Many screenwriters have tried and failed to write great movie dialogue that is on par with the likes of Tarantino, Sorkin, Mamet, Cody, and Ephron, to name just a few. But is it because those iconic writers are so outstanding and impossible to measure up to? Or is it because the advice screenwriters have been given over the last three decades has been false and misleading?
Here we offer three unspoken truths about writing great movie dialogue.
1. There Is No Such Thing as Realistic or Naturalistic Movie Dialogue
Over the past thirty years, many have declared that some of those iconic screenwriters above have mastered the art of realistic or naturalistic dialogue — nothing could be further from the truth.
The advice so many screenwriting books have pitched is for screenwriters to get out into the world and eavesdrop on conversations in coffee shops, bars, and other social gathering places. The concept is that listening to real conversations will give you the information you need to write dialogue that feels real.
Here’s the unspoken truth — movie dialogue sounds nothing like the real world conversations we hear and take part in. And it shouldn’t.
How we talk in public and in private is utterly dull and mundane. We interrupt each other. We pause. We stutter. We go off on unfocused tangents. We lose our train of thought. We unload a ridiculous amount of ums and uhs throughout our conversations, speeches, and day-to-day exchanges.
If you put all of that into a script, it would read as utter nonsense, or would just be plain and boring on the screen.
Thus, the whole concept of getting out into the world and jotting down conversation notes or recording those around you is utterly a waste of time.
Yes, great movie dialogue often offers the sense that the words are coming out of the characters’ mouths naturally, but that’s partly due to the performance of the actors playing those characters (consider that another unspoken truth). Some well-written dialogue has been butchered by some actors and their poor performances or their overt self-awareness. In turn, some lackluster dialogue has been elevated by some fine actors giving added weight to seemingly bland dialogue.
Screenwriters do have the ability to offer some great back and forth within their dialogue, with characters interrupting each other and sometimes finishing each other’s sentences, but don’t kid yourself or let anyone fool you into thinking that there is anything that can be called realistic or naturalistic dialogue.
So what is great movie dialogue?
2. Great Movie Dialogue Depends on the Context of the Story and Characters
Heath Ledger’s Ennis in Brokeback Mountain is a character that offers some of the best movie dialogue we’ve seen in the decades before and the decade since. And he rarely says much at all.
Lack of dialogue doesn’t mean that your script lacks in great movie dialogue. Far from it. The less dialogue you use, the more impact each and every word has once the character finally speaks it.
Ennis was written as a man of few words. But when he did say something, you listened. That’s some well-written movie dialogue.
Great dialogue is all about the context of the story and the characters. You can overwrite the heck out of a character by trying to add snappy dialogue and constant one-liners — so many scripts (and screenwriters) have failed because of this. When you pare down dialogue as much as you can — focusing on showing us emotions and feelings rather than telling us — it elevates the dialogue. And, in turn, it creates less work for you because you don’t have to worry about writing those ear-catching lines on each and every page within each and every block of dialogue.
On the flip side, some characters do call for more dialogue. Their personalities, their jobs, or the situations that they are in may require more wordplay.
It’s all in the context of the story and characters that you are presenting. The best option is always the less is more approach. Too many screenwriters try too hard to emulate those iconic screenwriters. Take that weight off of your shoulders and find the best way to tell your story using the dialogue that you need within it.
And for those quiet ones that say so much by saying so little, or for those talkative types that never seem to shut up (for better or worse), know that great movie dialogue is nothing more than brilliant cinematic poetry.
3. Great Movie Dialogue Is Cinematic Poetry
Here’s the final unspoken truth about writing fantastic dialogue. It’s not about having a character say what we — or any particular character-type — would say in the situation. It’s about what we — and everyone — would love to say, but would never dare.
That’s one of the secrets to great cinematic dialogue. No one ever talks like characters do in romantic comedies — but we’d sure love to find the courage to.
No one ever conjures the perfect one-liner that is just right for any given situation at that particular time and place — but the great action heroes always manage to.
When you’re writing dialogue, you have to approach it as your opportunity to conjure those words that we usually think of after the fact, after that fight, after that first date, after the big play of a big game, after your boss walks away, etc.
It’s cinematic poetry. All dialogue in any cinematic situation — whether it’s a single line, an elongated retort, an angry rant, a preachy speech, or fast-paced exchange between characters — is poetry for the screen.
The definition of poetry is a literary work in which special intensity is given to the expression of feelings and ideas by the use of distinctive style and rhythm.
Every line you write should have a special intensity to express the feelings and ideas of your characters, all while having a distinct style and rhythm to any single character’s speech patterns or any exchanges between two or more characters.
In poetry, you often build to a moment as well. Each line is placed where it is placed for a reason. While some poetry can rely on the draw of rhyme, cinematic poetry relies on the draw of rhythm and style.
Check out this exchange:
That’s cinematic poetry at its best.
When you compare that to bad expositional dialogue, you realize why such bland dialogue hurts scripts so much. There is no rhythm or style evident — it’s just an information dump often with characters revealing information that they would already know, saying it merely because the writer is feeling the need to stop all momentum and explain things to the audience.
So avoid exposition when you can and focus on just writing that cinematic poetry that says what we’d all normally love to say in the moment — but don’t.
Each line matters. And these three unspoken truths about writing great movie dialogue will hopefully help you discover the best dialogue to put in each of those lines within your script.
And as long as you now understand that realistic or naturalistic dialogue is something you will never accomplish — and should never attempt — you’ll hopefully save yourself a lot of time and heartache. You’ll then be allowed to focus on deciding how much dialogue you need — or don’t need — depending not on some iconic screenwriter’s dialogue that you’re trying to match up to or emulate, but rather on what your story and characters call for.
And finally, you’ll hopefully now realize that writing cinematic poetry also allows you an opportunity to live vicariously through your characters by having them say things that you — and the audience — would never have the courage or wherewithal to say in the moment.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures. Make sure to read his growing archive of posts at ScreenCraft for more inspiration.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies