Master Screenwriting: Dialogue

Master Screenwriting: Dialogue

Master screenwriting dialogue might seem like it should be flashy, stylish, or colorful. But dialogue that is self-consciously so is rarely effective. In examining dialogue from masters in the field, some surprising commonalities emerge that may be useful to screenwriters.

Here are five lines, picked at random, from acknowledged masters of screenwriting. Can you identify who the writers are?

“So that was Mrs. Lundegaard on the floor in there. And I guess that was your accomplice in the wood chipper. And those three people in Brainerd. And for what? For a little bit of money. There’s more to life than a little money, you know. Don't’cha know that? And here ya are, and it’s a beautiful day. Well, I just don’t understand it.”

“Politicians, ugly buildings and whores all get respectable if they last long enough.”

“You can’t trust Melanie, but you can trust Melanie to be Melanie.”

“If anything in this life is certain, if history’s taught us anything, it’s that you can kill anyone.”

“Hi, I’m Bob Woodward of The Washington Post and – what’s that? You’ve never heard of me? I can’t help that – you don’t believe I’m with the Post? What do you want me to do, shout, ‘extra extra’?”

(The Coen brothers, Robert Towne, Quentin Tarantino, Francis Ford Coppola and William Goldman are the writers.)

An immediate commonality is voice. These lines sound distinctive. You can pick out that different writers wrote the lines from the different films. The FARGO line above isn’t just about the “Minnesota nice”, but the themes of that film, and how those are expressed in dialogue. That could also be said of Robert Towne’s line from CHINATOWN about politicians, ugly buildings, and whores, and Coppola’s line from GODFATHER PART II.

William Goldman always had a great sense of humor, and that shows through in the line from ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN. Tarantino has a tendency to write verbose, playful dialogue, and that’s present in his line from JACKIE BROWN.

Towne and Tarantino’s lines are subtle. Coppola, Goldman and the Coens’ lines are direct, one could even argue they are on-the-nose, but artfully so. Worth pointing out here is that none of them are flashy or overwritten. They sound like things real people could say, albeit in some cases exceptionally eloquent people. This might be the simplest explanation of masterful dialogue – authentic-sounding words at a level of eloquence just slightly tilted up from reality.

How are you working to master your dialogue?

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