DIALOGUE: Conversations That Matter

Writing realistic and effective dialogue is not an easy 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 or boring dialogue. The challenge here is to make a realistic dialogue sound clever and unique. Plus, the audience is smart, and they love to feel that way. So instead of spelling out everything for them, give them clues and allow them to piece it together.

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.

Then she 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 really a “no,” but the second part is interpreted as a “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 or “on the nose”. With his colorful line of dialogue, the audience is engaged and given the opportunity to participate.

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 (a big plus), but more importantly it 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.

Learn from the Best

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 jury members 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 jurors to assemble and reach an agreement.12 angry men

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 after the trial. That’s right. The main highlights of the case shine through the discussion as these 12 men 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.12 Angry Men Henry Fonda

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 sufficient 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. It’s a master piece.


CHARACTER ARC: Because the Only Constant is Change

Definitely one of the most basic principles in screenwriting is character arc – the notion that characters must evolve, grow, learn, or change as the plot unfolds. The audience in general expects a character to finish the movie in a better position than that in which he started because that is what everyone strives for. Life sometimes allows that, but not always.

The arc doesn’t imply that characters will always be richer, smarter, or get the girl at the end. Perhaps a greedy person would end up in jail for embezzlement or an impulsive lover would end up murdered at the hands of an angry husband. Who knows. Shit happens in life and the movies.

Spoiler Alert: The following paragraphs contain spoilers.

Positive and Negative Arcs

Here’s a positive change or arc: in The Silence of the Lambs (1991), Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) starts out as a student in the FBI who’s assigned a special mission. At the movie’s resolution, Clarice has improved her investigation skills and gun technique, both of which allow her to complete her mission and graduate from the FBI Academy.

An elaborate arc will present growth in many aspects of a character’s life. In The Graduate (1967), Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) starts as an awkward, introverted, 20-year-old young man who lives by his parent’s rules and wishes. As the story unfolds, Benjamin begins making his own choices, often against his parents’. Furthermore, through an early exposition, it is implied that Benjamin is a virgin, which changes after his affair with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft). And by the movie’s end, he also gets the girl he wanted, already wearing a wedding gown.

This is not the norm, but one powerful version of the character arc is when the arc goes “down the hill.” In Gone With the Wind (1939), Scarlet O’Hara (Vivien Leigh) never accepts Rhett’s (Clark Gabble) unrelenting courtship. Rhett, in the other hand, arcs as he realizes Scarlet will never want him, so he leaves her, saying the famous line: “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn!” In her despair, Scarlet denies her fate and utters: “Tara. Home. I’ll go home, and I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all, tomorrow is another day.”

A character arc can also be dark or somber. In the highly acclaimed Billy Wilder picture Sunset Blvd. (1950), one of the two main characters die, and the other one is arrested.

What Drives Change?

Take a second to think about the question above: what makes people change? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Think of the last time you or a friend or a relative experienced a big change. What was responsible for such change?

Although everyone wants to better themselves and improve their lives, change is not necessarily easy. Usually, people will take small steps towards a major goal, but big changes usually require a catalyst.

What do you think would make a sports-averse 40-year-old man start running daily after decades of a sedentary lifestyle? How about a heart attack? That sure would take most people off their butts and the cheesecake diet if it meant more health.

In storytelling lingo, we would call the heart attack conflict because that’s what it is. Like in life, conflict is really good at making people change and change quickly.

Movies are no different. Sometimes a character wakes up one day and decides to pursue their dreams. But often they need life to club them in the heads and say “You’ve been doing this all wrong. Try this other alternative instead.”

In (500) Days of Summer, Tom was writing greeting cards while his dream really was architecture. The catalyst in this plot was Summer. Tom was too comfortable in his day job to chase anything else until the girl of his dreams encouraged him to do it. And if you saw the movie, you know how hard this was for Tom.

To mention The Silence of the Lambs again: do you think Clarice was excited when, as a young FBI student, she was an invited for a special mission? You bet! But that special mission really involved a lot of  life-threatening moments (AKA conflict).

As Seen at the Movies…

Positive arcs

In Matrix (1999), after learning that he’s the One, Neo uses his recent-acquired skills to vanquish Agent Smith. Neo’s arc is both internal (as he believes in himself and accepts his responsibility) and external (as he develops his fighting skills and uses them to combat the enemy).

In Rocky (1976), small-time boxer Rocky Balboa trains hard and “goes the distance” with heavyweight champion of the world, Apollo Creed.

In 12 Angry Men (1957), Juror #8 convinces his fellow  members or the jury that the case they are debating has room for “reasonable doubt.”

In Shawshank Redemption (1994), Andy Dufresne escapes from the Shawshank Prison and unveils the corrupt warden’s money laundry operation to the authorities.

Negative or “Down-the-hill” arcs

In Shattered Glass (2003), journalist Stephen Glass’s lies are uncovered and he gets fired from the newspaper.

In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Butch and Sundance are cornered by the Bolivian army and ultimately shot down.

It’s important to note that characters (like humans) are complex creatures and their transitions are never clean or black-and-white. Sometimes only one aspect of the character evolves, while others remain the same. With that in mind, don’t always (if ever) write characters who change from wholly evil to wholly good or vice versa because that rarely happens. A subtle transition is sometimes more identifiable for the audience.

Character arc alone will not save a terrible screenplay, but it will make a bad story better. Keep in mind that the audience expects this in all narrative films. There’s no magic formula to it. A fantastic a plot built in a solid structure with enough conflict will bring about the character arc.

What about you? What are some of your favorite arcs in film history?