Writing Good Dialogue: How Human Beings Talk

bad dialogue, good dialogue, on-the-nose dialogue -

Writing Good Dialogue: How Human Beings Talk

Arguably the most consistent note that shows up in the script coverage for screenplays from newer screenwriters is an abundance of on-the-nose dialogue. It’s this bizarre thing that happens where we all know how human beings speak, but it is so tempting to just let them say what they mean.

This is the plainest difference between “good dialogue” and “bad dialogue.” It seems subjective, though, right? When it comes to on-the-nose dialogue, it isn’t really. The simple litmus test for this is, “Are your characters saying what they mean?” If the answer is yes, that’s on-the-nose dialogue.

Let’s run through an example. Two characters discuss an engagement of their mutual friend. One character is in favor of it. The other character isn’t. Why wouldn’t they just say that out loud, in plain terms?

“Did you hear Bobby got engaged?”
“Yeah, what a disaster.”
“Why? I like her.”
“This is going to be a mess.”

Okay, that’s a straightforward exchange. There’s no subtext. Both parties say what they mean. Now let’s try it without either person saying what they mean.

“Did you hear Bobby got engaged?”
“Oh, yeah.”
“What?”
“That was… unexpected.”
“She’s good for him.”
“Is he good for her?”
“I’m taking him out to celebrate. You coming?”
“Maybe.”

Alright, now things are messy, which is a positive. Notice how by forcing the characters to allude to what they mean instead of saying it out loud, there are all sorts of juicy motive implications in the scene?

Does one friend object? Do they both? Why does either party object? Now as the screenwriter, you must find answers to those questions. And this approach winds up better approximating real life. The reason we don’t say what we mean is because we are motivated not to.

Maybe we don’t want to hurt someone else’s feelings. Maybe saying the truth feels too harsh, so we try to soften it. Maybe our own jealousy or insecurity affects the tone of our speech. There are a million reasons why we all don’t speak our minds plainly at all times.

Those reasons are the emotional juice screenplays use as fuel. That’s why avoiding on-the-nose dialogue can only help screenplays.

How do you approach writing dialogue?


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