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Film Dialogue: How To Make It Sound Like It's Spoken By Real People

And Not By Wooden Characters With Zero Personality

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July 15, 2016 11 comments
film dialogue

What makes great film 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 film dialogue from bad film 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 film dialogue since any writer with any talent won’t make their characters sound like Tommy Wiseau. No, it’s far tougher getting your film 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 Film Dialogue Is About Talking In Code

film dialogue

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 film 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. Let’s take a look at the dialogue from the film:

film dialogue

If they were actually straight up talking about Jack’s life situation, this wouldn’t work. But since they’re talking about fried chicken… it’s great film dialogue.

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:

film dialogue

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.

film dialogue

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:

film dialogue

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 film dialogue 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 scene 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 film 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 film dialogue, express that character to the audience by having them talk about something in a way that demonstrates who they are.

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This article was written by Ashley Scott Meyers, a screenwriter and podcaster. 

More posts on how to write good dialogue…

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film dialogueHOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE BETWEEN TWO CHARACTERS: THE ULTIMATE THEORY HACK

 
 

film dialogueHOW TO WRITE COMEDY SCRIPTS WITH LOL DIALOGUE

 
 

film dialogueHOW TO WRITE A PHONE CONVERSATION IN A SCREENPLAY

 
 

film dialogueON THE NOSE DIALOGUE: THE VERY BEST WAY TO ELIMINATE IT

 
 

11 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.

  5. Pamela Hope says:

    “characterization is at its best when you show it in dialogue rather than tell it through blunt lines.”

    Excellent advice… I may just have to sign up!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Welcome aboard, Pamela!

  6. Vakeel singh says:

    I am always looking for these kind of articles which helps people lives so much you can’t imagine thanks team

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot Vakeel!

  7. Emanuel Andrei Cosutchi, Sci-Fi author says:

    Good analysis but boring dialogue even for a movie. It didn’t catch me at all.

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