- Each character should want something in the scene: Each person in the conversation should want something. If they don’t, they’re just babbling. And while the babbling will feel realistic at first (since that’s what we do in real life), it will quickly grow tiring, as we’ll drift further and further into aimlessness. Sometimes, it’s for only one character in the scene to want something. But the more people with definitive goals there are in a scene, the better the dialogue gets. For example, Jennifer and Jessica want different things for a wedding. Jennifer wants the story and the interviews while Jessica just wants to take pictures.
2. Contrast (character): One of the easiest ways to create good dialogue is to place contrasting characters together. One character is selfless, the other selfish. One character is arrogant, the other modest. One character is smooth, the other a klutz. A stud, a dork. Intelligent, an idiot. This works on the same level conflict does is that there’s an imbalance. Except this time the imbalance is in the characters themselves. The goofier the movie, the further away the polarity should be. The more serious a movie, the differences between the characters will be more subtle.
3. Contrast (scene specific): This is when you create contrast via a specific scenario. It doesn’t require that your two characters be permanently on opposite sides of the spectrum. Just temporarily. This could mean that one character is calm about something while the other is freaking out. One character is furious while the other is laughing. One character thinks something is a big deal while the other doesn’t think it’s a big deal at all. For example, the opening scene in Fargo when Jerry Lundergaard walks into the bar to hire the kidnappers highlights this well. They’re mad that Jerry’s late. Jerry believes this is incidental. That contrast leads to a scene laced with killer conflict (as the kidnappers become agitated that Jerry isn’t even acknowledging their anger).
4. Dialogue-Friendly Characters: No amount of dialoguing will help if you don’t have at least one dialogue-friendly character in a scene. You need a character in a scene who’s witty or thoughtful or weird or manic or an arrogant prick or overly friendly or anything that necessitates an above-average output of words. It’s not impossible to write good dialogue without dialogue-friendly characters. But it’s hard.
5. Dramatic Irony: One of the easiest ways to write good dialogue. Place a character in a conversation where we know more than he knows. If Katie is reuniting with her high school friends in a remote cottage for the weekend and we previously had a scene showing that the friends plan to murder Katie, the dialogue is going to be great. A scene as simple as Lisa (Katie’s best friend) welcoming him and showing him around the house, can result in riveting dialogue. Also, dramatic irony allows you to play around with and have fun with the dialogue! Katie: “This is going to be a memorable weekend.” Lisa: “It sure is.”
6. Elephant in the room conflict: Elephant in the room conflict is when there’s an issue between characters that they’re not discussing. This issue then permeates whatever conversation they’re having, adding an extra layer to it. If a married couple loses a child and keeps their pain buried, they’re going to have a lot of “elephant in the room conflict.” They may be talking about taking their car in to get fixed. But you can feel that both characters have something much bigger on the brain. Elephant in the room conflict is not reserved for tragedies, by the way. Will Ferrell and John C. Reilly could’ve just had a big unresolved fight in Step Brothers and then were called in for dinner. That dinner scene will be laced with the elephant in the room, the fight they just had.
7. Stakes: If there are no stakes attached to the conversation, we won’t care about the conversation. Stakes are not just movie-specific, but scene-specific as well. The bigger the stakes are for a scene, the better the dialogue. For example, Joe drives Maddie to the train station. Let’s say that now her train is taking her to her family’s home in Long Beach. Let’s move the conversation to right outside the train station. Her train is coming in an hour. But Joe wants to know who the heck Brayden is and why he’s texting him at 4am. They argue and argue some more, and all the while that train is getting closer to leaving. Do you see how stakes (Maddie’s family reunion) beefs up the intensity of this scene? And by association, the dialogue?
8. A time constraint: A time constraint is one of the easiest ways to juice up your dialogue. Simply make it so that one of the characters has something immediate they have to get to or has to leave in a few minutes, and instantly, the dialogue takes on a whole new intensity.
9. Specificity Over Generalities: The dialogue should seem specific and unique to the characters saying the words. The more general the details are, the less realistic the interaction seems. For instance, there’s a moment in Annie Hall where Alvy recounts his school days. He could’ve easily said. “I hated school. Everyone was a jerk-off. Those were some of the worst days of my life.” Instead, here’s what he says: “I always felt my schoolmates were idiots. Melvyn Greenglass, you know, fat little face, and Henrietta Farrell, just Miss Perfect all the time. And-and Ivan Ackerman, always the wrong answer. Always.” Specific!
10. Characters should be talking to each other, not to the audience: This is one of the easiest ways to spot an amateur. Even a lot of newer professional writers do this. Don’t write scenes where characters are only saying things to convey information to the audience. For example, the married couple would reminisce about when and how they first met. None of that conversation was for them. It was strictly for us so that we understood their backstory. Hence, it felt unnatural. It’s true that sometimes you will need to fit exposition or backstory into a scene. But keep massaging the scene until you can legitimately say that this is a conversation your characters would have EVEN IF there was no one watching them.
In addition to the ten tips above, there are the intangibles. Wit, jokes, fooling around, setting up and paying off lines, the ability for a character to go off on an interesting tangent. This skill, “small talk” as it mirrors the ability to converse in real life and it’s one of the skills most responsible for your dialogue feeling natural. It is also the part of dialogue most dependent on talent. The good news is, even if you’re bad at small talk, you can still master the ten tips above and do your best to sprinkle in enough “small talk” to write solid dialogue. You may not be Tarantino or Scorsese, but nobody’s going to dock you points for your dialogue either.