As we now know, good dialogue is the elusive dark matter of the scriptwriting galaxy. Which is why we asked Daniel Heath, winner of the 2007 Emerging Playwright Award, to share his dialogue-writing rocket science. Daniel has had short plays produced for the Playwrights' Center of San Francisco and is a member of the San Francisco Playground Writer's pool. He also sporadically maintains a blog at scratchfiction.com. Take it away, Daniel!
As we all know, nothing brings on the man-tears like achingly perfect dialogue. But how? I've written bales of lousy dialogue myself, so I have a few pointers:
1. Don't try to write dialogue the way people actually talk.
Listen to yourself talk for 10 seconds to hear what I mean. We use an astonishing amount of filler:
ME: Um, yeah, so, I'm, uh, like, [expletive], y'know...
Moreover, we spend most of our time not saying anything:
THEM: How are you?
US: I'm good. How are you?
AUDIENCE: Unnngh. (falls unconscious)
It may be true to life, but it's incredibly boring, and all it tells us is that neither person is paying any attention. A guideline: If the audience can guess almost exactly what the next line will be, write something better.
ZORA: I love you, Max.
MAX: I love you, too.
AUDIENCE: We hate this play! (they turn on each other and fight savagely)
Try this question: How could I write this in a way that tells the audience something about the character(s) speaking? You and your audience may learn something:
ZORA: I love you, um... it's Max, isn't it?
MAX: It's anything you want it to be if you've got 50 dollars in your pocket.
2. Avoid writing dialogue that no one would ever say.
Yeah, I know, I just told you not to write dialogue like people talk. Now I'm telling you to make sure you write dialogue that we can imagine a human saying. Yes, it's contradictory, but this is art—paradox is the vodka-and-Red-Bull of human creativity.
The first trick is to read your dialogue out loud. Characters should use each others' names very sparingly. Watch out for really big or archaic words, especially if you're not 100% sure what they mean. Try not to use awkward, formal phrasing unless you're doing it on purpose. And watch out for how long you let your characters speak—most of the time humans don't let each other go more than a clause or two before interrupting.
CLEO: Lupe, you look positively evanescent in that dress. And one more thing, Lupe, insofar as I consider myself to be your friend for all these long years, and find myself therefore beholden to the necessity to say to you that actually there is a fleck of some green matter, some parsley, I think right-- (points) There.
CLEO: Girl, you've got--
LUPE: I know. I put it there.
Yes, you can write stylized dialogue. Your characters can speak better or worse, more elliptically or more directly, than normal humans do. But on the one hand don't make it too flat and obvious, and on the other don't make it too outlandish and artificial.
3. When you use dialogue to convey factual information, make sure we don't notice.
The kids call this "As You Know, Bob," dialogue, and it goes something like this:
ZEKE: As you know, Bob, we're stuck in this here fuel-tanker rig heading down a mountainside and our brakes are shot. It's only a matter of time until we hit a turn we can't make and eight thousand gallons of unleaded go up like the Lord himself in all His glory.
When you thudding-ly inform us of things that the characters already know, you break the illusion of your script and bust us out of the an otherwise poignant moment. Be sneakier:
ZEKE: Wife and kids?
ZEKE: Ain't missing nothing.
BOB: You try them brakes again?
ZEKE: Been tryin'. No metal left to grind.
BOB: You reckon you're going to heaven?
ZEKE: Reckon if I am they'll have me driving a tanker truck there, too.
BOB: Don't need no gas in heaven. Everything runs on angel piss and sunshine.
ZEKE: Find out in a second here.
BOB: I told you to take it easy on them brakes.
4. If it's obvious, you don't have to spell it out. But if it's not obvious, you do.
When you're doing your job, your audience should usually understand how your characters are feeling at any given moment.
(IVAN slaps ANGELIQUE)
ANGELIQUE: Ouch! That hurt! You [expletive]! Why did you do that?
Give us credit; don't tell us what's obvious. We like that—it makes us feel smart. Instead, tell us something we didn't know about your character:
(IVAN slaps ANGELIQUE.)
ANGELIQUE: The last guy who did that is still scratching his stumps.
On the other hand, if you've got a character with a strange, hard-to-get psyche, then go ahead and lay it all out, precisely, in detail. You've heard the advice, "Show don't tell." It's very good advice most of the time, but sometimes you need to do both:
(IVAN slaps ANGELIQUE.)
ANGELIQUE: I kind of want to cut your hand off, but then I also kind of want to teach you to play Bach. I want to show you how to use your hands to bring joy into the world—joy for yourself. Joy for others. And then I'll probably cut if off anyway, but I feel like the Bach would be a really nice touch.
The same rule applies to stage directions—give the actors space, don't nag or micromanage (they'll just ignore you anyway). Take it easy on the exclamation marks. Take it easy on physical instructions. Try to make your dialogue strong enough to show them how to play the part the way you see it. But if you want something strange or counterintuitive, then lay it out clearly.
5. Your dialogue is meant to make your audience feel something.
Whatever the goal of your script, remember that you are trying to make people feel something. Keep in mind that emotions take time. Your characters are going to change during your story; give us space on the page to feel along with them. If you try to pack seven emotional reversals in a short speech, you're likely to shake us off. Let new emotions sink in, and once we're with you, take that seriously. If you're drowning cute animals and you get us all bummed out, don't expect us to be laughing at your jokes two lines later.
Your dialogue and your story are just tools to make your audience feel something—that's why the audience is sitting still for you. Given that, my final rule is more of an anti-rule: You can break every scriptwriting rule, every plot rule, every rule of basic human decency and hygiene, if it serves the emotional point you are trying to convey. Depending on the situation, sometimes dialogue that's absolutely wrong is absolutely right.