“I don’t write their dialogue, I get them talking to each other.” – Quentin Tarantino
The concept of writing dialogue has always fascinated me. We’re surrounded by real-life, authentic dialogue every day, and yet it can be difficult to convincingly transfer it to the page. I’m no expert on the subject, but from a learning standpoint, here’s what I’ve noticed: Real-feeling dialogue takes more than just words; it takes emotion, it takes back story, and it takes character.
I like to imagine dialogue on a spectrum.
On one end, you have a realistic and painfully accurate interaction between two people. Our first instinct is to think that by writing the way that people actually talk, we will create something like authentic dialogue. The problem here is that, for the most part, two realistic people talking the way two realistic people talk, is going to be slow and dull. Real people fill pauses in their dialogue with useless filler words such as “um,” “like,” and “stuff.” And rarely is the substance thought-provoking or original. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it’s rare.
Think about it. When you are waiting in line at a coffee shop or riding the bus, do you hear eloquent, concise, and quick-witted banter, filled with expression and insight? Typically not. Unfortunately, even conversations that seem that way to the people in them often sound more like cavemen trying to converse with humpback whales to everyone else. Perhaps that’s a little harsh, but because there’s such a contrast between how we perceive the conversations we’re in and reality, dialogue written too realistically can sound odd—almost like a bad accent.
Now let’s jump to the other end of the spectrum. Here we have the hyper-intellectual, witty banter you’ll find in the works of writers with astronomical IQs like Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin. As genius and fantastically entertaining as this kind of dialogue is, it can still sound unauthentic or fake to us, especially if it seems smarter than the characters delivering it.
It’s not that we, as an audience, are too slow or dim-witted to fathom the idea of such a conversation. It’s the simple fact that very few people in real life talk like that. The conversation between Samuel L. Jackson and John Travolta in the first sequence of Pulp Fiction might seem great on film, but could be disorienting in real life.
Say “what” again, I dare you.
So, where’s the middle ground? Do we write concisely or do we include the “whats,” “ers,” and “ums”? I’d say the answer depends on the story we want to tell.
Where dialogue sounds natural depends on the plot of the story and the characters in it. Let’s take two examples that are far apart on the spectrum but sound equally authentic.
The first example is from Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused. You may have seen this before, or may have inferred from the title that this is going to be on the side of the spectrum closer to cavemen and whales.
SIMONE: So what have we decided?
PINK: About what?
SIMONE: About tonight.
PINK: Oh, er. Look, I’ll probably get, you know, hung up with the guys, maybe, you know, later. Why don’t we just, you know, meet at the party?
PINK: Wouldn’t want you waiting around for me all night anyway.
SIMONE: Alright, what ever.
PINK: Cool. See you later.
The writer, Linklater, has actually solidified himself as a master of these slice-of-life style movies. His films’ conflicts are low-stakes, his characters with modest aspirations, and his dialogue as close to realistic as can be. But the reason it works is that this slow, basically real-sounding dialogue comes from the characters, not from him. They don’t sound like critically acclaimed filmmakers. They sound like high school kids in the ’70s. It’s the context, the back story and the characters that make this dialogue work.
Now back to the other side of the spectrum. Let’s do a more recent movie.
In Adam McKay’s The Big Short, the dialogue is much closer to the hyper-intellectual, Sorkin side of the spectrum. It’s dizzyingly fast. So fast, in fact, that you can watch it several times and still miss some of the jokes.
DANNY (CONT’D): The banks, the ratings agencies, the government… They wouldn’t let this happen.
JARED: They would and they did. My whole department is long on this stuff. The pricks are calling me Chicken Little and Bubble Boy. But when reality hits the idiots in my department won’t be laughing.
He starts pulling blocks out of the CDO and MBS towers and throwing them in the garbage.
JARED (CONT’D): Triple B’s? Zero. Double B’s? Zero. B’s? Zero.
On this last one, the table shakes… both towers collapse.
JARED (CONT’D): Then that happens.
MARK: What’s that?
JARED: That is America’s housing market.
This dialogue is played out onscreen at a blinding speed and covers some of the more important plot points. And notice how there are no “ers” or “ums” in this conversation. It’s way too sharp and too intelligent to sound real, and yet it does.
Again, context, back story, and character are everything. The characters in this scene aren’t just fast-talking, Wall Street millionaires; they are the guys who outsmart the fast-talking Wall Street millionaires. It’s believable, in the context of the story, that these characters would interact this way, even though, of course, most people in real life don’t sound like that. If they spoke like the characters from Dazed and Confused, or even like these same characters would in real life, the dialogue wouldn’t seem as true.
I’ve learned that, as advertisers, we don’t have the luxury of screen time. It’s tough for our characters to evolve on-screen because instead of two hours, we have a smaller window—one that continues to shrink with the average attention span. So the challenge we face is to create these characters and build them off the page and off the screen. It may seem less important in a 30-second spot, but, in advertising, people seem more inclined to sniff out the bullshit. It doesn’t have the magic of the movies. It needs to, at its core, be relatable. And If the characters trying to sell the brand aren’t true, then why would anyone buy it?
Even if the character has one line, using them as nothing more than a narrative device will likely make the dialogue feel false. Why? Because real people aren’t narrative devices. I don’t think you need to create their entire family history, but it could help to give them something human, like desire or emotion. It may seem strange—at least it does to me— but we’ve created these characters, so we know them better than anyone else.
My takeaway from this is to think of the characters as fully realized people. I can’t just write what I would say. I can’t just write what I think people want the characters to say. I’ll just let the characters talk to each other.
That’s what people do.