Understanding The Art of Good Dialogue

Understanding The Art of Good Dialogue


Good dialogue strikes a nerve, usually in my spine. I’ll sit up taller or lean in closer to hear it better while my brain stores it away for later. Bad dialogue hits me in my gut, or slaps me in the forehead.

It’s tough to nail, this art of saying enough to move a scene forward but also reveal our characters’ personalities and desires. We run the risk of too much exposition. Being too vague. Too wooden. Tin-eared. On the nose. Just plain silly.

Listen to actors read a scene that’s a little off, and you’ll want to crawl under the couch, Nora Ephron once said. But when the right one nails it, “you'd go, ‘Oh my God, I am a genius! I am fantastic!’” 

Of course, actors love good writing as much as we do. Samuel L. Jackson, who frequently collaborates with writer-director Quentin Tarantino and stars in the upcoming The Hateful Eight (in limited release in December), said that he loves how Tarantino’s dialogue pops off the page. “It reads and performs like a play,” he said of The Hateful Eight. “All the parts are rich. All the people are interesting and fully formed. You know who they are and what they’re about, how they feel about each other, how they feel about a place and what their intentions are in terms of who they are in that film and what they’re doing to move that story on.” 

With that in mind, we thought we’d look to other wordsmiths for clues on how to craft our own memorable dialogue.

1. Find the rhythm

Aaron Sorkin, who wrote the screenplay for Steve Jobs (out in theaters) and Tarantino have distinct writing styles. So do Diablo Cody (Juno, Ricki and the Flash) and Carrie Fisher, best known onscreen as Princess Leia but a script doctor on such films as HookSister Act, and The Wedding Singer

Yet even when their characters are pitched at the same garrulous or biting level, they all have rhythm.

“I like it,” Tarantino once said. “I think that in my dialogue there’s a bit of whatever you would call it, a music or poetry, and the repetition of certain words helps give it a beat or a rhythm. It just happens and I just go with it, looking for the rhythm of the scene.” 

Ideally, each major character in a script should have a voice – or rhythm – that’s his or her own.

Writing coach Rick Horowitz says columnists can shape and change their voices through word choices, pace, structure, even punctuation. That advice also applies to screenwriters.

You can write 30 words that are turgid and 500 words that will have you hanging on every one, Horowitz says. String together clauses that tumble over another, and you’ll create a smooth, complex, legato rhythm. Use short bursts for a quick staccato. “I can give you 10 words that move like this,” he notes. “An alternative approach abides by identical restrictions, yet resonates differently.”

2. Create touchstones

Develop reference points for your characters, and their voices become clear – to the actors as well as the audience. Harrison Ford (pardon another Star Wars reference) told Entertainment Weekly that the 1977 original worked so well because of the characters’ interplay:  “There was a callow youth, a beautiful princess, a wise-old warrior, and there was a smart-ass.” 

A touchstone can be whatever works for you. William Goldman (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men) casts a film in his head to imagine how certain scenes and lines might play. ScreenwritingU.com suggests keeping three descriptive words for each character in mind while writing. Gina Prince-Bythewood explains that the Nina Simone song “Blackbird” guided her in writing 2014’s Beyond the Lights, particularly her protagonist, Noni (Gugu Mbatha-Raw). “[I]t really influenced the writing of it and the character, and the desire for this character Noni to want to emulate that truth and depth, but also to have a girl who has a very strained sense of identity.”

Even if you have only a handful of voices in your toolbox, you can use and refine them as Joss Whedon does, said Charlie Jane Anders, writing at iO9, “There’s always the stilted British person (Giles/Wesley/Adelle), the funny, quippy nerd (Xander/Topher/etc.) and the lost/crazy girl (River/Echo/Fred/etc.). And the amazing thing is — those characters are all wildly individual and have tons of depth.”

I can imagine Whedon referring to these thumbnail descriptions from 2012’s The Avengers: “Let’s do a head count here: Your brother, the demigod; a super soldier, a living legend who kind of lives up to the legend; a man with breathtaking anger-management issues; a couple of master assassins…”

All voiced by Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.), aka Iron Man, who describes himself as follows: “Genius, billionaire, playboy, philanthropist.”

Read the full article on TheScriptLab.com

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