No matter what you’re working on—screenplay, novel, graphic novel, theatrical play—every writer knows good dialogue is critical to their success. If you Google some variation of “how to write great dialogue,” millions of results show up. Over the years, I’ve checked out enough of these articles, webinars, and podcasts to say without a doubt that most of the “rules” they put forth are too vague—dialogue should sound natural—to be much help.
So, I’m going to ditch the generalizations and provide a few specific, actionable examples. But first, a caveat: writing dialogue is a vast topic, way too big for any one article. My goal here is to provide a tool or two that you might use to make your dialogue better. Or much better. Or maybe even explosive. Which might energize your script in unexpected ways.
Question is, what’s explosive dialogue? Do you need Kevlar? A helmet? Goggles? Probably not. In a nutshell, explosive dialogue is dialogue that works on at least two levels. In a simple Q&A exchange, the answer not only provides the requested information (level one), but it does so in a way that also sets off a series of additional questions and/or possibilities (level two).
Here’s an example of dialogue that works on just one level:
IMPRESSED COWBOY: This your car?
CORPORAL WATSON: No, it belongs to my uncle.
Watson’s answer is fine. It works. Conveys the info. Ho. Hum. As a writer, you might even tell yourself that sometimes you just gotta suck it up and go with basic exposition, despite the risk of putting the reader to sleep. But what if the exchange went like this:
IMPRESSED COWBOY: This your car?
CORPORAL WATSON: It is tonight.
It is tonight. For me, this answer explodes into multiple questions, multiple possibilities: What’s going on tonight? Why is tonight special? What happened to Watson’s car? Does Watson even have a car? Why does Watson need this particular car? Who is Watson trying to impress? Why? Did Watson steal it? Wow. There are so many directions this level-two answer could take us.
This being said, getting back on track, explosive dialogue doesn’t have to be a Q&A. A simple declarative sentence can set things off. Let’s say we’re in a diner, and one guy slides into a booth and startles the guy who’s already there into choking on his fries.
CHOKING PHIL: I didn’t know you got paroled.
JACKSON: I didn’t.
Whoa. Jackson’s out, and he didn’t get paroled. How did this happen? A secret deal with the DA? Are the police chasing him? Why did Jackson find Phil? What’s their relationship? Does Jackson have some leverage over Phil that he can exploit? Is Jackson gonna force Phil to help him get revenge? Or maybe help him find the child he’s never met? So many possibilities.
And when you consider that Choking Phil’s short statement also reveals that he knows someone who’s in jail, it draws some attention to Phil’s story. Was he Jackson’s attorney? His brother-in-law? A victim? Again, many possibilities. I’d say this dialogue is working hard, doing its job. It’s explosive.
Before I hit you with more examples, I’d like to step back and discuss two overriding aspects of dialogue I always keep in mind as I work.
First, if you turn off the sound, i.e. the dialogue, the visuals should still tell your story. This is so important to writing good dialogue that it deserves to be on a card on your bulletin board … or at least in caps on its own line:
IF YOU TURN OFF THE SOUND, THE VISUALS SHOULD STILL TELL YOUR STORY.
At this point, I can hear grumbles, loud objections: my film isn’t made! It’s a script! How can I turn off the sound?
Since most of us “see” the film in our heads as we write, I believe we can also turn off the sound in our heads. I’d suggest a dialogue eval pass. As you move through the script, challenge every bit of dialogue. Does it add anything? Does it deserve to be there? Can it be condensed? Made more explosive?
When you do a dialogue eval, you’ve gotta be ruthless. Don’t let a nice turn of phrase lure you into keeping something that really should go.
My rule is, “When in doubt, throw it out.”
But cutting isn’t your only option. After all, at one point you felt the info conveyed was important enough to put into the script. So, assuming you still believe that, maybe you could replace some dialogue (words) with actions (visuals).
Think of yourself as a translator.
A translator? Yes. But don’t overdo it. Young writers—by young I mean folks new to writing, not any chronological age—often struggle as they translate dialogue like “You hurt me so bad” into a visual. They end up with description like “waves of pain move across her anguished face,” and we find ourselves perilously close to bad fiction.
Your goal here is to come up with a memorable image that conveys your meaning without drawing attention to itself. (An instructor once told me, “Your writing is showing.”)
Fortunately, writers aren’t alone in solving this dilemma. You’ve got allies. Collaborators. Trained co-translators with a wide range of experiences. You’ve got actors! So …
LET THE ACTORS ACT.
Rather than agonize over how to translate “You hurt me so bad” into a visual, why not provide the set-up and let the actor act? If you replace the “hurt me” dialogue with “Shekila reacts,” you not only get a visual you also open the script up to the actor’s interpretation of the scene. Which might take you someplace wonderful that you never expected.
But even though letting actors act is the second overriding aspect to keep in mind when writing dialogue, you don’t want to overuse this technique. Think of it as a way to provide variety.
Now, let’s get back to making dialogue more explosive.
Sometimes a simple, straightforward sentence can be loaded with explosive meaning. This line by John Gatins is from the film Flight:
NICOLE: I’m pretty sure my father lives in Colorado.
Pretty sure? Only pretty sure? For me, this short qualifier opens up a proverbial can of worms about the state of Nicole’s relationship with her dad. They’re estranged. Why? For how long? Where does she live? Etc. Etc. Explosive, right?
Unfortunately, I can’t remember who wrote the next bit of dialogue, but I can definitely feel my emotions exploding as I read it:
“She held it together for so long I couldn’t tell how sick she was. Even through chemo, she looked beautiful.”
Obviously, there’s a host of questions and possibilities contained in these two sentences. You don’t need me to point them out.
So, I’ll close with a line that triggers an action that’s used as explosive dialogue:
SETH: You still love me, don’t you?
Kyleigh walks to the window, watches the trash men hoist dented barrels into their truck.
Or that same line could trigger an explosive jump into the next scene:
SETH: You still love me, don’t you?
EXT. CRUISE SHIP – STERN RAIL – NIGHT
And off we sail into a sea of possibilities …
*Feature image by Kateryna Kovarzh