Screenwriters spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about dialogue, and that’s because space is at a premium when you’re writing something that just HAS to come in under 110 pages. Because the way we format dialogue in screenplays, it just eats up the precious space, and so we always need to get across the maximum verbal effect with the minimum number of words.
Now this need to keep things concise is less a necessity in the world of novels, there are still a few pointers that can be gleaned from screenwriting.
First off, good dialogue needs to be Natural, Memorable, and Individualized.
As this section should connote, dialogue needs to be written the way people actually speak, taking into account their age, education, intelligence, time period, along with a thousand other facets. Because nothing throws a savvy reader out of the immersive world faster than anachronistic dialogue. I remember being horrified when someone pointed out to me that a character in my Wild West Horror screenplay responded with “whatever,” which is a modern phrase that I should have caught long before I showed it to anyone. That modern utterance completely ground the scene to a halt and gave the reader whiplash.
So take time period, age, intelligence and education into account when you’re speaking for your character. Because, as the author, you should always be speaking for the character rather than the character existing as a mouthpiece for the author to express your own thoughts!
Natural also means the use of contractions as well as grammatically incorrect sentences. Because we as humans don’t generally speak formally unless we’re specifically supposed to be speaking formally at that exact moment, which is something the author should be taking into account of in the scene. So always remember that, while it may be grammatically correct to write “Are you going to take out the trash or are you not?” someone speaking naturally would probably instead say “You going to take out the trash or not?”
Yeah, your high school teacher would probably count points off for that second sentence, but it’s a lot more believable for a character than the former example.
Now authors can go far too natural in their dialogue, and you can see it in screenplays when there are greetings like “Hello, how are you?” when two characters meet. Yes, most people usually greet each other in this manner, but because space is so valuable in screenplays, greetings should always be excised unless it can be put to use (which we’ll get to in a bit).
And too natural of dialogue also gets really boring over time, which is why dialogue also needs to be…
We go to movies and read books to be entertained, which is why good dialogue is witty and therefore memorable. Honestly, I bet nothing warms the screenwriter’s heart more than hearing two people walk out of their film quoting the lines to each other. Stuff like, “Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn,” or “I’m gonna to make him an offer he can’t refuse,” have entered our collective cultural lexicon because they were just So. Damn. Cool! And that type of iconic line is what you should be aiming for.
That said, an author can quickly become too quotable; so much so that every character in their story has the same similar idiosyncratic way of speaking. Tarantino, Smith, Sorkin and Cody all have specific verbal tics that extend to all their characters that become so overwhelmingly prevalent that it’s possible to pick out which person wrote it just by reading their words on a page.
Sorkin is probably the best example of this, and I can’t take a single word away from him, nor his Oscar for writing the way that he does. Hell, he even got a shoutout from 30 Rock as they mirrored his exceptionally memorable dialogue style. And while I will always envy him for that (and, you know, the Oscar and acclaim), it does definitely mean that all his characters all sound alike.
In my job reading coverages (over 3,400 to date!), one note I see all the time is that all the characters sound alike, so much so that it’s difficult for the reader to keep them straight via their individual voices. And this note should again remind the author to write dialogue that fits their characters rather than use them as personal mouthpieces.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about how I take personality tests as my characters so as to get into their heads. And I also pick out a few phrases for each, little verbal tics that are theirs alone. I also keep a very, very large spreadsheet full of dozens of different regional sayings and slang so as to try to incorporate what would be fitting for my characters’ personal backgrounds.
So the Natural, Memorable, and Individualized aspects of good dialogue sort of work as this Venn diagram, where the best dialogue sits dead center. And, ironically enough, the best screenwriters are the ones you probably don’t know by name, the ones who blend these three aspects so seamlessly that they disappear into their characters’ voices.
Or perhaps I’m just saying that so I don’t have to think of any examples. Because coming up with dialogue that fits all three criteria was harder than I thought. But I will bring up the opening scene to Avengers: Age of Ultron as a great example in their (somewhat fitting now that I think about it) joke about “language.”
Chances are you already knew what scene I was talking about, which means it’s Memorable. Also, the characters’ statements were all true to their backgrounds and personality types as they argue and tease in non-formal ways, so that passes the Individualized and Natural smell test as well.
And the fact it was hilarious didn’t hurt matters much either. Because, with all things you write, it should be entertaining to the audience, which I maintain will always be the case if you write your dialogue in that sweet spot dead center in the diagram.