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By Britton Perelman · March 10, 2021
Capturing the way people really talk to each other but avoiding all of the messiness of everyday conversation often feels nearly impossible. It’s easy to start writing and then immediately get stuck — just sitting there, staring blankly at your screen and wondering if maybe updating your editing software will somehow fix your problem. You ask yourself: What would my character say next? How would they respond?
Thankfully, there are plenty of movies with incredible dialogue that can act as your teachers. Check out these scripts and pay special attention to what the characters are saying (and sometimes… what they’re not saying).
As any parent will tell you, teenagers can be difficult. That’s especially true when you’re trying to write teenage characters. You don’t want them to sound childish, but they’re not adults yet. You want what they say to make sense, but teens have their own shorthand language. For a script that perfectly captures that dichotomy, look to Booksmart.
Casablanca is a classic for many reasons, including its dialogue. Rick, Ilsa, and the other characters floating around the Moroccan city speak with purpose, clarity, wit, and plenty of subtext. What they say never feels too expository, yet it conveys exactly the exposition the audience needs. Plus, the script is full of incredible one-line zingers and back-and-forth quips that never feel scripted.
Just as teenagers are difficult to script, younger children are too. Taika Waititi’s script deftly moves between a defensive 10-year-old boy, an empathetic and smart teen, a mother with a secret to hide, several ridiculous adults in WWII Germany, and an imaginary Adolf Hitler. Somehow, the dialogue never feels trite.
When watching a good mystery, you want to reach the end, realize how it all comes together, and smack yourself on the forehead for not realizing it sooner because the clues were there all along. Not only does Rian Johnson provide physical clues in Knives Out, he also layers clues into the dialogue. Pay close attention to what the characters in this movie say to one another, and what they don’t say as well. A lot can be learned about the relationships in this movie through the dialogue. And, when you get to it, just marvel at that ending monologue by detective Benoit Blanc. The donut analogy is spectacular.
Capturing the tumultuous relationships we have with close family members with the written word can be tough. Yet Greta Gerwig does it effortlessly in Lady Bird. The masterful dialogue between Lady Bird and her mother Marion moves from comfortable to tense to angry to delighted, sometimes within a single scene. Study these subtle changes carefully.
You can’t talk about great dialogue without mentioning Quentin Tarantino. Each one of his films, from Reservoir Dogs to Once Upon a Time…in Mexico, highlight his flair for cinematic chitchat, but perhaps one of the most striking examples from his work comes from Inglourious Basterds. If you’ve never read the the “strudel scene,” it’s a masterclass on how to write subtext, as well as creating tension through dialogue.
Any of Aaron Sorkin’s scripts could have arguably made this list and Moneyball is just one great example of his fast-paced, incredible dialogue. But what makes it special is the way it skillfully instills the characters’ lines with exposition without it being too heavy-handed. It’s also a great example of how each character comes into every scene with specific wants, and the dialogue is a struggle to claim and maintain power.
A studio blockbuster like the first Pirates movie isn’t what most people would turn to for dialogue inspiration, but it’s actually an incredible resource for many aspects of dialogue. First, it’s loaded with subtext. Every time Will and Elizabeth speak to each other or to someone else about each other, their words are laden with meaning because of the things they’re not saying. Second, the movie provides all the exposition the audience needs, but subtly layers it into the dialogue instead of throwing it at viewers. Finally, each character has a specific way of speaking. Though scripts are written by one person, the characters must have their own voices, speaking patterns, and unique turns of phrase. Pirates is a great example of that.
Trying to emulate conversational banter? Check out When Harry Met Sally… Nora Ephron’s classic rom-com effortlessly captures the fun, comfortable back-and-forth that occurs between good friends. It’s chock-full of examples of conversational repetition and the dialogue contributes to the pacing by alternating expertly between well-written monologues and quippy one-liners.