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I’ve been on both sides of the screenwriting table in Hollywood. On one side, I’ve tried my hardest as a professional screenwriter to crack the many ghost codes—ghost codes as in they don’t exist—of writing a strong script. Concept. Structure. Pacing. Arc. Dialogue.
On the other side of the table, I’ve worked in Hollywood development as a studio script reader and story analyst. I’ve also read hundreds of more scripts through mentorships and as a competition reader and judge. All while trying to ingest the story and characters and see and hear them through my mind’s eye in cinematic fashion.
What has always stood out most in the scripts I’ve written and in those I’ve read is the dialogue—and the many variances.
You have high concept roller coaster ride scripts that use the dialogue to get through the exciting and sometimes harrowing sequences of action, mystery, thrills, scares, or hijinks. Where the dialogue merely works as a bridge to get you from one point to another.
You have period pieces that use the dialogue to place you into that frame of history by using the speech patterns of the time in question.
You have location scripts that use the dialogue to tell stories from different parts of the world—and sometimes beyond—by showcasing different languages, language barriers, or vernaculars.
You have small, quirky drama or comedy scripts that use the dialogue to convey the world, beliefs, and life perspectives of the characters.
And then you have variations of the above that utilize the dialogue as more of a stylistic choice where the dialogue becomes a bigger part of the script equation—taking on a larger role where the dialogue becomes a character of its own. Pulp Fiction, Juno, and Glengary Glen Ross are prime examples of this. And when many think of those types of films and the dialogue found within, the term naturalistic dialogue comes into play.
Naturalistic dialogue is a celebrated notion within the realms of screenwriting — the pursuit of creating dialogue that sounds real and organic. We’re meant to believe that when this type of dialogue occurs, the characters themselves feel more real and relatable for audiences. In short, many feel that this naturalistic approach is the answer to creating great dialogue.
Naturalistic dialogue is nothing more than an academic term. A label for something that really has no true definition. There is no such thing as realistic or naturalistic dialogue in film. It’s fiction.
Nobody talks like Juno.
Nobody talks like Vincent and Jules.
Nobody talks Alec Baldwin’s “Always Be Closing… f*** you, that’s my name” Blake.
Nobody talks like Alvy Singer and Annie Hall.
Nobody talks like Jesse and Céline.
At least not until after having heard them in the movie theater and felt a desire to emulate them for effect during exchanges with others.
There’s nothing natural about that type of dialogue. It’s cinematic poetry. And in poetry, there are many different types of styles and syntax.
One could argue that it’s less about how real people talk and more how real people would want to talk.
The old screenwriting go-to practice found in guru manuals and declarations is to go out into the world and just listen. “Then, and only then, will you find the dialogue you should be writing.” It is an absurd notion because if you were to record the average coffee shop discussion, the average bar atmosphere exchange between friends, or even the average moments between lovers on a date, you’d be playing back the audio file only to transcribe what would read as often disturbing and confusing gibberish.
We’re human. And human communication is odd when the words are not predetermined through a script, social media post, article, or written speech. While actually speaking, we interrupt each other. We pause. We redirect. We go off on tangents. We add an annoying amount of ums and ahs and likes. We lose track of what we were saying. We get nervous and stop or mutter on and on and on.
Go ahead and try to transfer that type of speech into your script’s dialogue and I can promise—as a former studio reader—that the script will not only be closed shut in frustration before Act I, but violently so.
Dialogue is written to tell a story and to convey various reactions and emotions. And it is also meant to convey information, whether we screenwriters want to admit it or not. There’s no such thing as naturalistic dialogue in a screenplay. It doesn’t and shouldn’t exist within.
But that doesn’t mean there’s no place for it within the final product. The best example of what some people would “label” as naturalistic dialogue can be found in the brilliant series Friday Night Lights. The way Executive Producer and sometimes Director Peter Berg created this television show and the way the episodes were produced was brilliant—and at the time unique.
Berg let his actors make the characters come to life. There was a script, but much of the time, the actors were given the scenario and the goals of the characters, but with little dialogue to truly follow. Instead, they’d take those scene notes and improvise their own dialogue while telling the story that needs to be told.
“We encourage them to improvise and make the dialogue their own, change things. We don’t call them scripts. We tend to call them vague guidelines,” Berg told NPR.
So perhaps what some call realistic or naturalistic dialogue is less about what is found in the actual screenplay and more about how it is eventually interpreted and performed by the actor.
Can it be written that way? Only to a certain degree.
The key to attempting that would be found not in the actual words, but the structure of how the dialogue is portrayed in a screenplay. Pauses, interruptions, fragments, characters finishing each other’s sentences, characters dismissing what the other is saying by interrupting, and the power struggles in a conversation — these are ways to create a better flow of dialogue for the reader and the audience to get through. As long as the screenwriter doesn’t make the mistake of putting that as a priority over what we just stated that dialogue in a screenplay was there for — to tell a story, to share emotions, and to convey necessary information to keep the story and characters moving forward.
The real idiosyncrasies of “real” speech mentioned above need to be discarded.
So, What’s the Big Secret to Great Dialogue?
Every great quest leads to a hidden secret revealed. In this quest for the secret of writing great dialogue, we offer two keys.
The first key to unlocking the mysteries of writing great dialogue is lack of dialogue.
Actions speak louder than words. Ironically, when we’re told to search the world around us for realistic dialogue, we quickly realize that if we are truly going to convey realistic communication, we must realize that we learn the emotions of others not by direct language exchange, but by our outward actions and reactions.
If someone is angry, more often than not they don’t outright say, “I’m angry and this is why…” No. They sulk. They look away. They shake their head. They retreat. They rage out.
If someone is sad, they don’t say, “I’m sad and this is why…” No. They sulk. They stare down to the ground, silent. They have tears in their eyes. They weep. They sob. They run away.
There is nothing worse than reading or hearing on-the-nose dialogue that shoves meaning down the audience’s ears.
Lack of dialogue is often your best best. For the screenwriter trying to pepper their script with great dialogue, the best practice is less about injecting those great one-liners and speeches and more about cutting and cutting and cutting every line of dialogue that you can until you find that great one-liner, fragment, or phrase hiding amidst the noise—that diamond in the rough that encapsulates the moment at the core.
The second and final key to unlocking the secret of writing great dialogue is to understand that there is no secret. There is no one final answer. And the moment you the screenwriter realizes that will be the moment that you’ll feel a heavy weight lifted from your shoulders.
Each script is its own entity. Guidelines and industry expectations surely exist, but there are no rules that can apply to each and every screenplay.
Some scripts require expositional dialogue—others would suffer from it.
Some scripts require the added touch of stylistic dialogue—others don’t need it.
Some scripts require no dialogue, letting actions speak louder than words (Dunkirk, The Road)—others would benefit from it.
The secret to great dialogue is unlocked by focusing on lack of dialogue to find those gems—or not find them when you don’t need them—and then understanding that there is no secret, releasing you from the burden of finding one.
Many books have been written, many declarations have been made, and many seminars, webinars, and videos have all attempted to tackle this subject. But having been on both sides of the screenwriting table, I’m convinced that the screenwriter should focus less on what has come before and more on what their particular scripts call for when it comes to dialogue. MM
This post originally appeared on the blog ScreenCraft. ScreenCraft is dedicated to helping screenwriters and filmmakers succeed through educational events, screenwriting competitions and the annual ScreenCraft Screenwriting Fellowship program, connecting screenwriters with agents, managers and Hollywood producers. Follow ScreenCraft on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube.