Every year, no matter which movie wins the “Best Editing” Oscar, some chucklhead says “How could you say that that movie was well edited—it was over three hours long!”—as if all an editor did was make movies shorter (and the shorter the better). Likewise with the Best Screenplay Oscar: “How could that movie win best screenplay, the characters all sounded stupid!” Because that’s what writers do: craft flowery dialogue. “Forsooth! I am wounded mightily!”
On the other hand, it’s amazing the degree to which nobody mentions dialogue during the development process. The fact is that dialogue, before it’s in the mouth of an actor, is embarrassing. Nobody critiques your dialogue because nobody feels qualified to discuss it. Only actors care about dialogue. They’re the ones who have to say that crap.
But just in case you end up with that rare producer who cares about dialogue, what are they really talking about?:
- Bounce: You’ve got to hit the sweet spot. On the one hand, you can’t allow people to listen to each other too much—each character only wants what they want, but you don’t want them to just talk at each other either. They listen to each other just long enough to bite back. The dialogue needs bounce. Nobody gets to run with the ball—this is hot potato, not football. No speeches. Let them step all over each other. Bounce is the number one way to make a screenplay readable. It’s fun to read dialogue that bounces.
- Verisimitude: BUT, people also want dialogue to sound realistic—sort of. Really, they just want it to feel realistic. We want the ring of truth. Leave out the ums and the ahs and the coughs, but pay close attention to the things that people don’t talk about. Re-create the circumlocutions that people use to avoid topics— That’s the sort of quirk that you want to capture. Transcribe actual dialogue and identify the little tricks, traps and euphemisms that people use when they talk—that’s how you give the reader the pleasant buzz of recognition.
- Pithiness: You’ll note what not on here: Floweriness or Profundity. Those are no-nos, even if you it means that you get laughed at when you win an Oscar. The closest you’re allowed to get is pithiness, also known as quotability. Little bits of dialogue that pop—that earn a “hell yeah” or an “awww” or a “that’s cold!” Trailer dialogue. Best-movies-of-the-decade-montage dialogue. You can’t try too hard to do this or you’ll fall flat on your face. The best way to get strong dialogue is to have a strong character. The best feeling in the world is when you’re shocked at what comes out of your own character’s mouth.