By Shanee Edwards · July 14, 2021
Though movies and television shows are primarily visual mediums, dialogue is the currency a writer spends thriftily to move the story forward and, most importantly, to reveal character.
What a character says is as important as what the character does, whether they are revealing their personal truth or covering up their darkest secrets. Bottom line: Dialogue is manipulation. Dialogue is power. Dialogue is a writer’s sharpest tool.
So, let’s take a look at a few examples of how some of the best screenwriters of our time have used dialogue in interesting ways to reveal information about their characters.
We can learn a lot about dialogue from Aaron Sorkin, a writer known for his dazzling ability to have his characters talk circles around each other. Sorkin’s word choices, rhythms, and repetitions are highly engaging – exactly what I mean by slightly stylized. Let’s look at scenes from Steve Jobs and The Social Network. [SPOILERS AHEAD]
In Steve Jobs (2015), Wozniak (Seth Rogan), is Steve Jobs’ (Michael Fassbender) right-hand man. Only Steve can’t seem to give “Woz” the credit he deserves, and Woz is rightfully angry and confronts him.
“I play the orchestra.” Wow, mic drop. That is one of the most character-revealing lines of all time. Basically, Steve Jobs admits he’s a control freak with a god complex. He’s in charge of everything and Woz is merely a cog in the wheel – a good cog, but a cog no less. He’s a condescending jerk to Woz who is clearly dedicated to him, but he simply doesn’t care.
Here’s my favorite scene in The Social Network (2010), written by Sorkin and Ben Mezrich. Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) is at a bar with his girlfriend Erica (Rooney Mara), obsessing over gaining entry to Harvard’s exclusive Final clubs and trying to convince Erica this will benefit her, too. But things go very wrong, very quickly.
Let’s look at a scene from another master of dialogue, Quentin Tarantino. Reservoir Dogs (1992), is about a simple jewel heist that crumbles at the hands of a rag-tag group of criminals.
The crew eats lunch at a diner. When the boss says he’ll pick up a check, it’s up to the others to put in a dollar for the tip. But Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) refuses to cough up the cash.
Mr. Pink reveals several things about his character in this exchange. First, he thinks he’s better than everyone else because he plays by his own rules and doesn’t behave the way society dictates he should. Second, he has very little regard for others, especially people (like waitresses) he deems are beneath him. Third, he sees other people simply as props in his world, existing just to serve him. If they don’t like their lot in life, they can, “Learn to type.” He feels no responsibility for others. It is exactly these qualities that allow him to escape with the diamonds at the end of the film. His lack of a moral compass makes him the perfect criminal. And the reverse is also true — the other guys showing that they care about tipping the waitress means they will be lousy criminals — and in fact, they all die in the end.
Let’s look at the opening scene in the pilot for Mad Men (2007), written by Matthew Weiner.
The dialogue in the opening scene in a pilot must reveal a lot of things, not just introduce the lead character. In this simple scene featuring Don (Jon Hamm) chatting with a busboy, Sam (Henry Afro-Bradley) about cigarettes, we learn that New York in the 1960s has a distinct class and race hierarchy when the white Bartender quickly interrupts the conversation to see if the Black busboy is “bothering” Don. But Don plays it cool, he doesn’t ruffle. He orders another drink, an “Old Fashioned,” as a nod to the social hierarchy, but continues to fire off questions to Sam.
From the dialogue alone, we also learn that Don sees himself as someone outside of the class and race social construct. There are rules in this world, but Don doesn’t play by them. He makes his own rules. His mundane questions about why Sam prefers Old Gold cigarettes go beyond curiosity about someone’s brand preferences. This dialogue sets up a character who is constantly trying to not only get inside the head of consumers but also get inside the heads of all the people around him. Understanding people’s thoughts, desires, and motivations is how he survives.
The dialogue in The Queen’s Gambit (2020), is like a chess match, especially when it’s between Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) and Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster). Both are at the top of their chess game, and their dialogue is dripping with subtext. But making their scenes even more intense is the sexual tension between them. The episode is written by Scott Frank and Allan Scott from the novel by Walter Tevis.
In this scene, Benny talks to a student reporter about playing chess with confidence and knowing about a player just by how they move the first piece. When it comes to Beth, however, he doesn’t have the first clue.
Early in the scene, Beth’s goal is to intimidate Benny and put him in his place when she says she needs to study by “reading his book” to “get in shape.” She might just be smarter than him and she likes to show off her intelligence with witty banter. But when she asks why he carries a knife, she’s subtly letting him know she sees every piece of him – and every move.
Benny makes a big mistake by answering why he carries the knife: “For protection…from whatever.” Though he doesn’t specifically say what he’s afraid of, his answer does expose his weakness: her.
There’s no scenario where Benny would actually pull a knife on Beth, it’s just decoration to help create a tough-guy persona, along with the leather duster and silly hat. But what he doesn’t realize is that there are some things he cannot protect himself from, including falling for a beautiful woman who’s smarter than him.
Meryl Streep is exceptional as super-bitch Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada (2006), but the dialogue in this scene doesn’t just reveal her character, it also reveals Andy’s (Anne Hathaway), character. The script is written by Aline Brosh McKenna from the novel by Lauren Weisberger.
Miranda puts Andy in her place and rightfully so – she’s the queen and Andy the peasant. If Andy wants to play with the “big boys” she needs to be on top of her game and she clearly isn’t. It’s actually embarrassing how clueless and smug Andy is. But throughout the entire monologue, Miranda never loses her cool and delivers her lines in an almost monotone, showing how little she cares about Andy. Miranda’s cold-heartedness is on display as she rattles off the history of Andy’s “lumpy sweater.” This is some exceptional dialogue that skewers one character for being overconfident while revealing the other to be a master at their craft.
Written by Ethan and Joel Cohen, The Big Lebowski (1998), features many quirky characters, including Walter Sobchak (John Goodman), who’s a really nice guy but is on a hair-trigger. The slightest thing – in this case, the tip of a toe – can set him off.
This dialogue reveals Walter’s obsession for following society’s rules and failure to do so will cause a “world of pain.” It also reveals his priorities: A league bowling game is at the absolute top! It is sacrosanct! You mess with it, you die! This monologue reveals that Walter lives in a world that’s black and white, which is likely a survival mechanism after his time in the very gray and frightening world of Vietnam. The good news is that Walter is a straight arrow, and you can always count on him to give an honest assessment of any situation.
I know, I know, I know…every writer out there dolling out advice says “show, don’t tell,” but that doesn’t mean great, well-placed, intentional dialogue can’t be the best tool for revealing information about your characters. As these examples (and countless more) demonstrate, what they say can be the most memorable thing about them.
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