How To Write Great Dialogue
As some of you already know, I fancy myself to be pretty talented with writing dialogue, hence the name of this blog. There are three well-known screenwriters whom I believe to excel in the area of dialogue: Quentin Tarantino, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon. Writing great dialogue is an art form. It is often what is not said that says the most. These three have mastered that art form.
I’ve written a previous blog that talked about “on-the-nose” dialogue. This is when a character speaks exactly what is on his mind. There are times when this is appropriate. For instance in a comedy, but most times it makes for dull and lifeless scenes. Great writing consists of subtext and innuendo to create not only a more enjoyable read, but more enjoyable for a viewing audience. I’m going to pick scenes from each of these writers to give you an example of what I’m talking about.
Let’s start with Tarantino. This is the scene from Pulp Fiction where Mia and Vincent arrive back at Marcellus Wallace’s house after Mia has just received a shot of adrenaline after ODing on heroine. Vincent and Mia are making a deal not to let Marcellus know about the incident, then:
You still wanna hear my “FOX FORCE
Vincent turns around.
Sure, but I think I’m still a little
too petrified to laugh.
Uh-huh. You won’t laugh because it’s
not funny. But if you still wanna
hear it, I’ll tell it.
I can’t wait.
Three tomatoes are walking down the
street, a poppa tomato, a momma
tomato, and a little baby tomato.
The baby tomato is lagging behind
the poppa and momma tomato. The poppa
tomato gets mad, goes over to the
baby tomato and stamps on him –
(stamps on the ground)
– and says: catch up.
They both smile, but neither laugh.
See ya ’round, Vince.
Mia turns and walks inside her house.
CLOSEUP – VINCENT
After Mia walks inside. Vincent continues to look at where
she was. He brings his hands to his lips and blows her a
kiss. Then exits FRAME leaving it empty. WE HEAR his Malibu
START UP and DRIVE AWAY.
FADE TO BLACK
This interaction speaks volumes of their relationship. All Mia does is tell a stupid joke, but the subtext is, “I trust you. I’ve got your back, too.” But the dialogue that’s exchanged is much more entertaining than those two sentences.
Joss Whedon is more of a television writer than film, although he’s got a couple good films under his belt. Here’s a scene from the TV show FireFly in which Mal, the lead, takes on a favor for Inara, a professional companion and a woman with which Mal has had past relations. He still pines for her, and she for him, but they attempt to keep things professional. Inara is speaking with her friend when Mal walks into her room:
Inara touches the screen. Nandi’s image FREEZES there. Inara sits there
quietly contemplative for a beat. Then:
I suppose you heard most of that?
Mal appears, peaking around the corner at the entrance.
Only because I was eavesdropping.
(then, no bullshit)
Your friend sounds like she’s in a
peck of trouble.
She is. And there’s no authority on that
moon she can go to. They’re
Some men might take advantage of that.
And she’s lookin’ for someone to come
along and explain things to him?
That’s essentially it, yes.
A whole house full of companions…
How they fixed for payment?
They’re not companions.
Thought you didn’t much care for that
It applies. They’re not registered with the Guild.
If you agree to do this, you’ll be
compensated. I’ll see to it. I’ve
put a little aside…
You can keep your money. Won’t be
needing no payment.
Mal. Thank you. I’ll contact Nandi
(he smiles; she turns
But you will be paid. I feel it’s
important that we keep ours strictly a
Her back’s to him now, so she doesn’t see the stung look.
I’ll speak with the crew.
She never looks back. Off Mal, waiting a beat before he goes —
Those last few exchanges say volumes, but not because of the words they speak, because of their actions and reactions. You know exactly what is going through Mal’s mind when she turns her back. And you know exactly what why Inara doesn’t turn back around to look at him. The tension is palpable.
Lastly, we get an example from Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is a master at witty banter. He said in an interview once, “I can write pages of witty banter very quickly, then I realize I got 10 pages with no plot.”
This next scene is from The American President. Sydney is at her sister’s apartment. She has just gotten off of the phone with her friend Richard and they were discussing how Sydney had made a fool of herself earlier at the White House while speaking to the President about global warming. Richard is giving her a hard time and she has just hung up on him.
The TELEPHONE RINGS…
That’s gonna be Leo Solomon. He said
he’d call at nine.
SYDNEY picks up the phone–
Uh, hi, is this Sydney?
SYDNEY doesn’t recognize the voice–
No, this is Andrew Shepherd.
SYDNEY looks at BETH and rolls her eyes, then explains to
(back in the phone)
You’re hilarious, Richard. You’re a
And we CROSS-CUT between SYDNEY and SHEPHERD.
Uhh…this isn’t Richard, it’s Andrew
Oh, really. Well, I’m so glad you
called, because I forgot to tell
you today what a nice ass you have.
I’m also impressed that you were able
to get my phone number, considering
I don’t have a phone. Good night,
SYDNEY hangs up the phone.
INT. SHEPHERD’S PRIVATE OFFICE/THE RESIDENCE – NIGHT
as SHEPHERD, undaunted, dials the number again.
(under his breath)
This used to be easier.
INT. BETH’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
as the PHONE RINGS.
I don’t believe this.
You want me to deal with him?
No way. I may choke in front of
Shepherd, but Richard Reynolds I
She picks up the phone.
And we begin CROSS-CUTTING again between the two.
Are you learning-impaired?!
Listen, do me a favor. Hang up the
Hang up the phone. Then dial 456-1414.
When you get the White House operator,
give her your name and tell her you
want to speak to the President.
SHEPHERD hangs up.
INT. BETH’S APARTMENT – NIGHT
SYDNEY’s still holding the phone and seems a little
confused…an emotion which is about to be replaced by horror
as the unbelievable into the reality.
This isn’t happening to me.
What’s going on?
It’s not possible I did this twice in
The OPERATOR answers.
Good evening, the White House.
My name’s Sydney Ellen Wade. I’d
The President’s expecting your call,
ma’am. I’ll put you right through.
INT. SHEPHERD’S PRIVATE OFFICE/THE RESIDENCE – NIGHT
He’s just opened a bottle of beer when the phone rings.
He picks up the phone–
Mr. President, I’m sure there’s an
appropriate thing to say at this
moment. Probably some formal apology
for the nice-ass remark would be in
order. I just don’t quite know how
to word it.
It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have
called you at home. Should I call
you at the office tomorrow?
No, sir, of course not. I mean —
yes, you can call me anytime you want
— this is fine. Right now is fine.
When I said “of course not,” I meat
that…You know what? The hell with it
— I’m moving to another country.
What did you mean when you said you
don’t have a phone.
I just moved to Washington over the
weekend, and my apartment isn’t ready
yet. This is my sister’s apartment.
Come to think of it, how did you get
How did I get the number. That’s a
reasonable question. I don’t know.
Probably the FBI.
(trying to pretend
it’s just another
guy on the phone)
The FBI. Sure. ‘Cause i-if you want
to find someone and you’re the
president, that’s who you would call.
You know who else is good at that?
Well, yeah, but I was thinking of the
Internal Revenue Service. They have
computer files that…Well…I should
stop stalling. As I’m sure you know,
the French have elected themselves a
new president, and we’re having a formal
state dinner at the White House, and I
was wondering — and you’re under no
obligation at all — but I thought it
might be fun… I was wondering if you
maybe wanted to go…with me, and uh…
there it is. That’s why I was calling.
There’s a long silence on the phone.
Sydney? Sydney, Congress doesn’t
take this long to–
The President has asked me to join
him in representing our country.
I’m honored. I’m equal to the task.
And I won’t let you down, sir.
Sydney, this is just a dinner. We’re
not gonna be doing espionage or
No. Of course. I’m a little…uh…what
do I do? I, I mean, where do I go?
Should I meet you? Will you…
I’m gonna have a very nice woman
named Marsha Bridgeport call you.
She’s the White House Social Director,
and she’ll help you with anything you
want. Now when she calls you and tells
you her name is Marsha Bridgeport,
it’ll help if you give her the
benefit of the doubt.
I’ll see you Thursday night.
Mr. President, thank you for asking
- Really. This is a first for me.
They hang up.
That’s a great exchange. Sydney is a bundle of nerves because she feels like she’s insulted the President yet again. Of course she doesn’t say, “Oh, I’m so nervous. I feel like I’m saying all the wrong words.” Instead she tries to appear that she has her shit together, which comes off exactly the opposite. Subtext tells more of her emotional disarray than her saying exactly how she is feeling.
So there you go, several lengthy examples of great dialogue with subtext. It’s dialogue that tells more than honesty. It’s witty banter that keeps the audience and the reader entertained and engaged. You won’t write this kind of dialogue in your first draft. It may flow off the fingers every now and then, but don’t try to make it this good from the start. It’ll only slow you down. That’s what rewrites are for. Until next week, keep writing!