Continuing my efforts to blog less about the profession of screenwriting and more about the craft, I thought I’d offer up some thoughts on dialogue. As with my earlier post on How to Write a Scene, this isn’t an exhaustive tutorial by any means. But it’s at least a guide for how I do it.

1. Listen to how actual people talk

We all watch movies and television, which is chock full of dialogue: good, bad and inane. One might think it helpful to listen to great actors speaking great words. It’s not. In fact, it will probably screw you up.

It’s like trying to paint landscapes based on how other artists paint landscapes. The best you can do is a crude approximation. In order to paint a great landscape, you need to get your butt out in the cornfield and paint what you see. There’s really no alternative.

Fortunately, the world is full of dialogue cornfields. Sitting at Fatburger for lunch, I eavesdropped on two engineers discussing fire door trim allowances, and two women in their 60’s clucking about how small the hamburgers were. Far more important than the content of the conversations was the flow, the back-and-forth. We tend to think of dialogue as a tennis volley, with the subject being hit back and forth between speakers. But when you really listen, you realize that people talk over each other constantly, and rarely finish a complete thought.

To get a sense of this flow, you need to stop paying attention to the actual words being spoken. It’s the auditory equivalent of un-focusing your eyes. Listen for which speaker is dominating the conversation, and how often the other party chimes in to acknowledge he’s still paying attention. (“Uh-huh.” “Yeah.” “Really?”) Questions are often not phrased as questions, and in real life, no one speaks with exclamation points.

How often should you eavesdrop? Pretty much constantly, with particular focus on finding interesting speakers. Some people are inherently funny, and if you soak up enough of their rhythms you can recreate them on the page fairly faithfully. But even the annoying woman ahead of you at the checkout line deserves a listen. You never know when she might come in handy.

2. Figure out the flow of your dialogue

Generally, before I put pen to paper, I let the scene loop in my head 10 or 40 times. Those first cycles are silent, but eventually characters begin to talk. Based on what needs to happen in the scene, it’s often pretty clear who’ll be saying what. But figuring out the flow — the how, the when, the why — takes time. You can rush it, but you’ll often end up with too many words in the wrong order. Or worse, you’ll end up with characters talking at each other rather than with each other.

So imagine watching your scene, but in a foreign language with the subtitles turned off. What does the talking feel like? What’s the emotion behind the words? Who’s in control? There’s a classic drama exercise in which actors have to stage a scene speaking only faux-Chinese. That’s what you’re looking for at this stage. Not the words, but the texture.

3. Pattern out the information

Conversations in real life are often empty (“these burgers are too small”), but movie conversations almost always involve an exchange of information (“the fingerprints don’t match” or “I’m not sure I ever loved you”). Your job as a writer is figuring out how your characters would tell each other the information.

Let’s say Bob needs to tell Mary that her dog has been eaten by a python. As the writer, you need to decide not only what facts Bob knows, but how he’s anticipating Mary will react to the news. This will determine not only how he starts the conversation (“Say, you were talking about how you wanted to get a new dog, right?”) but every subsequent decision along the way.

Of course, as the screenwriter you’re not solely interested in helping the characters convey information to each other; your primary focus is getting that information to the audience. The challenge is to do the latter while pretending to the former. So if it’s slipping a bit of exposition in a joke, or staging an altercation to reveal a piece of backstory, find a way.

Bad dialogue tends to spray out information in every direction, whereas smart dialogue sneaks the facts in while you’re otherwise entertained.

4. Write the scribble version

The scribble version is the very rough draft of a scene, devoid of formatting, punctuation and other garnishes. My scribble versions tend to be largely dialogue, with an emphasis on the overall flow rather than finding le mot juste.

5. Write the nice version

Once you have the blueprint for the scene, it’s time to go back and start worrying about getting each word right. Great dialogue has a melody to it, and achieving that is probably unteachable. But you can write pretty good dialogue simply by reading each line aloud, over and over, smoothing off the awkwardness through better words or a different composition.

Movie dialogue is how characters would speak if they had a few extra seconds to compose their thoughts between lines. It’s just slightly optimized. But it’s very easy to overshoot and end up in soap opera land. Keeping dialogue real but efficient is one of the hardest challenges in screenwriting.

6. Ask: Are characters listening, or just speaking?

Once you have the scene finished, take a look back and make sure your characters aren’t just speaking because it’s their turn. That’s a common problem, perpetuated (I believe) by the prevalence of exposition-heavy crime dramas.

  • Two campers found the body in a culvert five miles down river.
  • Toxicology shows arsenic in the well.
  • Looks like we got ourselves a serial killer.

While actors could probably pull this off as a conversation (with a lot of head nodding), it’s not hard to get Garman listening and responding:

  • Two campers found the body in a culvert five miles down river. Once we get the toxicology back…
  • Just came. Arsenic in the well.
  • Looks like we got ourselves a serial killer.

7. Ask: Is there a shorter version that works as well?

Many times, the best way to improve dialogue is to cut it. Once you’ve let a scene sit for a while, revisit it with a red pen and look for what could be cut. If a piece of information isn’t essential, it should probably go. And a joke isn’t worth it if you’ve had to break the scene to achieve it.