Why dialogue is so important (and how to make it sound natural)
Bad dialogue can make your day look like a life sentence on a desert island. Good dialogue will make your day.
Besides theater, even during the silent film era, good dialogue has always been essential. Dialogue helps establish your characters and settings. A character who is supposed to be aristocratic needs to sound like nobility, or the fancy clothes and luxurious accommodations will seem farcical.
Dialogue advances the plot, as telling the main character that she needs to rescue her friend is the simplest way to get her to do so. But too much dialogue makes for slow, dull watching. Dialogue is like speech, only concentrated and heightened. If speech is black pepper, good dialogue is a habanero pepper: so potent, you only need a tiny amount of it to heat things up.
Dialogue can't turn badly written plots or characters into better ones, but good dialogue can turn an indifferent story into a watchable one.
As you know, "less is more". Always.
If you can show it instead of having your characters talk about it, do so. Cut idle chatter. Unless your character is making a grand statement for a particular reason, shorten sentences. While dialogue is used to move the plot, establish character, evoke emotion or convey information, action should do most of this work.
The role that dialogue plays that action cannot is to establish conflict between characters, and conflict is essential to the plot.
Your main character's childhood can be shown in ways that don't require dialogue. The argument over who inherits the estate shows the audience the family pecking order, establishes character, and establishes motive for later nefarious deeds. And this argument need not express every emotion in words.
Give the actors something to do by having them say less than they are supposed to feel.
If they say everything that is supposed to be going on with the character, they are not acting. They are reciting, and people don't watch recitations. They watch acting.
Every character needs a distinctive voice.
As a writer, you need to be familiar with the concept of sonder— the realization that everyone lives a life as complex as your own.
Avoid the "disposable waitress" syndrome.Yes, you are writing a dialogue between your main character and a waitress. But to the waitress, the main character is probably just another customer, perhaps with slightly unusual demands or appearance.
She has a full life, complete with aspirations, hobbies, family traditions, and much more. Take advantage of this and instead of writing "WAITRESS" lines, make every word count letting her help propelling the story forward.
Every character you write needs to be unique. Perhaps your main character's buddy drops the occasional Yiddish word, as his family is Jewish — she can recognize that. Or maybe the waitress is taciturn while your main character is loquacious and this contrast can be exploited to add depth to the main character.
Dialogue is like speech, only much better, broken and mashed up.
Writing dialogue is your revenge against l'ésprit de l'éscalier. Make your characters wittier and bolder than people generally are in life.
After you've cut the idle chatter and created a distinctive voice for all your characters, they need to say things that draw people in, that will evoke strong emotion. Your villains need lines that send chills down the viewers' spines. Your hero needs phrases and monologues that will serve as rallying cries.
Your other characters need memorable quips and touching confessions. The audience needs to care about the characters and the story, and dialogue helps them do that.
People can't quote action. They can only describe it. But theater, movie and TV dialogue is often so quotable, that people who have never even heard of the film or play the quote originated from will use a line.
So, how to write good, memorable dialogue (even if not always as memorable as the examples above)?
- Good dialogue is sparse, distinguishes each character from another, and is often memorable.
- Bad dialogue does the work that action should, is overly long, and if you read the script with the names removed, you'd have a hard time sorting out which character is speaking.
- Bad dialogue is often like speech, with all of the mundane greetings, idle chatter, and other details that the audience doesn't care to hear.
Armed with these three basic rules we can push things a bit further and start looking at how to put on paper (or screen) our dialogue so that it doesn't sound fake.
How to write realistic dialogue
Listen to a conversation sometime. If you're on the bus, in a grocery store, or at the gym, you'll notice that often, more is meant than said.
Sometimes, this is due to the use of jargon, private jokes, or idioms that the conversants rely on each other to understand. But other times, of understanding more than what is actually said relies on context cues that your screenplay can provide via setting and action.
This keeps the dialogue tight and natural.
Grammar can be important for screenplays, but only up to a certain point. Actors and directors need to know what you mean, so your sentence structure needs to be clear enough to leave little room to wonder just what is meant. But as you've noticed from your listening, people don't speak with perfect grammar. They speak in fragments and may scramble sentence structure sometimes.
Check out this couple of lines:
Husband: You going to the store?
Wife: Yes. Need anything?
Husband: You know the soy things I like...
Wife: One pack or two?
Fragmented, broken dialogue. Doesn't mean much, nevertheless it works.
This kind of dialogue is perfectly natural, but has several sentence fragments and lacks an overall clarity.
While your dialogue should almost never be this dull, it should almost always be this natural.
The characters understand that "Need anything?" means "Do you need anything from the store that I plan to go to, or one nearby, that I can get for you?" And your audience will understand this as well.
They may or may not understand what the "soy things" are, if you haven't shown or mentioned them before, but it won't matter. People talk this way, so it makes sense.
The audience knows that this is a mundane exchange between a couple that knows each other's habits well. You can dig characters that speak that way because they sound real.
The dreaded, grammar nazi sanitized, dialogue
Now try to follow this exchange.
Mary: How are you faring today?
Sue: I am faring well, thank you. How are you today?
Mary: I am well. I like your dress. At which store did you buy it?
Sue: I bought this dress at Divine Boutique. They are having a sale. Would you like to go there with me to shop?
Mary: I would like to go to Divine Boutique with you.
I know, all you want now is to die. Meanwhile, the audience is rushing to the emergency exit.
These few lines of dialogue contains grammatically correct sentences and provides enough information that no context clues are needed to understand it.
Trouble is, this script is also completely unnatural. But that does not mean that there is no use for this level of formality, even if it will never, ever, be memorable.
Everything depends on the context. With a bit of imagination we can find a few examples where the above may not stick out as a sore thumb:
- Between people who are estranged or recently reconciled, such an exchange can highlight the uneasiness they feel upon meeting.
- Between a divorcing couple, the carefully composed, stiff interaction can be a sign of controlled resentment, lingering affection, or a combination of the two.
- At a formal event with someone that isn't used to attending them, their language might be overly formal and stiff. Played well, it may even become funny.
The take away here is that your dialogue has to sound natural for the characters in the situation they are experiencing.
Sentence fragments and colloquial phrasing lend just the right touch to dialogue between characters who are familiar with one another. Such casual language would likely be out of place if your character is a lawyer arguing a case. Unless, we are watching "My Cousin Vinny". Just trying to reiterate the importance of context.
"Talkers Attire": make your dialogue sound natural taking in account both the characters and the situation.
The formality of the dialogue you use helps set the mood. It lets the audience know just how well acquainted your characters are, how comfortable they are in the setting, and how formal the occasion is.
It is like a piece of scenery or a costume — characters can switch as they need to set a new scene. But they can only do so if you are aware of the power of the language you use. Write dialogue that works for your characters, and your characters will work for you.