So how to write great dialogues?
First, dialogues should be a complement to the images, both in a screenplay and in a novel. The images should tell what has to be said, while the dialogues emerge as a tool for characterization, for example.
And second, dialogues should be real, but that doesn’t mean they should be pointless. Yes, we talk nonsense in real life and most of our dialogues in everyday life lead us nowhere. Good dialogue must sound unpretentious on the surface, but must also serve to push the plot forward. It needs to have a purpose in the story and needs meaning, even if that meaning is in the subtext.
To illustrate this, let’s talk about Quentin Tarantino.
Who is your character?
In the opening scene of Pulp Fiction, we have a man and a woman talking in a restaurant. Right away we know that they are two crooks, both for the performance of the actors and for the dialogues written by Tarantino. And it’s not only because of the discussion about robberies and the conclusion that restaurants are the best place to do this. The first lines of dialogue already tell us that they are two crooks.
Got it? We can say that they’re not two trustable people because of their style of speech. Of course in literature you won’t have the support of an actor’s performance, so the tone of your dialogues should match the descriptions that precede them (or succeed).
Use physical descriptions to demonstrate your character’s gestures while speaking and also give a hint of his voice tone. If someone talks too fast, we know that person is nervous. If they speak steadfastly and with their breast stooped, we know that there is an air of authority. And if they talk with a frown and lowered eyebrows, we know they might be sad. Notice how people talk around you, the gestures and expressions they make, and what emotions they evoke, so add those details to your story. Watching this in movies is also a valid tip.
Want one more tip to learn to describe the physical expressions of emotions? Look for books on body language. Write down the expressions that correspond to each emotion and then use them when writing a dialogue or simply describing the character.
But back to Pulp Fiction, I want you to see another scene:
Here, Vincent and Jules have a totally unpretentious conversation about hamburgers, fries and beer. It’s the kind of thing you could talk to your friend, for example.
At first, anyone who knows that dialogues should have purpose in the plot can point the finger and say that Tarantino “broke the rule.” However, the conversation does have a purpose in the plot.
Remember the two characters in the restaurant? As we knew from the dialogues that they were two crooks we should not trust, the fact that they start a robbery at the end only confirms our idea that they are, in fact, the two crooks we suspected.
Jules and Vincent, however, are also two crooks. Shortly after the Royale with Cheese scene, they invade an apartment and kill other people in search of Wallace’s suitcase. And when that happens we don’t feel that they are two crooks or that we should dislike them. Why?
Exactly, because of the casual conversation they had in that scene that supposedly had no purpose in the plot. Here it served as a tool to establish empathy between us and the two characters. Without this, if Tarantino had created for Jules and Vincent a scene like that of the restaurant, the scene of the apartment would be much stronger and would make us dislike the characters.
But besides the characterization that will define what we feel about the characters, there is another purpose for the casual dialogues:
Subtext: What does your character really mean?
People rarely say what they really think. If you buy a new shirt and ask someone about how you are, you’ll probably hear a “Nice!” When in fact they hated your new look and are thinking, “Oh my God, that’s horrible.”
In this case, “Cool!” is the text and “Oh my God, that’s horrible” is the subtext.
To make it even clearer, text is what your character is saying and subtext is what he really means.
The subtext is important to create tension and characterize your characters without being too direct.
The information will be between the lines and the reader will put the pieces together to form the puzzle.
The subtext can be both visual and verbal.
The visual will evoke a meaning in the reader’s mind through an image that you, again, will need to use your descriptive skills to narrate it clearly.
In Fight Club, David Fincher used the visual subtext through Starbucks cups. Every scene in the movie has a Starbucks cup, and it’s not for the simple fact that he thought it would be cool. Starbucks is a reference to consumerism in contemporary society, one of the main themes explored in Fight Club.
Use symbolic objects that represent the theme of your story.
Another way to use the visual subtext is through color.
Breaking Bad is my favorite example when it comes to color psychology. At first Walter White uses light colors, representing the still “fragile” man he is, but throughout the series, Walt’s color palette becomes dark and follows his transformation into someone ruthless.
The scene of Jane’s death shows us this perfectly.
In this scene the subtext and symbolism are not only in the dark colors that Walter wears, but also in the context. When he watches Jane dying while he does nothing, we realize how cruel and selfish he can be. Walt believes that Jane is a bad influence on Jesse and a consequent obstacle to his business, so when he watches her chocking to death without doing anything, the scene shows us the true nature of Walter White. He tells us nothing, but we deduce.
And that’s what the subtext is about: deduction. You create objects, dialogues and actions with a hidden idea behind, but it is up to the reader or viewer to say what it really means. They may have a different idea of what you meant, and that won’t be wrong at all. When you put a story in the world, it ceases to be yours.
But returning to Tarantino, another thing his dialogues are good at is the creation of atmosphere. Have you noticed the tension that his dialogues create in a scene?
Tension and comic relief.
Let’s talk about the opening scene of Inglourious Basterds.
It’s a long scene with almost no soundtrack in which the long dialogues are punctuated by silence. The Nazi Landa is on a dairy farm in search of Jews that Perrier is supposedly hiding. The two talk for a long time, while we know that the Jews are hiding in the basement, and this long conversation makes us anxious about the question: after all, is he going to find the Jews or not?
The dialogues can come before a revelation or a shocking scene to create suspense in the reader. Use long dialogues, but leave a clue saying that something is about to happen.
Likewise, in Django Unchained we have the dinner scene and the handshake scene, both done to create tension and show us, through the subtext of the conversations, that something will happen. Look:
The result of all the tension created in Django is this:
Imagine if this scene had not been preceded by the dinner scene and the handshake scene? Imagine if there was no subtext in those scenes to create tension and everything was a free gunfight in the greatest Michael Bay style possible? The scene would certainly not have ten percent of that impact.
The interesting thing is that in the same way that Tarantino creates all this tension, he’s also able to create comic relief.
In this scene from Django, what we have are racists looking for a black man and using terms like “Nigger.” In common situations, this would sound awkward to most people, but Tarantino does it differently and makes us laugh with the discussion about the bags.
Use the comic relief to break the negative effect that heavy scenes would have. I’m not telling you to use Peter Parker’s style of humor to break the tension of a scene with potential gore. That would sound stupid at best. But you can use black humor, for example, and achieve an effect very similar to what Tarantino gets in his films.
Thanks for reading!