Writing About Writing: Let’s Talk About Dialogue

I have a soft spot for dialogue. There. I said it.

It’s a screenwriting sin, I know. You’re not supposed to write too much dialogue. It’s maybe the one note every screenwriter has heard: “Less dialogue. More action.”

Or maybe it’s just a note I hear time and time again because I have a soft spot for dialogue and write too much of it. The world may never know.

However, I would like to stand up for dialogue. Personally, I think the problem is not that dialogue is inherently bad, it’s that too many people write bad dialogue. What’s worse, too many people would rather just avoid dialogue altogether than learn to do it better.

There’s a difference between dialogue used as a means of lazy exposition when there’s a better way to convey the same information and dialogue that is entertaining in its own right. This is also true of monologues. For example Francis Underwood in House of Cards arguably conveys WAYY too much info through fourth wall breaks, but at least his copy is interesting. It goes beyond a simple “and then this happened.”

Whatever happened to style? Whatever happened to letting your interesting thoughts out through your characters? Now don’t get me wrong, story structure is hella important. But I’m also skeptical of statements like “Every last second of your screenplay needs to serve your story’s purpose!” Or “It’s all about structure! That’s what makes or breaks you!” Because as important as structure is, it’s also not the only tool in your tool belt. Dialogue is another one, and dialogue can do things story alone cannot.

Mean Girls is a great example of how wonderful dialogue can turn an otherwise typical teen movie into a classic that is still quoted regularly almost 15 years later.

– “Four for you Glen Coco! You Go Glen Coco!”
– “On Wednesdays we wear pink”
– “On October 3rd, he asked what we day it is.”

What do these have in common? Absolutely all of them could be deleted from the script entirely without having any impact on the story. Yet lines like these delivered in just the right way are what secured Mean Girls the legacy it has today.

I already wrote a blog post exploring how to make dialogue heavy scripts work if you are in fact planning to use dialogue as a means of story exposition and I’ll link that here. Today, I’d like to talk about how to write dialogue that actually enhances your script’s overall entertainment value. Let’s go over questions you should ask yourself:

Is this something a normal person would actually say? 

Most of us don’t just go around telling people random facts about ourselves, the time period, or our location. That’s why sometimes it seems really odd when writers try to use dialogue to reveal too much character information. However, there’s other things people talk about in their day-to-day lives that can reveal this information in a more entertaining way. For example, two lawyers living in Manhattan probably wouldn’t randomly say “That’s what being a lawyer in New York City is like!” But they might make disparaging remarks about delays in the subway system, or make fun of lawyers from Staten Island or New Jersey.  The audience can learn the same information but in a way that involves a joke.

Can I create a situation in which this awesome thought WOULD be normal to say? 

So as important as the first question is, it’s also important to remember that this is writing, so “normal” is all relative. If you’re creating a new world and you need dialogue to help explain it, write in a character who’s new to that world so it makes a little more sense for other characters to explain it. The Good Place does this quite well. There’s often dialogue about interesting ethical debates of philosophy that normal people would never have, but the writers created a world and a set of circumstances where it would make sense for the characters to have these discussions.

Is this dialogue building the character I want? 

Sometimes dialogue that does absolutely nothing for the story in general is imperative for a specific type of character. One of my favorite movies of all time is Accepted, the one where Justin Long and Jonah Hill make up a fake college together. One supporting character is Glenn, who just says random nonsensical things throughout the movie. He is a comic relief character who enhances the entertainment value of the story despite the fact that almost nothing he says really advances the plot all that much.

Is this thing I want my character to say actually as entertaining as I think it is? 

Look, I get it. You’re a writer. You like words. I do too. This is a hard pill to swallow, but sometimes we just aren’t as interesting as we think we are. That’s why it’s so important to let people you trust read your work and give you notes. Sometimes when we think we’ve come up with something amazingly interesting that our script just can’t live without, it’s really just us being self righteous and annoying. Always be open to the “this is too much dialogue” note because too much dialogue can ruin scripts. However, the only way to get better at writing good dialogue is to at least try. Taking the “keep your dialogue to a minimum” people too seriously may just result in you not developing the ability to write GOOD dialogue, and that would be a travesty.

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