Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Good Dialogue

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...?


Jason Arnopp said...

In film, Tarantino's dialogue can indeed be great, even if he occasionally needs a script editor who isn't called Quentin. Shane Black bounces lightning between characters. I also love The Shield's whiplash LA street-speak, but then I love The Shield in general.

Over here in TV, Tony and Russell T Davies work wonders, while Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant remain rather unsung for the naturalistic comedy of their dialogue - perhaps because The Office seemed improvised, but it was mostly all there in the script. And I must confess, I've only just discovered The Thick Of It - Jesus Christ, that (team-written) dialogue's a thing of vicious beauty!

Lucy V said...


I absolutely adore MIB in general for dialogue, it's got some fab lines, my ultimate fave:

YOKEL: "You can have my gun when you pry it out of my cold, dead fingers."

ALIEN: "Your proposal is acceptable."


I think good dialogue in general though just doesn't *feel like dialogue*, it feels as if something you or someone you know might say, as you demonstrate with the smokes comment. So often I read dialogue that tries too hard to sound natural and it's that which sticks out like a sore thumb. I find it useful to visualise people close to you actually saying the lines you want to write on the page - does it work? If not, how would THEY say it?

Also - teach English as a foreign language. It's like a crash course, every day, in how to use screenplay dialogue cos you're fighting to communicate with people... And that's what you're doing in a script. I'll never forget one day:

PIOTR: Teacher, I need a spastic!

ME: I don't think you do.

PIOTR: If I don't get a spastic for my bike, wheel falls off, I crash, I die!

ME: Draw it for me.

Piotr scribbles something. I look at it.

ME: Okay, you need a SPANNER for your bike.

Lucy V said...

PS - if anyone is even *thinking* of writing the words, "this isn't a movie, this is real life" in their spec, I'LL KILL YOU.

Kthxbye (I say this cos I love you all)

; )


Anonymous said...

Have to say i love the dialogue in Life On Mars. Gene Hunt's lines in particular as well as Sam's replies.

I think bad dialogue is also something a character wouldn't say. In Harry Potter, i find this in particular e.g.

In HP & the Half Blood Prince

Harry:Actually sir, after all these years i just go with it.


Harry: But i am the chosen one.

Harry would never say either of those in the books.

PK said...

Fargo is as damn near perfect a screenplay as you can get. In the midst of all the pitch perfect dialogue my favourite moment is when Officer Olson has Mr Mohra tell him about his confrontation with Steve Buscemi's character in the bar. The rhythm, the cadence, the room for beats, the dry humour, the repetition - the delineation of two real people in such a short exchange. It's just a guy telling a story and it's perfection, absolute perfection. It makes me laugh every time.

"And then he calls me a jerk and
says the last guy who thought he
was a jerk was dead now. So I
don't say nothin' and he says, 'What do ya think about that?' So I says, 'Well, that don't sound like too good a deal for him then.'"

manfromthezoo said...

The 'Withnail and I' screenplay of course from the fingers of the divine Bruce Robinson.

'The older order changeth giving way to the new and God fulfills himself in many ways and soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumour. My boys, we are at the end of an age. We live in a land of 'weather forecasts' and breakfasts that 'set in'. Shat on by Tories, shoveled up by Labour. Now, which of you is going to be a splendid fellow and go down to the Rolls for the rest of the wine?'

Portentous without being pretentious; poetic without being poncey. Tells us all we need to know about Monty's gently tortured, theatrical soul lost in a sea of impending modernity.

Lovely stuff.

manfromthezoo said...

I also rate Bill Lancaster's screenplay for John Carpenter's 'The Thing' (1982).

Even if you strip out the gloopy bits, the real dread is there in the frosty, sharp, and utterly believable vocal interchange behind those characters.

Tim Atack said...

Series 1 of The Wire; where McNulty and Bunk assess a crime scene, and as they collect evidence, communicate solely in a series of expletives.

Mutt said...

Withnail and I. Talk about a movie I have been meaning to watch for FOREVER.

As for favourite dialogue, here's a controversial specimen:
The Invasion was a movie with some truly baffling problems - however, there was this one scene about 25 minutes in, featuring these two old diplomats from different countries.

The dialogue had excellent pacing, clever exposition, tension, thematic summaries, subtext, conflict, humour and in one or two lines both introduced and endeared me to these two characters - something I haven't seen done so quickly or well for quite a while.

Of course, at that point I wasn't to know that those characters or that scene would amount to nothing... but it was good while it lasted.


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Kim H Peres said...

Good dialogue, to me, is ambiguous and bried. Anything too long or revealing of a character's motivations doesn't ring true to me.

Nobody says "Pass me the salt, Mom". They say "Mom!" and then point to the salt. But are they pointing at the salt or something else? Are you not allowed to have salt and hoping she forgets. "I was just pointing at the table cloth, mom... I really like it."

The key to me is brevity and plausible deniability.