Is Dialogue Conversation?


Dialogue is the tabasco sauce in your film script cocktail. Not enough and it lacks bite. Any more than a dash, and your cocktail is ruined.

Cinema coped without spoken word for many years. With the proliferation of  “talkies” and screenwriters from radio or stage play backgrounds, many movies became little more than filmed theatre (talking heads) rather than cinema. Horizontal plots were verbalized with little character development, or stories became vertical character studies with little plot such as Stephen Frears’ “The Queen”.

Try watching a movie with the sound turned off. You should be able to discern a basic plot throughline of your story.  Dialogue enhances the images and shouldn’t fully exist without them. Listening to a movie without any images might confuse your audience with it’s fractured dialogue, but it can still follow a basic story to a lesser degree. In short images are more important than words.

Measured doses of dialogue serve two key purposes: to reveal character and to progress plot. Progressing plot is not simply telling the audience what is happening. This is a trap many screenwriters fall into. Some dialogue purists will argue that it reveals subtext too. Turbo- charged dialogue does all three. However, relentless super-charged dialogue will fatigue your audience.

Is dialogue CONVERSATION? Partially. When I was going through film school, I would ride the train with a dictaphone (archaic sound recording device) and record conversations. Most conversation is boring, repetitive, unfocussed, people interrupt each other, sentences are unfinished and thoughts are incomplete.

Your (our) job as screenwriters is to strip away all the superfluous dialogue and reduce it to its essence while still making it sound like a natural CONVERSATION. When Michaelangelo asked how he made the sculpture of David, he replied that he chipped away the parts that weren’t David.

I remember many years, a non-film person couldn’t comprehend the role of a screenwriter. He just thought the actors were given a scenario and they just spoke naturally through improvization. I told him he couldn’t have defined the role of a screenwriter more perfectly; except that the scenario is in fact a screenplay.

Not all dialogue should seem natural. Consider the hyper-stylized dialogue in Diablo Cody’s “Little Miss Sunshine”, or Brit Noel Clarke’s “Kidulthood”. The latter explored black youth culture in London, England. Admittedly, my ear was intensely trained to their speech patterns through many years of living there. However it was highly stylized dialogue appropriate to the content and audience. Period pieces should reflect speech patterns of an era and place. Make your dialogue as authentic as possible. If you’re writing Avatar 2 because James Cameron is too busy, the world is your screenwriting oyster after you learn the Na’vi language. “I see you” was one of the monumental pieces of dialogue in Avatar because it was loaded with so much significance. I see you superficially, spiritually, emotionally and completely. Dialogue such as “I feel you” suggests a similar sentiment.

Dialogue shouldn’t repeat information that’s already on screen. It’s too obvious and disrespectful to your audience. Don’t make your serial killer tell their victim that they’re going to kill them. Plunging a knife into their throat is a dead giveaway. A common exercise I use, is to write the most obvious dialogue and then delete it. How can we make the dialogue of the said serial killer more interesting. Try these alternatives:

“How about a game of I Spy?”

“You should have said yes when I asked you to marry me”.

“I walked into a Starbucks the other day and ordered their bold pick of the day and they made me wait for like twenty minutes for it because they had run out. Were they growing the coffee beans or something? I was in such a hurry. When it finally arrived, it was cold so I sent it back and they gave my fresh one…”

“I hate the sight of blood, but I’m not very imaginative. Please excuse my queasiness”.

“Heads I win, tails you lose. Got a coin? No? Me neither.”

“Doncha just hate Cheezits? I bet that’s not even real cheese. You end up with yellow cheese powder on your fingers and it doesn’t wash off…”

See how the tone changes in all these examples. Consider what each dialogue reveals about character despite the action remaining the same in each case.

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2 Comments Add yours

  1. It’s been said that “dialogue is how people really talk, but less.” That couldn’t be more true. To the uninitiated audience member, movie dialogue sounds natural. In fact it is greatly abbreviated to move the story along in far less time than a real human conversation allows. Visual elements and subtext support the dialogue by infusing more meaning into fewer words. Dialogue is to movies what a compressed file is to a computer–more information in a smaller package. The audience believes good dialogue sounds real simply because they are comprehending the story effectively.

    1. JG Sarantinos says:

      Good dialogue should advance plot, enhance character and contain subtext. Obviously you can’t have all three in play simultaneously, but you get the idea how hard each word of dialogue must work.

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