Writing Effective Dialogue

Well, see, right now I have this
one key, and I really like that.
Everything I own is in my car.  
If I get an apartment, that's two
keys. If I get a job, maybe I 
have to open and close once in 
awhile, that's more keys. Or I
buy some stuff and I'm worried
about getting ripped off, so I
get some locks, and that's just
more keys. I just really like
having the one key. It's clean,
you know?

   - From Steven Soderbergh's 
     sex, lies, and videotape

What makes dialogue great?

To answer, we must take a look at what dialogue is, and what it is used to accomplish.

Firstly, it is of great help to clarify what dialogue is not for.

There is an oft-repeated paradigm among screenwriters: “Novels are about what people think; plays are about what people say; screenplays are about what people do.”

Narration (inner monologue) is appropriate in the novel form, when a character’s inner life can successfully be the vehicle for the entire story. But too much narration kills a film. Other devices utilized to show a character’s inner life, such as dream sequences, flashbacks, or expressionist-influenced camera or lighting can be effective when sparingly used, but quickly distract from filmic narrative when overdone.

Long conversations, monologues, and verbose wordplay certainly have their place on the stage. But in cinema, dialogue can actually be one of the least effective ways to bring your characters’ worlds to life. To put it another way, to explain everything in a film by having people talk it out grossly underuses the power of film to tell a story through moving images. Character is best delineated by action. An audience wants to vicariously live out the film’s story through characters who are proactive movers and shakers.

Michael B. Druxman, in his book The Art of Storytelling: How To Write A Story….Any Story notes:

Some wise man (or woman) once said that there were three reasons…and only three…to justify putting a line of dialogue into a script, and if a particular line doesn’t fulfill one or more of those reasons, then you should eliminate it. What are the reasons?

  • To further the plot.
  • To develop or reveal character.
  • To get a laugh.

I think that may be the most important lesson one can learn about dialogue.

All this said, appropriately used dialogue has the power to move audiences to tears, to stir deep emotion inside them, or to make their spirits soar. How is this balancing act between talking just enough, but not too much, accomplished?

Dialogue Reveals Character

In the direct sense, dialogue reveals what’s going on inside a character’s head. But the worst kind of dialogue occurs when this internal information is presented verbatim. Imagine if characters always stated their thoughts openly:

I dislike you immensely.

I dislike you as well. I think
that from now on, I shall react
to you only with sarcasm and

Even though circumstances 
have forced us together, I 
shall be consistently 
uncooperative in order to get
you to give up and leave.

I can be just as stubborn as 
you. More, in fact, because 
my will is stronger than yours.

Not very exciting, is it?

How often do you know people to say exactly what they mean? Except in moments of great intimacy, people rarely say exactly what’s on their mind. They have agendas which they cannot or will not reveal to others because of relationship or circumstance. Good drama is also about people thrown together in situations of conflict, during which they may not trust, like, or feel comfortable with those around them. Conversation might be guarded, stilted, elliptical, curt, disingenuous, tense, suggestive, bantering, sniping, or petty. But it shouldn’t be direct.

Writers often speak of text, or the the actual words of the dialogue, and subtext, or the meaning that lies beneath the words. It is these two levels working in tandem that create great dialogue.

Subtext is where actual meaning, a person’s unspoken intent, resides. Actors play subtext, and bring the inner life of the character to their expression and body. When this physical expression is played against the text, it is the difference between what is said and what is meant that creates depth, conflict, and tension. The manner in which the text and subtext interplay is one of the main methods to reveal character.

In the dialogue from sex, lies, and videotape at the beginning of this article, Graham seems to be talking about keys. But beneath his words, there is much more. In his past, Graham was a pathological liar. His constant interweaving of fabrications created tangled levels of complexity that ultimately led (we assume) to a major psychological crisis. In the film, Graham is trying to start over, and create some kind of a new life, yet at heart, he is avoiding his dark past. His speech about keys hides the deeper truth that he wishes only to simplify his life.

In Casablanca, when Ilsa reminds Rick that the last time they saw each other was the day the Germans marched into Paris, Rick responds: “I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.” His text is darkly funny, and tinged with bitter sarcasm. Why? Because his subtext reads: “I loved you, and you left me without explanation. Even years later, I’m still hurt.”

Sometimes you can get away with what seems initially to be dialogue that is purely textual — the characters seem to be saying exactly what they mean — but underneath is still another layer of meaning that has yet to come out.

A good example of this is found in a revealing page from As Good As It Gets:

	  (this is hell for him)
      I have this - what - ailment... 
      And my doctor -- a shrink... who I
      used to see all the time... he says
      50 to 60 percent of the time a pill
      can really help. I hate pills. 
      "Hate."  I am using the word "hate" 
      about pills. My compliment is that 
      when you came to my house that time 
      and told me how you'd never - well,
      you were there, you know... the next 
      morning I started taking these pills.		 

	  (a little confused)
      I don't quite get how that's a 
      compliment for me.

Amazing that something in Melvin rises to the 
occasion - so that he uncharacteristically looks
at her directly - then:

      You make me want to be a better man.

Carol never expected this kind of praise which
would so slip under her guard. She stumbles a bit
- flattered, momentarily moved and his for the

      That's maybe the best compliment of my

      Then I've really overshot here cause I 
      was aiming at just enough to keep you 
      from walking out.

Melvin’s dialogue begins by circuitously avoiding the issue at hand. When he finally comes out and says what he needs to say, there are still further layers beneath his words. In truth, Melvin is falling in love with Carol, yet can’t admit it to himself, much less Carol. And the elaborate rituals of courtship make him exceedingly uncomfortable. Although the compliment itself reflects well on Carol, it actually refers to Melvin and not to her — a very clever way of avoiding complimenting Carol directly, which would be too forward. In his final line, Melvin undercuts what he has just said, and tries to joke his way out of having complimented her so heavily in the first place.

It is notable that the style of screenwriters Mark Andrus and James L. Brooks is to include subtext in the script’s descriptive passages. They note of Melvin that “this is hell for him,” and go into great detail about how moved Carol is by his compliment.

Less is More

If talking around the edges of an issue is already one way to raise dramatic tension, then think of how powerful it can be to avoid the issue entirely!

In this scene from Tootsie, Michael Dorsey is in love with Julie, an actress who knows him only as his female alter-ego Dorothy Michaels. Dorothy has just thrown out Ron, Julie’s swinish boyfriend. A shaving cut on Dorothy’s face has begun to bleed, which Julie tends to, leaning over Dorothy as she lies on the sofa:

Julie sits beside her, touches her face gently
with a tissue.

      Oh, Dorothy, what did I do...
      I'm so confused.  What am I 
      gonna do tomorrow?  Who am I 
      gonna have dinner with?

Dorothy looks into Julie's eyes.  She can help
herself no longer. She moves towards Julie's
lips. Just before they touch - 

      Dorothy, please!

      Right!  No!  Of course!

Julie rises abruptly.

      Julie --

      Please don't say anything.

      But there's a reason.

      Don't ... don't be embarrassed.  
      I understand the reason.

      No, no, that reason's not the 

She reaches for Julie's hand.

      I'm not ... I'm not the person
      you think I am, I --

      Nobody is -- you don't have to 

      Look, give me a second.  If 
      you could just see me out of 
      these clothes.


Out of context, this dialogue would be meaningless. But in proper context, the words create a wonderful comedic interplay of cross-purposes and mistaken intentions. Yet all of the inherent meaning in the scene is not said. The sentences are very simple, filled with repetition, pauses, and half-finished thoughts. But it is the very lack of overt meanings that allow the hidden meanings to jump to the fore; this is the paradox of great dialogue writing. Less is more!

Find the Character’s Voice

Each character, just like each individual person has a way of communicating that is uniquely their own. It is important to realize the difference between idiosyncrasies like accent, stuttering, lisping, repeating words or constant yelling, which all define the character externally — and the revealing bits of prose which define the inner life of the character. The external sound of the voice, combined with the internal meaning of the words combine to create a dimensional whole.

Following are some key elements that bring dialogue, and thus character, to life:

Philosophy or Morality

I'll tell you the unwritten law,
you dumb son of a bitch, you 
gotta be rich to kill somebody, 
anybody and get away with it.
You think you got that kind 
of dough, you think you got 
that kind of class?

 -Jake Gittes, Detective
  From Chinatown
  by Robert Towne

Gittes says this in retaliation to a client who declares he wants to kill his wife. The point Gittes makes becomes the moral of the entire film.

Character Agenda

You atone with me or the world
you live in becomes the hell you
fear in the back of your tiny 
mind.  Every criminal I have put
in prison, every cop who owes me
a favor, every creeping scumbag
that works the street for a 
living, will know the name of
Verbal Kint.  You'll be the 
lowest sort of rat, the prince
of snitches, the loudest cooing
stool pigeon that ever grabbed
his ankles for the man.  Now you 
talk to me, or that precious 
immunity they've seen so fit to
grant you won't be worth the
paper the contract put out on
your life is printed on.

  -David Kujan, Customs Agent
   From The Usual Suspects
   by Christopher McQuarrie

Kujan threatens Verbal Kint in order to make him talk. Kujan thinks that Kint is just another criminal to break in order to move ahead with his case. Kujan also believes himself smarter than Kint (the story ultimately proves the opposite). All of these ideas are reflected just in this tiny slice of dialogue.

Class, Background, Education

I know a couple of addicts. 
Stupid wee lassies. I feed them
what they need. A little bit of
skag to keep them happy while 
the punters line up at a fiver
a skull. It's easy money for 
me. Not exactly a fortune, but
I'm thinking, 'I should be 
coining it here.' Less whores,
more skag. Swanney's right. 
Get clean, get into dealing, 
that's where the future lies.
Set up some contacts, get a 
good load of skag, punt it, 
profit. What do you think?

  -Sick Boy, Heroin Addict
   From Trainspotting 
   by John Hodge

Sick Boy has the base aspirations of a junkie. He never thinks beyond criminal activity, a lifestyle that appeals to his innate laziness and background of lowered working-class expectations.

As you compare each piece of dialogue to its respective category, note that any of the dialogue could really go under any of the category headings. This is because good, organic, character-specific dialogue contains all of these elements.

Avoid Exposition

Exposition, for those unfamiliar with the term, is information presented in order to explain story elements. A perfect example is the long speech given at the end of a murder-mystery, in which the detective reveals who the killer is, and how the dastardly crime was accomplished. In few other genres can a writer get away with such a pedantic approach. Having your characters explain the story, justify or clarify their actions, usually means that the story wasn’t clear enough to begin with. Explaining motivations after the fact through exposition undermines dramatic tension. The most effective way to reveal the essential information is gradually, and in the context of events.

In suspense stories, a genre in which many details may be deliberately obscured, important information is revealed in stages. In North by Northwest, the story’s protagonist is chased by persons whose motivations are unknown. Yet the protagonist’s motivation is clear — stay alive. Bit by bit, the real story is revealed, but in a manner that avoids long-winded explanations.

If you have clearly presented all of the necessary elements, the audience will put the pieces of the puzzle together to complete the overall picture.

Hear the Words

One last and very important point, is that dialogue on the page is very different from dialogue as spoken in someone’s mouth.

Screenwriters often speak their dialogue aloud. There exists no better way to hear its rhythms, taste the flow of the language, and connect with your characters’ voices. Read the parts to yourself, and listen to what your creations sound like. Your characters are a part of you. Talking to oneself may seem odd, but holding out-loud conversations between your characters is one of the most effective ways to get to know them. Even if you aren’t inclined to act on-stage or in front of a camera, if you learn to take an actor’s perspective when creating your characters, it will give you greater insight into their minds and hearts.

Questionnaire Screenwriting Essentials The First Act