, so you pissed off a mafioso killer just so you could be loved by a bunch of fuckin’ strangers. That makes a lot of sense.

Jonathan: Don’t you want to be loved?

Jack: I got lots of people who love me.

Jonathan: Really? Who?

Jack: I got an ex-wife and a daughter in Chicago.

Jonathan: How do they put up with your sarcasm?

Jack: Beautifully, I haven’t seen either of them in nine years.

Notice that when Jack is giving us exposition about who Jonathan stole from he’s not simply stating facts. He’s giving an opinion, which is key to making things sound natural.

That’s what makes this scene feel like a real conversation instead of an exposition dump:

Every time someone gives information there’s an emotion attached to it.

And following that information is another reversal, this time with Jonathan reclaiming the position of power in the conversation by leading Jack to talk about his estranged family… which are very important parts to the story and his character arc.

The best part of all this is there’s a reason for Jonathan to talk to Jack and ask him all these questions: he’s trying to get Jack to like him so Jack will let him go.

That tension between the characters is the heart and soul of the film and it’s made from these conversations. And none of them seem on-the-nose.

The takeaway here is that while exposition in dialogue is tough it’s not impossible, and characterization is at its best when you show it in dialogue rather than tell it through blunt lines.

If you want to give information to the audience have it be in the form of an opinion. If you want to characterize someone through dialogue, express that character to the audience by having them talk about something in a way that demonstrates who they are.

Just remember the golden rule: even with movie dialogue it all comes back to “show don’t tell.

***

movie dialogueThis article was written by Ashley Scott Meyers, a screenwriter and podcaster over at SellingYourScreenplay.com. He has sold and optioned dozens of scripts over the last two decades. Through SYS, he provides paid job leads to screenwriters and helps screenwriters connect with producers who are looking for material.

6 Comments
  1. Nic Penrake says:

    Very sharp analysis, Ashley, and very well illustrated.

  2. leitskev says:

    Excellent.

  3. Marcin says:

    Loved it! A very well-presented and, most of all, useful point!

    1. SRP says:

      Thanks Marcin!

  4. sukanta rout says:

    These are indeed useful tips.The insightful analysis is an asset for screen-writers.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Sukanta. Glad you found it useful.

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