Skip to content

How To Write Great Dialogue

March 15, 2016

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:

 

                                               MIA

You still wanna hear my “FOX FORCE

FIVE” joke?

 

Vincent turns around.

 

                                     VINCENT

Sure, but I think I’m still a little

too petrified to laugh.

 

                                     MIA

Uh-huh. You won’t laugh because it’s

not funny. But if you still wanna

hear it, I’ll tell it.

 

                                    VINCENT

I can’t wait.

 

                                     MIA

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.

 

                                     MIA

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:

 

INARA (cont’d)

I suppose you heard most of that?

 

Mal appears, peaking around the corner at the entrance.

 

MAL

Only because I was eavesdropping.

(then, no bullshit)

Your friend sounds like she’s in a

peck of trouble.

 

INARA

She is. And there’s no authority on that

moon she can go to. They’re

totally alone.

 

MAL

Some men might take advantage of that.

 

INARA

One man.

 

MAL

And she’s lookin’ for someone to come

along and explain things to him?

 

INARA

That’s essentially it, yes.

 

MAL

A whole house full of companions…

How they fixed for payment?

 

INARA

They’re not companions.

(then)

They’re whores.

 

MAL

Thought you didn’t much care for that

word?

 

INARA

It applies. They’re not registered with the Guild.

They’re —

 

MAL

— independent?

 

INARA

Yes.

(then)

If you agree to do this, you’ll be

compensated. I’ll see to it. I’ve

put a little aside…

 

MAL

You can keep your money. Won’t be

needing no payment.

 

INARA

Mal. Thank you. I’ll contact Nandi

at once.

(he smiles; she turns

away)

But you will be paid. I feel it’s

important that we keep ours strictly a

business arrangement.

 

Her back’s to him now, so she doesn’t see the stung look.

 

MAL

I’ll speak with the crew.

 

INARA

Good.

 

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…

 

                                                SYDNEY

That’s gonna be Leo Solomon. He said

he’d call at nine.

 

SYDNEY picks up the phone–

 

                                                SYDNEY

(continuing;

into phone)

Hello?

 

                                                SHEPHERD

Uh, hi, is this Sydney?

 

SYDNEY doesn’t recognize the voice–

 

                                                SYDNEY

(into phone)

Leo?

 

                                                PHONE VOICE

No, this is Andrew Shepherd.

 

SYDNEY looks at BETH and rolls her eyes, then explains to

her–

 

                                                SYDNEY

Andrew Shepherd.

(back in the phone)

You’re hilarious, Richard. You’re a

regular riot.

 

And we CROSS-CUT between SYDNEY and SHEPHERD.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

Uhh…this isn’t Richard, it’s Andrew

Shepherd.

 

                                                SYDNEY

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,

Richard.

 

SYDNEY hangs up the phone.

 

 

            INT. SHEPHERD’S PRIVATE OFFICE/THE RESIDENCE – NIGHT

 

as SHEPHERD, undaunted, dials the number again.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

(under his breath)

This used to be easier.

 

 

INT. BETH’S APARTMENT – NIGHT

 

as the PHONE RINGS.

 

                                                SYDNEY

I don’t believe this.

 

                                                BETH

You want me to deal with him?

 

                                                SYDNEY

No way. I may choke in front of

Shepherd, but Richard Reynolds I

can handle.

 

She picks up the phone.

 

                                                SYDNEY

(continuing)

Hello?

 

And we begin CROSS-CUTTING again between the two.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

Sydney?

 

                                                SYDNEY

Are you learning-impaired?!

 

                                                SHEPHERD

Listen, do me a favor. Hang up the

phone.

 

                                                SYDNEY

(beat)

What?

 

                                                SHEPHERD

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.

 

                                                             CUT TO:

 

            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.

 

                                                SYDNEY

(to herself)

This isn’t happening to me.

 

She dials.

 

                                                BETH

What’s going on?

 

                                                SYDNEY

(to herself)

It’s not possible I did this twice in

one day.

 

The OPERATOR answers.

 

                                                OPERATOR

(filtered)

Good evening, the White House.

 

SYDNEY swallows.

 

                                                OPERATOR

(continuing; filtered)

Hello?

 

                                                SYDNEY

(quietly)

My name’s Sydney Ellen Wade. I’d

like to–

 

                                                OPERATOR (O.S.)

(filtered)

The President’s expecting your call,

ma’am. I’ll put you right through.

 

                                                           CUT TO:

 

            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–

 

                                                SHEPHERD

Hello.

 

                                                SYDNEY

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.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have

called you at home. Should I call

you at the office tomorrow?

 

                                                SYDNEY

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.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

(smiling)

What did you mean when you said you

don’t have a phone.

 

                                                SYDNEY

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

this number?

 

                                                SHEPHERD

(beat)

How did I get the number. That’s a

reasonable question. I don’t know.

Probably the FBI.

 

                                                SYDNEY

(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.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

You know who else is good at that?

 

                                                SYDNEY

The C.I.A.?

 

                                                SHEPHERD

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.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

(continuing)

Sydney? Sydney, Congress doesn’t

take this long to–

 

                                                SYDNEY

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.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

(beat)

Sydney, this is just a dinner. We’re

not gonna be doing espionage or

anything.

 

                                                SYDNEY

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…

 

                                                SHEPHERD

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.

 

                                                SYDNEY

Of course.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

I’ll see you Thursday night.

 

                                                SYDNEY

Mr. President, thank you for asking

  1. Really. This is a first for me.

 

                                                SHEPHERD

Me too.

 

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!

Advertisements
2 Comments
  1. Great points. I saw Pulp Fiction 7 times at the theater, one of my favourites. I stumbled upon Firefly on Netflix and loved it also. Watched the series and the film twice!

    Like

  2. I love witty banter (Sydney-Andrew dialogue). I’ve never seen the show. I’ll have to check it out. Thanks for the reminder of writing good dialogue.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: