I'm going to be brutally honest with you: My dialogue is okay.
It works. It gets the story across, it helps you recognize my characters, and it can be pretty damn sharp at times. But it's not Sorkin-esque. I'm not throwing out blistering one-liners every other page. It's always been my blind spot, and I work at it constantly.
My friend and writing partner, Sam, is a dialogue genius. And it drives me nuts.
I went to school for years to study the art of writing. I've been through workshops and seminars and writing groups. I've dedicated a majority of my life to finding and fixing the flaws in my craft. Sam is just naturally talented, and he puts in the hours.
It's infuriating. But, it is also why we are a great team. I can see the pieces fall into place, and know how to leave breadcrumbs from one plot point to the next. Sam breathes life into the characters, creating engaging and sympathetic heroes and villains. He also gets to the twist before me 2/3 of the time.
Anyway, today we're going to talk about Dialogue.
How to Write Dialogue
One of the first rules of dialogue is often the hardest:
Don't write the way people talk.
Watch any TV show or Movie (that has a Rotten Tomato score over 80%). You'll notice that, while the characters are very entertaining, the dialogue is almost nonsensical. No CSI in the history of the profession has ever delivered a scathing one-liner while simultaneously putting on/taking off sunglasses. No civilian consultant to the police has traded sexual jokes with a lead detective while inches from a dead body. No doctor has ever revealed deeply personal flaws in the middle of surgery because removing a kidney is the same as removing the burden of their father's alcoholism.
Dialogue is fake. It's phony. And that's why it works.
Think about the way you or I talk. There are awkward pauses, stutters, endless repetition, and probably a few chuckles that breakup a joke because we're already laughing. This doesn't translate well into dialogue for characters, though, in part because we just don't have time for that sort of tomfoolery.
Movie and TV shows have finite time limits. Get in, deliver the story, and get out. You can't spend twenty minutes discussing that thing you both forgot to do before lunch but anywhere where were we oh yeah the bear that's been haunting these woods is back.
Dialogue has to be entertaining, quick, and almost musical in rhythm.
Second, dialogue has to push the story forward.
You can build character with dialogue, and you absolutely should. However, you should not build the plot. Exposition-heavy dialogue comes across as flat and uninteresting. More than that, it's lazy, and we do not accept lazy writing here at FtW.
So how do you toe that line? How do you get across story elements while still building character? One option is to have two people fight.
A fight scene (with words, not fists) is a great way to get across a lot of story details while still maintaining character. People tend to wax a little poetic when they're tearing each other apart. Any raw emotion, such as anger, also allows a character to spill more than they intended.
Quiet moments after intense action are also great spots for a quick bit of exposition. In Saving Private Ryan, we finally learn the truth about Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) after a brutal assault sequence. It feels cathartic, a bit of peaceful talking after a gut-wrenching death. Most of all, it doesn't feel forced. Contrast this with any scene in a Transformers movie to understand the difference.
Dialogue builds character.
Dialogue isn't just about adding noise to a scene. Dialogue is the heart of the character. It reveals things about their upbringing, their history, their emotions. Most of all, it is more than just a character spouting what they think or feel. Often, it's what a character says in contrast to their actions that says the most.
A quick caveat: A character is what they DO, not what they SAY. Don't think that snappy dialogue excuses poor actions. More on that another time.
So how do we reveal things about a character without sounding hokey? Well, don't worry about hokey. Patti Jenkens, the rockstar director of Wonder Woman, went on a famously passionate rant about "cheesiness" in movies. There is nothing wrong with a little heart, or a lot, in any genre. In fact, every movie needs an emotional through line, or else why the hell are we here?
Again, I'm getting off track.
Think about M Bison (Raul Julia) in Street Fighter. Yeah, I'm bringing up that scene.
Chun Li (Ming-Na Wen) is in a room with the main villain, telling him why she hates him so. Apparently, he killed her father after being repelled from a raid. It's a pretty shoddy bit of writing, but the actors play it well. And then, out of nowhere, M-Bison drops this little bomb.
"For you, the day M-Bison graced your village was the most important day of your life. But for me, it was Tuesday."
Is it perfect? Nah. But within those two sentences we can see the machinery working inside Bison's head. He's ruthless, calculating, and without remorse. More than that, his indifference to Chun-Li's suffering and anger make him an even more diabolical villain, but without adding in mustache-twirling.
Now, in this particular film, the villain does become more cartoonish as the scenes progress. But in this one moment, Raul Julia added some humanity and darkness that was sorely needed.
It should be said that this movie is wholly terrible, but still enjoyable to watch with friends. The "so bad it's good" variety of film.
I digress. Geez, I'm a tangent machine today.
Anyway, dialogue is super important. Here are twenty examples.