12

How To Write A Screenplay – Movie Dialogue

Center StageYou 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. Cheesy DialogueIn 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

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.

Bad ReaderFirst 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.Expository Nuggets

The Whole Damn BirdSo 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

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

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.

Conversational DialogueWhen 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

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.

Parentheses

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!Bad Habit

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…

Best, al

 

12 Comments

  1. I think directors and writers have their own style. They brand themselves… I watch a lot of Mel Gibson’s movies, including Apocalypto and I agree, the dialogue is quite irrelevant. The actions and the moves the actors make in that movie says it all. Intelligently done. I don’t think it would have been as good if they had a lot of dialogue.

    Lol… after reading your park ranger story, it sounded really good at the beginning but when she mentioned ‘appeared out of nowhere… ate my parents.. siblings, followed by the cat, the dog, and my pet tortoise…. My very first thought was, this is way too ridiculous. This isn’t real.

    Movie dialogue… I love watching movies. Some are absolutely great that I watch it several times over. Others, I can’t seem to get back the first 10 minutes…

    Definitely, lots to consider on when it comes to writing dialogue for screenplays. I need it needs an even balance with a combination of styles…don’t you think?

    Great article, thank you!

    • Hi Monica, thank you so much and I’m really glad that you enjoyed the article.

      I actually think Mel Gibson is a very underrated film-maker. Unfortunately, many people tend to focus on his personal problems rather than his work, which is a shame (from a purely artistic viewpoint). Back in the day, Braveheart was a great film – still is, though I hear the action scenes are now a little dated. I also enjoyed Hacksaw Ridge. As for Apocalypto, I think it’s one of the best action films out there. A near-perfect example of lean, muscular story-telling.

      Yes, LOL, the park ranger example was over the top. I just wanted to make my point ref. expositional dialogue. The scary thing is that I’ve read similar speeches in other scripts – and it wasn’t done tongue in cheek! This is why I understand why so many pro script readers dislike exposition. But when done properly, it definitely has it uses.

      I have to be honest, there have been quite a few films recently where I have started watching them and then just switched them off after a few minutes. Life is too short. I almost did this with Captain America: Civil War. But then the character dynamics and sense of conflict kicked in, and I ended up really enjoying the movie.

      Yes, with dialogue – as with most things – balance is key. What works in a clever comedy of manners won’t work in a mega-budget action movie.

      All the best, al

  2. Alex, well I never broke movie dialogue up into these components but I sure get your point on how they can affect the movie. The words should suit the action both in what is said and how it is said and also how it suits the actions.

    I have actually watched action movies where the words are so meaningless that I watch with the sound off. (The action sounds can be easily imagined in most cases.) I do this a lot with TV shows too, especially where those stupid accents are used.

    So now after I have read your informative post I have a better feel for what I intuitively thought about movie dialogue.

    I will visit sometime again to read up more from you.

    Ciao
    Helen

    • Hi Helen, thanks so much! 

      I get where you’re coming from. Also, watching a film or TV show with the sound muted can be a very interesting experience. Not only does it save you from the bad dialogue, but it also allows you to focus more on the acting. Great screen actors can convey more with a single facial tic than a bad actor can with twenty lines of hokey dialogue. 

      Although dialogue is a key aspect of moving writing, I think in certain genres there is definitely a tendency to put a little too much focus on it. A good action film, for instance, or a superhero movie, should tell its story visually, with the dialogue serving to help support those visuals.

      Glad you’re enjoyed the article!

      Best, al

  3. Hi Al,
    I’ve been reading your posts for a while. I haven’t been reading them for screenplay purposes, but rather for writing purposes. You are among the easiest bloggers to follow when it comes to writing specifics. This post regarding the various types of dialogue is not an exception. Thank you for posting this and all your others. Best wishes!
    Randene

    • Hi Randene,

      Thank you so much – this is one of those wonderful comments that I want to frame and put up on my wall 😉

      I believe that all forms of creative writing share certain common traits. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking screenplays, teleplays, stage-plays, novels, short stories, or narrative poetry. To some extent, the same simple rules can apply to non-fiction – the best journalism and essays often read as if they are fiction rather than dry technical manuals. 

      Now obviously, each writing discipline throws up its own unique challenges. Stage-writing, for instance, is more dialogue based. Prose writing, meanwhile, focuses more on the beauty of the language then, say, screenwriting. In the latter, the language tends to be quite functional, sometimes bordering on the mundane. But yes, there are definitely many areas in common. And besides, they all rely upon the same well of creativity and inspiration.

      Out of interest, what kind of writing are you pursuing? And is it something that you’re doing for a living or for personal enjoyment? I always love to hear what other writers are up to.

      As for the style of the blog, from the outset I’ve always wanted to keep it as accessible as possible. I mean, it needs to be something that even I can understand! In terms of sheer content, there are some great screenwriting books and sites out there, but they often use way too much jargon for my liking.

      Anyway, really glad you’re enjoying the blog and there are many more posts to come!

      Best, al

  4. I really loved to watch movies and were impressed the bottom line of the dialogues of the characters.

    To be honest, I don’t know behind the scene about the screenplay or the movie dialogue but you clearly educated us what is happening at the back of the stage.

    I am just thinking the difference of the stage-writers and the screenwriters. Maybe you can enlighten me somehow.

    Thanks in advance.

    • Hi Delroaustria, very happy that you enjoyed the article.

      No problem, here’s the difference…

      Stage-writers write theater plays, which tend to be far more dialogue focused. Shakespeare was a stage-writer, as were the guys I mentioned in the post.

      Screenwriters write films. Dialogue is still important, but there’s also a lot of focus on the visual side. A screenwriter is painting a picture for the director, who will then use the screenplay to create his own vision, i.e. the actual movie.

      Hope that helps!

      Best, al

  5. I have once played with the idea of writing my life story but after seeing the amount of work that is required of me to put my thoughts on paper, I started thinking I might ask for help.
    As you have rightly pointed out, they are different types of dialogue and each time I wrote out the dialogue for 2 or more characters, I literally get flustered and a bit skeptical on if it would read right to the actor.

    Well, I have not only bookmarked this site for when I’m ready to start writing again, I have also shared it on my social media.
    Thank you for posting this article.

    • Hi Excelle, thank you so much! I’m really glad you enjoyed the article and that hopefully one day it may prove useful.

      Yes, starting a major writing project can be overwhelming. But once you get started, you can really lose yourself in it. I’ve done so many jobs over the years, and writing is by far the most challenging… yet it’s also the most rewarding – emotionally if not financially 😉

      Drawing heavily on your own personal life experiences is the best way to go with your first script (and can be extremely therapeutic). As you continue to write more scripts, you’ll find that you’re still drawing on your life experiences, but they’re now placed in a different historical period or location. 

      Anyway, all the best – and thank you so much for spreading the word!

      Best, al

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *