I received an email this week from a novelist who wanted to learn more about becoming a screenwriter and in particular wanted some tips on writing dialogue – whether for his books or for the screen. In some ways, the tips are the same.

Pulp Fiction

Burger dialogue

1. Avidly listen to real dialogue

The first way to sharpen your dialogue is to listen to real people. Remember them? They’re the things that don’t disappear when you switch off the computer.

Dialogue isn’t real speech, but it needs to feel as if it is: it needs to have the tang and flow of real speech. And of course, different people speak differently.

When they wrote Bonnie and Clyde, David Newman and Robert Benton went to East Texas to pick up the cadences and colloquialisms. They said, “It wasn’t enough that each character should sound like Texas, but that each spoke with a voice distinct from the others.”

2. Avidly read screenplay dialogue

See how great writers create their dialogue, and also see how bad writers do it. Yes, it’s painful. Yes, it looks horribly like your own. That’s how I learnt – the hard way.

If you haven’t read them, try starting with these: Juno, When Harry Met Sally, and Seven. Plus of course the other scripts mentioned in this post.

3. Remember all dialogue is action

People only speak to get something from someone else. That something might be anything from an emotional reaction to information to winning a fight.

So cut out the “hellos” and “how are yous“. That doesn’t of course mean that you can’t have two gangsters discussing Parisian hamburgers. Quite the reverse. But it means that they’re discussing burgers because they want something. And it’s your job to know what that is. But…

4. People never say what they really think or feel

(Well, almost never). All good dialogue has subtext. Sometimes there’s even subtext beneath the subtext! Let the viewers sort it out for themselves. Billy Wilder said, if you give the audience 2 plus 2 and let them work out the answer, they’ll love you.

So, a discussion of hamburgers is really about something different. When Vincent and Jules talk about a Royale with cheese in Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, it’s really a status game. Which of the two knows more about the world? Who’s the big cheese? (Sorry)

5. Keep dialogue as short as possible

Dialogue should be short. In novels, characters may speak at length, but that’s still no excuse for repetition or flabbiness. Cinema and TV dialogue must be even crisper and more to the point. Even the occasional long speech must be focused and (ideally) broken up with visuals.

6. Allow yourself a bit of style

There’s too much makeweight dialogue around nowadays. Yet, we watch films and TV for aesthetic pleasure too. And in life, even the most practical person can come out with a fresh turn of phrase, a bright metaphor, an enjoyable play on words.

Look at how other writers do it. Then, don’t overcook, but don’t undercook either. Entertain.

7. Stand-out dialogue isn’t written, it’s rewritten

Dialogue won’t always come right first time, or second, or even third. Get the words down, and then find better ways. But if you approach it right, the process of putting speech in people’s mouths can be enormous fun. Enjoy! And, if in doubt, talk about hamburgers.