You can argue that of all the different aspects making up a movie, it is the dialogue that is most closely associated with the screenwriter. It’s where the scribe stops toiling behind the red curtain and steps out into the full glare of the spotlight.
Personally, I find this view misleading. It’s based on the reputations of stage-writers rather than screenwriters – men such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, and Tennessee Williams.
A useful tool
The reality is that movie dialogue is just another tool that a screenwriter may use to explore themes, bring out characterization, or move the plot along. Its importance often depends on the genre. In a clever satire, a hard-bitten film noir, or an intense courtroom drama, dialogue is key.
But there are other genres where good dialogue is of lesser value. You don’t go to see a beat ’em up action movie because of the clever repartee. In fact, films such as The Expendables wallow in their cheesy dialogue, treating it as a kind of in-joke.
Some writers and directors actually go out of their way to use as little dialogue as possible.
Take Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto. This is a pulsating, kinetic, visceral piece of film-making in which the dialogue is pretty much irrelevant. I know this for a fact. The first time I watched it, I didn’t realize there were English subtitles available – and so I ended up viewing the entire movie in ancient Mayan! I didn’t have a clue what they were saying, but to be honest, I didn’t need to – the visuals told me pretty much everything. Years later, I watched the film again, this time with the subtitles. They clarified a few specific points, sure, but it was a fantastic film without or without intelligible dialogue.
To write a truly great script, you will always need to come up with strong dialogue. That’s a matter of fact. However, it is possible to write a good script with only functional dialogue – just so long as the themes, characterization, plot, and structure are all solid.
Of course, when I talk about functional dialogue, I mean exactly that. It may not be particularly clever or deep, but it works and does what it needs to do. Bad, cliched dialogue, by comparison, will kill most screenplays, even if you get everything else right.
Types of dialogue
I tend to place dialogue into three broad groups: expositional (or expository), functional, and conversational.
Expositional dialogue provides background information. It can apply to a character, an object, a situation, or pretty much anything.
For instance, a veteran soldier may say to a less experienced colleague, “The enemy has been operating out of those desert caves for the past six months. They’ve given us all sorts of hell. We’ve lost forty-three good men trying to clear those bastards out.”
Here’s another one:
A park ranger is on the trail of a giant killer bear that may or may not have supernatural powers. There could be a scene where the park ranger speaks with an old woman, who reveals how the same bear attacked her family seventy years earlier. She might say something like this: “I remember when I was a little girl. It was my sixth birthday. That’s when the bear came. I don’t know how it got into our house. It just appeared out of nowhere and ate my parents, then my siblings, followed by the cat, the dog, and my pet tortoise. Afterwards, it disappeared into thin air.”
Generally, expositional dialogue has a very bad rep and is often frowned upon by readers. For instance, I googled the term and the first thing I found was this:
“Expositional dialogue tells us something about the story or characters but in an unnatural way… Why do novice screenwriters use it? Because they want to explain something… to the reader that is important about the story or a character. Unfortunately expositional dialogue simply sounds fake – it kills realism… Always assume your reader is intelligent… If you don’t, you’re doing them… a disservice… Expositional dialogue is a lazy technique – sure it gets your point across but in a poor way that has a negative impact on… your reader’s perception of your screenwriting ability… Avoid expositional dialogue, there’s always a better way…”
This is a pretty common view – and one that I disagree with.
First of all, there’s a huge assumption being made in the above passage, which is that all readers are intelligent. Of course, some readers are extremely smart, others not so much. And even when the reader is intelligent, they’re still capable of giving your script a substandard read. This can happen for many reasons. Maybe they’re distracted by something else happening in the office. Maybe they’ve just got off a twelve-hour flight and are dead tired. Maybe they’re plain lazy. Often they may just dislike a specific genre and thus bring a degree of bias to the read.
The result is that the reader often skims your (hopefully) excellent screenplay. Your pages may contain all sorts of ingenious subtleties, but a careless reader won’t pick up on them. For this reason, I think a limited amount of expositional dialogue is necessary. It may not be elegant but it works.
Expositional dialogue also provides context. If you cut it all out, the script just won’t make sense.
I remember one particular project I was hired to work on. The source material contained a huge amount of backstory. There were two options: either 3-4 pages of expositional dialogue or ten pages of montaged flashbacks. The producers, who were fairly inexperienced, didn’t want ten pagers of montages, so I went down the expositional dialogue route. But they didn’t like that either because it was, well, exposition – and all of the handbooks told them that exposition was a bad thing. In the end, I was forced to cut it – only for them to then complain that the script no longer made any sense!
The other thing to keep in mind is that not all expositional dialogue is equal. Some of the greatest films ever made rely heavily on expositional dialogue: The Matrix, The Terminator, The Silence of the Lambs, Jaws, and Chinatown all spring to mind. Filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have turned exposition into an art-form. Just think of the brilliant four-minute ‘gold watch monologue’ in Pulp Fiction.
So when expositional dialogue is painful to read (and it often is), it’s not because it’s expositional dialogue. It’s because it’s bad expositional dialogue.
In short, don’t be afraid to use expositional dialogue. But only use it when there is no other option.
Also, aim for small juicy chicken nuggets spread throughout rather than the whole damn bird dumped clumsily into the first few pages.
And for heaven’s sake, make sure the writing is good!
Functional dialogue represents those basic lines that need to be said in the script for the sake of realism – but which you probably won’t even notice in the finished film.
For example, a person steps out into the road and fails to notice the oncoming bus. A good Samaritan yanks them to safety. In doing so, the good Samaritan shouts, “Look out!” The “look out” isn’t that important and most people in the movie theater won’t even register it; their focus will be on the action. But in the script, when you have only the written word to rely on, it helps stress the drama.
Another example would be the battlefield sergeant shouting things like, “Charge!”, “Take cover!”, and “Fire in the hole!”.
As with most things, it comes down to balance. You can’t write a script without some functional dialogue. If you attempt to do so, it will just sound strange and certain moments won’t stand out in the way that they should. However, too much functional dialogue comes across as bland and mundane – and can very quickly eat up your page count.
Conversational Dialogue is the workhorse of movie talk. For me, it’s a catch-all category that contains everything that isn’t overtly expositional or functional.
When two characters flirt or argue, that’s usually conversational dialogue. When a group of characters exchange their opinions on the meaning of life, again, that’s usually conversational.
Often, this kind of dialogue is a primary tool for conveying characterization. The way characters choose to express themselves says a lot about them. The opinions, the words they choose, their tone of voice, the rhythm in which they speak – all of these things can tell us a lot about a character.
Sometimes, there may be an expositional aspect in here too. However, if it’s only a line or two, I would still consider the exchange to be primarily conversational dialogue.
Stylism vs. realism
Film dialogue tends to be more stylized than normal everyday conversation. It’s punchier, slicker, and more dynamic.
For instance, in real life, my six year old son will take several minutes to ask me a simple question. He’ll meander, he’ll backtrack – all perfectly normal for a child still learning to organize his thoughts and master the words necessary to express himself. But in a script, there just isn’t the space for this.
Movies, even the grounded ones, aren’t realistic; instead, they create the illusion of realism. This is true of every aspect of a film, including the dialogue. Characters can say things in a movie that just wouldn’t work in real-life – not if you don’t want to get punched in the face. For instance, film dialogue tends to contain a far greater sense of conflict, ambiguity, nonchalance, and sarcasm. Sometimes, when I’m lost in my writing, I might – without thinking – address my wife in a ‘film dialogue’ manner. To say she is unimpressed would be an understatement.
At the same time, dialogue shouldn’t be excessively stylized. We’ve all seen films where the writer tries too hard to make his or her characters sound super-cool and hip. Very occasionally, it can work. But most of the time it sounds awkward, pretentious, and is downright painful to listen to.
Subtext is a key stylistic aspect of film dialogue. It is when there is an underlying or greater meaning to whatever is being said on the surface. Screenplay characters often don’t talk directly about a subject, but instead come at it from different and unexpected angles. Subtextual dialogue is all about implications and hidden messages. Sometimes, what isn’t said is more important than what is said.
Time for an example. I am going to write the same dialogue scene, first without subtext, and then with subtext.
For the sake of continuity, this scene is going to come from the same hypothetical and unwritten script that I referred to in my Film Scenes post.
For those who haven’t read that post, here’s some context. This scene comes from a gangland thriller (which I have no intention of ever writing) in which two mob leaders are at war. The older one is called BAKER. He has ruled the streets for as long as he can remember, but he’s now growing old and is loosing his grip on his criminal empire. His rival is TAYLOR, a young upstart. Now, for the sake of this particular scene, let’s also say that Baker is married to Taylor’s sister, EVELYN.
So first, here is the conversation without subtext:
INT. BAKER AND EVELYN'S BEDROOM - NIGHT Baker enters the bedroom. He spots Evelyn sitting at her dressing table. She glances at him in the mirror. BAKER I want to talk to you about your brother. He's becoming too powerful and he's moving in on my territory. Soon I won't stand a chance against him. Evelyn reels from what she's just heard. EVELYN What are you going to do? BAKER Kill him before he gets even more powerful. Evelyn, dumbstruck, watches as her husband exits. CUT TO:
Okay, so it’s functional. Baker gets his point across and we understand what he intends to do. Unfortunately, it’s bland, charmless, and one-dimensional.
If we want to characterize Baker as an insensitive bore, the sort of man who couldn’t care less how his wife feels about him killing her brother, then yes, maybe this approach could work. However, if we envisage Baker as a more complex character, then it’s a fail.
Another problem with the direct approach is that it shuts down many of our options. In particular, there is nothing for Evelyn to do. She can only sit there in dazed disbelief. Basically, she has no chance to react meaningfully to her husband’s words. It’s all very wham, bam, thank you ma’am!
So now let’s try the same scene with subtext:
INT. BAKER AND EVELYN'S BEDROOM - NIGHT Baker enters the bedroom. He spots Evelyn sitting at her dressing table. She glances at him in the mirror. Unable to hold her gaze, Baker crosses to the bed and slowly removes his jacket and tie. BAKER About your brother... Evelyn tenses slightly and concern flickers over her face. BAKER (struggling to find the right words) He's become... problematical. Evelyn smiles nervously. She attempts to make light of the comment. EVELYN Problematical? That's a big word. Evelyn's smile fades as she realizes her husband is serious. She considers the situation carefully. EVELYN The other day, I overheard Charlie and Little Joe talking about it. I thought it was a joke. Baker remains silent. He appears genuinely conflicted. Gradually, sadness and nostalgia creep over Evelyn. When she speaks, she does so more for her own benefit than her husband's. EVELYN I remember when he and I were growing up. He never knew when to stop. All that ambition... The neighborhood boys couldn't beat it out of him, no matter how hard they tried. (returning to the present) Of course, this won't just be a beating. Baker hesitates, and then nods: it won't just be a beating. BAKER He controls half the warehouses down by the docks. Soon he'll have the other half. When that happens... Baker flexes his gnarled fist. He grimaces slightly as his arthritis begins to bite. BAKER I need to make my move now. Evelyn watches as Baker crosses to her and gently rests his hand on her shoulder. BAKER I'm sorry. Evelyn struggles to hold back her tears. She places her hand on her husband's. EVELYN He mustn't suffer. Promise me. Baker nods. With a sigh, he turns and leaves. CUT TO:
Do you see the difference? For a start, at no point does Baker state that he’s going to kill Taylor. It’s implied. Both he and Evelyn talk around it. To use a favorite Hollywood term, it’s not ‘too on the nose’.
This more subtle approach also gives us room to characterize Evelyn and Baker. Evelyn, in particular, has more to play with. Whereas in the first version, she was left dumbstruck, here she can express both her sadness and her pragmatism. At no point does she attempt to dissuade Baker from killing her brother (she could, of course, but that’s a choice in characterization). In other words, this is a woman who loves her brother, but whose ultimate loyalty lies with her husband.
We also get to shade Baker. He comes across as a slightly more sympathetic character. A bad man, perhaps, but one who only resorts to violence when it’s necessary.
One final word… Parentheses.
You’ll notice I use these in the above scene on a couple of occasions. In other words, I am placing action directly into the dialogue. This can be useful. It helps clarify the dialogue (particularly useful if you’re getting all subtextual), it breaks up longer speeches, and in terms of script formatting it tends to be more efficient.
However, use parentheses sparingly. Use them too often and they can break up the flow of the dialogue. In addition, actors may have their own interpretation of the dialogue and won’t appreciate you constantly telling them how to do their job.
To be honest, I myself probably use them too often, but then again, that’s just one of my many bad habits!
So there you have it: movie dialogue. I hope this post is useful. As always, if you have any thoughts or questions, please feel free to leave a comment below.
Until next time…