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Writing Dialogue: Rethinking your Approach

Students often ask me "how do you write good dialogue?" My answer to them is usually along the lines of "what does good dialogue sound like?" "How do you know when you've written good dialogue?" Most people don't know what to say to that.

From me, good dialogue is functional dialogue. You can master your vocabulary skills and your poetic writing all you want, but if the dialogue doesn't serve a function within the scene or suit the character, it's pointless. People put far too much stock in dialogue as a screenwriting technique, and I see far too many screenwriting blogs and websites offering vague advice, or sometimes advice that is only specific to certain types of characters or situations.

The simple fact is, asking to learn how to write good dialogue is like asking to learn how a person speaks. It depends on the person and it depends on the situation.

A useful approach to writing dialogue is to think of it as action. The words that are spoken are the result of a choice to take action and speak because of events taking place around them in a very specific place and time in the film.

People forget that dialogue is an action and the choice to act and speak is equal to the choice not to speak and remain silent. We have no problem thinking of silence as an action, but not as much when it comes to speaking, which ironically, is a more complex action.

When you think about dialogue as an action, rather than a separate entity in the script, it becomes much easier to define whether or not what you are writing has merit. You stop thinking about whether or not your dialogue is good or bad, and start treating it like any other action - you start evaluating it based on its functionality, its practicality and what it says about the character in that moment.

People also forget that it is okay to have mundane dialogue in a story. In the same way that a character might pick up a ringing phone or check the cabinet for something to eat, a character might also comment on how its raining outside or the like. Sometimes you just need to tell the audience that its raining. It's not bad dialogue.

Since Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, people have been trying to emulate the distinct dialogue of a Tarantino film. Similarly, once Aaron Sorkin became a familiar name, people tried to emulate the rhythmic qualities of his dialogue in shows like The West Wing and films like The Social Network. The reality is that Sorkin's dialogue works in his films but it wouldn't translate into other stories. Likewise, the unique style of Tarantino's dialogue works precisely because he is the one directing it and it fits the flavour of his films.

You can emulate stories and structure all you want and succeed. But the dialogue is the one thing that has to come from the scene and the characters. It's unique to your story.

When we write action, we think about what is called for in that moment, we think how a character might act to achieve the goals of the scene and finally, we rewrite that scene to ensure that the action is the most interesting action the character can take to achieve their goal.

It's really no different when writing dialogue. You must ask yourself, does the moment call for a line of dialogue? Given the nature of the scene, how might the character respond in a way that achieves the goal of the scene? Finally, is this the most interesting response the character can give to achieve that goal?

And this doesn't even take into consideration the platform you are writing for. If you are writing for broadcast television, you might have to go dialogue heavy to compensate for that fact that there will be distractions in the environment. Not so much for cinema, which is primarily watched in silence.

I know this isn't a detailed workshop on dialogue writing, but I'll cover this subject more in future. For now, just rethinking how you consider dialogue within the overall screenwriting process can help writers to move past these uncertainties and think in more practical and logical terms.

Don't get hung up on the actual words - it's the intended meaning that is important. Just make sure it sounds right for the character.

(Image copyright: Sony Pictures)


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