What is good dialogue? What does it sound like? How do you know when you've written it? Why do some readers identify good dialogue when others wouldn't know what it was if it slapped them across their face?
Back in November 2005, I did this post, where I said dialogue carries four main functions: exposition, characterisation, subtext and humour. Yes, yes, all very well, but that's the basic functions. Again I ask, what is good dialogue?
Unfortunately, there isn't a straightforward answer. What comes across as good dialogue to some can be regarded as annoying cack to others. EVERY reader/exec/teacher will say subtext is the most important but that can often go unnoticed or ignored. Instead, you may hear that the dialogue was too flat or, the worst insult, too 'on-the-nose', even if the dialogue plays to a neat subtext. This could be your fault, i.e. bad writing, but it's not all the time.
When people say the dialogue is good in a script (or a film), they probably mean it's sharp and witty. It's something that can be clearly identified and it gives people an external reaction: they can laugh. Subtext and internal emotion is generally more subjective. It can be thoughtful or reflective, and the impact of the dialogue can be easily missed.
What writers are known for their great dialogue? Sorkin, Mamet, Tarantino? Sorkin's famed for his witty and intelligent lines, while Mamet is celebrated for his cerebral repartee. Tarantino's dialogue is now vilified as pop culture geek but you can't deny that it can be funny and surprising. Check out the opening sequence of Reservoir Dogs for the 'tipping waitress' scene. A lot of cross-talk and characters but it also gets across the necessary exposition, characterisation, subtext and humour.
So, what is good dialogue? For me, it's neat, focused exchanges on the dramatic issue of the scene. Rhythm and reaction. The particular syntax of a character's voice. Broken sentences or grammar misuse (because no-one speaks perfectly!). Humour, when relevant. A man who nervously stutters a marriage proposal won't necessarily read as good dialogue but his fumbling actions could be the perfect compliment to what he's saying, giving the scene subtext and humour. Therefore, good dialogue.
Tony Jordan gives a nice example. People say as little as they can, whenever they can. Especially to the people who will understand them with only a nod or a gesture. Most of us trade on a visual or verbal shorthand so that we don't have to say more than we need to.
So, someone is saying goodbye to a mate: "I'll see you later. I've got to buy some smokes before I head home." If these two are good mates, you could remove the unnecessary words so that the dialogue becomes more sharp and realistic. "See you later. Got to buy some smokes." But you can reduce it more. [HOLDS UP EMPTY FAG PACKET] "See you later." And even further. [HOLDS UP EMPTY FAG PACKET] "Later." It's a very ordinary line but it's the most effective use of dialogue for the character and the scene.
There's a great line of dialogue in Men in Black. Neat, sharp and very effective. ** SPOILERS ABOUT TOMMY LEE JONES'S CHARACTER ** Will Smith has been recruited into MIB and is teasing Tommy Lee Jones about his stiff nature. He then discovers that Tommy Lee had a wife, and Tommy Lee brings her up on computer to take a mournful look at her. He can't be with her anymore because his life is devoted to MIB. Will Smith says: "Better to have loved and lost than to never loved at all, right?" Tommy Lee says: "Try it." Shoving the cliché back in his face with two words that say so much: the man's heart is broken because he can't be with his wife. Subtext, characterisation, exposition.
Other good use of dialogue: imaginative swearing/insults (In The Loop, Glengarry Glen Ross), cute/sweet but not sickly (Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Juno), a different use of slang or language (Brick, Heathers) or realistic/humorous (You Can Count On Me, Lonesome Jim) where the story may not be a comedy but the very nature of the characters' dialogue and behaviour gives it amusing qualities.
How about you? Any particular dialogue that delights or makes you cringe? Not specific lines per se but the actual style, or the writer...?