10 Truths About Awesome Dialogue
By Jacob Krueger
Over the next several months, I’m going to be discussing many of the myths that get in the way of great dialogue, and exploring some of the truths that can help set you on the path toward the dialogue you’ve always wanted to write.
TRUTH #1: JUST BECAUSE YOUR CHARACTER SAYS SOMETHING DOESN’T MAKE IT DIALOGUE
Dialogue can be one of the most daunting aspects of writing for many screenwriters. It’s easy to become so obsessed with how an audience is perceiving your dialogue (is it believable, memorable, original, unique to our characters, realistic and compelling enough to captivate an audience) that you entirely forget to ask the most important questions:
What is dialogue? And what is it supposed to do in your screenplay?
I’m about to say something radical: just because your character SAYS something doesn’t make it dialogue. Real dialogue, good dialogue (and the kind of dialogue you actually want in your screenplay) is distinguished from all the other stuff your character says by one simple quality…
Dialogue is just another way of getting what a character wants.
Your characters are just like you. When they talk, they’re doing it for a reason, whether they are conscious of that reason or not. There’s no such thing as “just talk” in movies, or in life. And though that idea may seem counterintuitive at first, think about a recent social situation where you were “just talking” and you’ll probably be surprised to realize how many hidden wants were happening just under the surface, things you were trying to get from the person you were talking to: approval, congratulations, laughs, sympathy, compassion, protection, encouragement, excitement, thrills, sex, status, a free drink, a friendly smile. And guess what? The person you were “just talking” with had a similar symphony of wants playing in their mind, the whole time they were talking to you, adding complex, barely perceptible conflicts to the scene that infused it with a certain feeling, and a certain reality.
When dialogue gets separated from the wants that motivate it, it’s almost impossible to make it feel authentic.
The reason most writers have such a hard time writing dialogue is because what they’re really trying to write is not dialogue, but simply talk.
Rather than listening to the complex symphony of their character’s wants, writers find themselves obsessing over the characters individual words and the way they’ll be perceived by an audience.
When you write dialogue in this way, there’s no drive or structure to it. Your dialogue isn’t actually doing anything. And more importantly, it’s not reflecting anything in the real world. That means the burden falls upon you, as the writer, to turn in the perfect virtuoso performance, in order to pass off a false product as a real one. And even if you succeed, unless you have a marvelous gift, you’re going to have to work your butt off for every word. It’s like attending a concert at Carnegie Hall and listening only to a single violin. No matter how well executed the performance may be, it can’t help but sound a little tinny and false when divorced from the broader context of the symphony. And heaven forbid a single chord be misplayed or a mistake be made in this context. Rather than being absorbed, or providing an interesting complement to the larger soundscape, it suddenly becomes an object of fixation for the writer, cutting them off from their creative impulses and from their natural talents.
Once you learn that your characters are using their words to get something from another character, the character starts to do most of the heavy lifting for you.
Rather than fixating on the words of the character (and your fear of being judged for how you write them), you can instead allow yourself to tap into the complex symphony of your character’s desires, allowing yourself to play around with the different ways your character can use their words to get what they want, in ways that are unique to that character.
Now, when you first set out to write a scene, the words themselves no longer need to be perfect, because you’re building around the deeper intentions that drive them, following your instincts and listening to the instincts of your character, focusing on what the characters are doing with their words, rather than what they are saying. As you then work into later drafts, it becomes much easier to hone and refine your dialogue, and to separate the lines you need (the ones that pursue a want in a way that’s unique to that character) from the ones you don’t.
Tap into the symphony, without micromanaging the conductor!
It’s important to remember that just like you, your character may not always be consciously aware of their wants. And if you get super literal about analyzing every want before you even start to write, you may find that it’s just as much of an impediment to your writing as not thinking about the want at all. Instead, I’d encourage you to keep your characters’ big wants (or at least the ones they are consciously aware of in the scene) somewhere in the back of your mind. And then allow yourself to play, enjoying the different tactics they use as they attempt to achieve those wants, and allowing your subconscious impulses to guide you. You can then work back into the dialogue you have written, eliminating dialogue that doesn’t relate to the character’s desire, and getting more specific with the dialogue that does.
Stay tuned for the next article in this series, in which I’ll be discussing Truth #2 About Awesome Dialogue, and how understanding it can help you capture the voices of your characters, and discover your voice as a writer. And remember, my next Write Your Screenplay Workshop starts up soon both in NYC and Live ONLINE.