Writing realistic and effective dialogue is a laborious task. Most screenwriters need years of failed attempts and poorly written scripts to finally master the ideal chemistry that dialogues require to entice the audience and push the story forward.
The ideal dialogue has a combination of the following elements:
1. It moves the story forward. This rule actually applies to any element of a screenplay. Any piece of a conversation or comment or speech has to elaborate on the plot or reveal something about a character (a form of exposition). Throwaway dialogue such as "Good morning, Bob" has to be kept to a minimum or eliminated completely.
2. It is subtle and clever. Films are an artistic and creative expression. The last thing the audience wants is a trite dialogue that sounds too much like boring reality. The challenge here is to make the realistic dialogue sound clever and unique.
Example from the movies
In The Exorcist (1973), right before the exorcism is performed, Chris (Ellen Burstyn), the mother of the possessed girl, tries to relax Father Merrin (Max von Sydow) by giving him tea.
She then asks, "Would you like some bourbon in that, father?" Father Merrin sighs and answers, "Well, my doctor says I shouldn't." He pauses and continues, "But thank God my will is weak. "
Notice that the first part of Father Merrin's reply is read as "no," but the second part is read as "yes." The dialogue is clever and unique because it reveals two things about Father Merrin: (1) he is weak and (2) he's afraid of the exorcism he's about to conduct.
If he had simply said "yes," the dialogue would be boring. If he had said, "I'm weak and I'm afraid," the dialogue would be too obvious.
3. It is witty or comic. The audience of movies and TV shows love to laugh, but such a feat is not accomplished easily. Comic dialogue must keep up with a character's personality. And creating the right situation in which he or she says it is also challenging because, as mentioned above, any dialogue also has to move the story forward by either furthering the plot or giving exposition on a character. This is the reason why in movies people don't just stop to tell jokes to one another. The gag must have narrative value.
Example from the movies
In a scene from Thelma & Louise (1991), Thelma (Geena Davis) delights on how cute JD's butt is and then she contrasts it with her husband's: "Daryl doesn't have a cute butt like that. You could park a car in the shadow of his ass."
This dialogue is funny because it's humorous, of course, but it also sheds light on Thelma's character and the animosity towards her husband. Furthermore, her remark also establishes that she's attracted to JD, which foreshadows the affair they experience later in the movie.
Film Professor's Insight
If you want to truly understand the potential of dialogue in motion pictures, you absolutely have to watch the "courtroom" drama 12 Angry Men (1957). 95% of the movie happens inside the jury room, while 12 juries attempt to reach a unanimous decision on a murder case. The first 4% of the movie is the setup, in which the judge briefly explains the case and demands the 12 juries to assemble and reach an agreement.
Although the characters are somewhat differentiated from one another through costuming, it is dialogue that gives them depth. It soon becomes obvious who is the playful sport fan, the educated foreigner, the bitter father, the just architect, the grandfatherly wise man with bright sayings… All of the juries are different, with distinct personalities and backgrounds. And it's dialogue that exposes these differences.
The case, trial, witnesses, and prosecutors also come to life as the juries talk. That's right. The main highlights of the case shine through the discussion as they explain, ask, answer, debate, shout, vent…
12 Angry Men is the movie that pushes the barrier of dialogue use and succeeds. While watching the movie, pay attention to how the vast majority of lines fall in either the "push the story forward" or "give exposition" categories.
One small caveat: Film students and young writers often fall prey of writing movies with "talking heads." "Talking heads" is the pejorative term that describes dull characters speaking unnecessary dialogue. Be aware of them. While watching 12 Angry Men, notice how every bit of dialogue is, not only needed, but somewhat exciting and revealing.
Due to the lack of money, student films usually rely a lot on conversations. This is where the pitfall lies, as amateur filmmakers erroneously believe that dialogue alone is enough to provide enough excitement. They could not be more wrong. Notice that even in the confinement of the jury room of 12 Angry Men, actions, gestures, expressions, and objects are used to fill the void that dialogue couldn't. Check it out.
- Three-Act Structure: The key to screenwriting
- Exposition: Bring your character to another level
- Main Character: Whose story is it?
- Employing Theme to thicken the narrative
Lessons on Directing:
- Tips to a Future Film Director
- Blocking: What is it and how do it efficiently?
- Coverage: Dos and Don'ts
- Everything to know about Shooting Script
Lessons on Cinamatography:
- Exposure: Mastering the light
- Camera Angles: Intensifying the drama
- Shot Sizes: Directing what viewers see