Actions will define your characters, make us care about them, but what hooks us is how they speak, the words they say. Dialogue is an integral part of the writing process and creating effective and engaging speech is something writers face every day. You wonder if a conversation sounds realistic or if it will hold on audience’s attention. You wonder if the story beat you’re trying to convey would be better expressed with actions instead of words. But dialogue can be what makes us fall in love with a character, get invested in their story, and stick along for the ride.
Check out five insights from past AFF panelists and learn what helps them when writing dialogue.
When Lulu Wang joined us during our 2019 Conference, she spoke of her time as a classically trained pianist, her love of screwball comedies, and how those passions and thinking like an editor led to a realization to look at dialogue from different angles, as if it had a rhythm of its own.
“The way that the rhythm and the way that dialogue lands on a person and then you have to stay on them for it to land and then you have to go, there’s just, like, an energy. So I definitely think that in an unconscious way, I think about rhythm, because I’m editing too as I’m writing. I’m picturing the movie in my head. I start to listen to music when I’m writing so that I can get a feel of the flow and the rhythm.”
-Lulu Wang (writer/director The Farwell) at AFF 2019
2. Ask Yourself, ‘Is This Honest?’
During his time at AFF back in 2015, writer/director Jason Reitman entertained our audience with stories of growing up in the film business, how he found his voice while making films, why Richard Linklater changed the game for him, and some advice from his dad that shaped how he saw dialogue.
“The night before I shot Thank You for Smoking, my dad called me and he said, “Look, I have one piece of advice for you. Remember, it’s not your job to be funny, it’s not your job to be dramatic, you’re an arbiter of truth. That’s it. So when you’re on set, ask yourself, ‘Do you believe this?’ Don’t ask yourself if you think it’s funny, because your barometer for comedy will never be as good as your barometer for truth. So ask yourself, ‘Is this honest? Do I buy it?’” And that’s how I feel about dialogue. You write it, you think you’re so clever, go back and read it again and ask yourself if it’s honest. That, for me, is the most important gauge.”
-Jason Reitman (writer/director Up in the Air, Thank You for Smoking, Labor Day; director Juno) at AFF 2015
During her discussion about To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, writer Sofia Alvarez admitted dialogue had always come naturally for her and through that, she found that it was the best way to learn more about her characters and have fun while doing it.
“It’s really how I come to understand who the characters are, just by sort of letting them talk to one another. I just let the characters sort of meander through dialogue, through some of their emotions, and then it cutting down you sort of see what the core of the scene needs to be.”
-Sofia Alvarez (playwright; screenwriter To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before) at AFF 2019
One day, you’ll have to face the hard reality that sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. Film is a visual medium after all. In 2015, writer Bill Broyles spoke about how he learned that the answer isn’t always to write more dialogue, but to cut some of it out.
“‘I don’t have to say this! I don’t need to say this!’ And the simple lesson is, this is a medium of showing people and not telling, and people love great dialogue and I love it myself, but I guess more and more of what I do is I just write fewer words.”
-Bill Broyles (Co-creator Six; writer Cast Away, Apollo 13, The Polar Express, Unfaithful, Jarhead, China Beach) at AFF 2015
Kenneth Lonergan attended AFF in 2017 and his visit was full of great moments, but when asked about dialogue, the Oscar-winner revealed how important it was to keep characters’ voices distinct and learn from people you listen to in real life.
“I do try consciously to have characters speak distinctively from one another, even if they’re members of the same family, they share some certain patterns. Like, in This is Our Youth, the two friends speak in a very similar way, because that’s the way we talked. I had a group of five friends, we all imitated this one big-shot guy, and we all spoke in a very similar way. I try to keep the voices distinct. I do try to listen what people say. I love dialogue, I love dialects, I love listen to people talk, and I try to not write clever dialogue, and not write great lines.”
-Kenneth Lonergan (2017 Distinguished Screenwriter Award Recipient) at AFF 2017