Analyzing Good Dialogue: 4 Scenes That Show You How It’s Done
June 9, 2016 \ Movies \ 0 Comments
Writing good dialogue is a specific skill. Just because you’re a great writer or a good storyteller doesn’t mean you’re necessarily good at writing dialogue. So what is good dialogue? How do we recognize it? In this article I’d like to teach you a little bit about good dialogue and then illustrate that foundation with some examples from movie scenes that have great dialogue. While this won’t be an exhaustive overview of all the elements good dialogue needs, I hope to shed some light on a few elements that make up good dialogue.
I once took a creative writing course with Canadian author Thomas King. In that class he tried to impart many lessons on us about writing, but the one I remember the most was his lesson on dialogue. In his lesson one of the things he talked about was how to not make dialogue a direct question and answer. While you can and often need to do that from time to time, it should not be the first tool you reach for. Here’s an example to help illustrate why:
“How’s it going?”
“Not bad. Any plans this weekend?”
‘Nothing special. What about you?’
Boring, right? Professor King gave us an example of how to make it better:
“How’s it going?”
This is more compelling dialogue. Not only is the answer unexpected, but it establishes a conflict as well.
After the class I was still thinking about the lesson. I couldn’t figure out how to apply his example to an entire story. It wasn’t until I looked at one of his books that I understood better. Here’s a sample of Thomas King-style dialogue from his book, The Back of the Turtle. To set the scene, Gabriel has just tried to drown himself, but is now safe on shore and Mara is trying to figure out why he tried to kill himself.
“Gabriel,” said Mara, pausing on each syllable. “Like the left-handed twin?”
The dog came shuffling back, dragging Gabriel’s pants with him. They were colder than the shirt and full of sand.
“Why do you want to kill yourself?”
Putting on the clothes was a mistake. The chill sank into his bones, and the sand rubbed at his skin with every movement. The sun was weak, the wind off the ocean fresh and brittle.
The dog leaned up against Mara’s leg and began testing her ankle with his tongue.
“Sold,” Gabriel told the dog, “no licking.”
Mara smiled. “His name is … Sold?”
The dog whined and looked up at her, his face bright with expectation.
Gabriel rubbed the dog’s neck and fingered the weather-worn collar. “The tag is corroded,” he said. ‘Sold’ is all you can make out.”
“So, he’s not yours?”
Gabriel could feel his clothes tightening around him. “He likes to follow me.”
“You need to find him another name,” said Mara.
Gabriel wanted to ask Mara about the sea people. Had she seen them? Had they washed ashore with his clothes? Had she found his jacket? If he had to live, he’d like the jacket back.
And the drum as well, for that matter.
Mara kneeled down beside the dog and looked into his eyes.
“Sold … Solder … Soldering … Soldier … how about …. Soldier?”
The dog began humming happily and came to his hind legs.
“See,” said Mara, “he likes that name.”
“Sure.” Gabriel shrugged. “If that’s what he wants.”
The dog rolled over in the sand and farted.
“Are you alone?” said Mara. “Is that the reason?”
“Everyone is alone,” said Gabriel.
Mara wrapped her arns around herself and turned her back to the wind. “Are you going to try to kill yourself tomorrow?”
Gabriel looked out across the sand, watched the water rise and fall as though the ocean were breathing.
“If I were going to kill myself,” said Mara, “I’d do it when the sun was shining.”
Notice how Gabriel never answers Mara’s question about why he wants to kill himself. Think of how unimaginative it would be for Gabriel to answer, “I’m so lonely.” Sad as it is to say, that’s not an interesting reason. Obscuring the reason and making us search for it is far more compelling.
Another thing King does here is ensure there are few direct questions and answers between the two characters. When Mara asks Gabriel if the dog is his, Gabriel doesn’t say yes or no, he simply says the dog likes to follow him around. This tells us a little bit about Gabriel himself. If a dog is following you around and you’re telling it what to do, proof of ownership or not, that’s your dog. But Gabriel isn’t even sure he wants to live so the subtext of his answer is that he is unwilling or unable to take responsibility of anything.
Also notice how each character’s dialogue tells us how they think without being too overt. When Gabriel says, “everyone is alone,” this is a hopeless remark. It implies nothing will get better. Mara, by contrast, says she’d kill herself while the sun is shining. This comment could have multiple meanings, but it implies that Mara’s outlook is bright even if we’re talking about suicide. The contrasting attitudes of the characters makes the scene inherently more interesting.
And interesting dialogue that also feels natural is what it’s all about. Now that we’e covered some basics, let’s explore some examples from movies that have great dialogue.
1. The Social Network
Aaron Sorkin is a master at indirect dialogue that is infused with purpose and subtext. In fact, I suspect I could have taken all my examples from movies he’s written.
In this scene from The Social Network, Mark Zuckerberg (Jessie Eisenberg) is in a deposition. He is being sued for taking someone’s idea for a matchmaking website and turning it into a popular social media site (Facebook). In the following scene, he is being questioned by the opposition’s lawyer:
I am sure Thomas King approves of this dialogue. Look at all the places where Mark doesn’t directly answer the lawyer.
“Let me re-phrase this. You sent my clients sixteen emails. In the first fifteen, you didn’t raise any concerns.”
‘Was that a question?’
“In the sixteenth email you raised concerns about the site’s functionality. Were you leading them on for 6 weeks?”
“Then why didn’t you raise any of these concerns before?”
‘It just started raining.’
“Mr. Zuckerberg do I have your full attention?”
“Do you think I deserve it?”
“Do you think I deserve your full attention?”
This is sublime. Each misdirected answer Mark gives only further exemplifies how he’s not paying attention. But it’s not just that Mark isn’t paying attention, he’s angry, and he feels superior. The indirect communication between Mark and the lawyer serves to build up the antagonism between the characters until Mark explodes.
What is especially brilliant about this example is that a court case lends itself to direct question and answer type exchanges, but Sorkin not only manages to avoid that and elevate the text at the same time.
2. Steve Jobs
Here is another example of good dialogue from Aaron Sorkin. The movie Steve Jobs is a series of fictionalized moments before three major product launches: The Mac, the NeXT Computer, and the iMac. In these moments before the launch Steve Jobs (Michael Fassbender) has one-on-one interactions with the same set of people, allowing us to understand Jobs through these conversations as we progress through his career.
In the following scene, he is meeting with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen) before the NeXT Computer launch. For the context of the scene you need to know that Wozniak is Jobs’s oldest friend who works at Apple and helped develop the original Macintosh.
The scene is mostly dominated by Wozniak, but it still has all the elements of good dialogue. Wozniak asks Jobs, “Do you understand how condescending that was?” A few moments later as Wozniak gets more agitated Jobs says, “You’re gonna have a stroke, little buddy,” which tells us that that Jobs really has no idea how condescending his comment was and clearly looks down on Wozniak.
When Wozniak asks Jobs why Lisa (Jobs’s daughter) has never heard of him, he’s asking why the daughter of one of his oldest friends and co-workers doesn’t know who he is. But how does Jobs interpret it? He counters with, “how many 4th graders have heard of you,” which further solidifies not only that Jobs doesn’t care whether or not Wozniak knows his daughter (which is probably why she doesn’t), but also that Jobs has an enourmous ego.
Then, after a scathing review of Jobs as a man, a friend, and an entrepreneur what does Jobs reply with?
“Tell me something else I don’t know.”
This is unexpected. This makes us more interested in Jobs because people don’t normally accept criticism easily, let alone a full-scale tirade. What makes Steve Jobs so confident in this situation? It leads us to the next part of the story while illuminating us on the fact that Jobs is aware of some of his foibles even if he can’t help them.
3. Young Adult
The following scene from Young Adult is a perfect example of how to use subtext in dialogue. The movie is about Mavis Gary (Charlize Theron), a successful writer who returns to her hometown to try and steal back her old boyfriend at his first child’s babyshower. In Mavis’s mind, she’s better than her former peers. She lives in the city, has authored had a series of books that were once successful, and she wears expensive designer clothes. This has given Mavis a hyper-inflated sense of self-worth, which this scene attacks.
It almost plays out like a comedy. Here we have someone who doesn’t understand that they just aren’t as important as they think they are. Mavis thinks the books are on a big display because they are popular, but the clerk tells her they actually just have too many of them. But Mavis doesn’t appear to be listening to him. As the conversation continues, the clerk seems totally uninterested in the fact that she’s the author and only cares about the creator of the series, Jane McMurray. Mavis is so deluded she even tries to defiantly sign her name in the books even though the clerk has told her not to.
Each character’s dialogue in the scene is singularly focused on their own agenda. Mavis is trying to spread her inflated ego, and the clerk is not-so-tactfully trying to explain to Mavis the reality of the situation.
“You’re Jane McMurray?”
‘No. Jane McMurray just created the series, I wrote the book. Mavis Gary-Crane. See?’
“Do you know Jane McMurray?”
‘Yes I know her really well-I wrote the book!’
While there is small degree of direct question and answer to the dialogue, one way in which more indirect dialogue can work is when it seems like people are having separate conversations. Which is is exactly what is happening in this scene.
Nightcrawler is about an amoral guy, Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), who gets into the business of filming accidents and murders to sell to news agencies. Lou is the kind of guy that will do or say anything to get what he wants. When we first meet him he’s stealing copper wire, wire fence, and manhole covers. A security guard questions Lou in the yard and Lou tries to act lost until he realizes he can’t fool the security guard and knocks the guard out.
A lot of scenes from Nightcrawler have good dialogue because Lou often subverts his true intentions from those around him in order to get what he wants. In this sense we get multiple layers of dialogue; we watch understanding that Lou is lying, we watch how people react to Lou’s negotiation tactics, and we try to discern Lou’s true goal in the conversation. The multiple layers to the conversation make these interactions more interesting.
In the following scene, Lou has successfully sold his first footage to a news station and is interviewing Rick (Rick Garcia) for an internship to help him grow his business.
Notice how Lou doesn’t respond to Rick’s question about the nature of the job directly, he simply says it’s “fine opportunity opportunity for some lucky someone.” This sounds like a cheesy ad, and this tells us something about Lou: He doesn’t know how to talk to people. It’s like he recites things he’s read or heard in an attempt to be genuine. Lou’s cheesy line also tells us Lou is hiding something from Rick.
The part where Lou accuses Rick of being a prostitute is also indirect:
‘Work the street? No.’
“It wasn’t a question.”
“Plenty of straight guys trick. Do you have a driver’s license?”
Normally an employer would be concerned that an interviewee was a prostitute, but we can see that by continuing the interview Lou is unconcerned. In fact, as the conversation goes on, the subtext is that Lou fully understands what Rick is and hopes to take advantage of him. Moving forward, this helps us understand the basis of their relationship.
Good dialogue is a delicate art. It must reveal who the characters are without being obvious, avoid the boredom of following direct questions with direct answers, and it must be purposeful. It must also ring true to the character. Some of the characters in the scenes we discussed have a strange way of talking, but it is true to who they are.
It’s a challenging balancing act, but when you get it right you can feel it work. Good dialogue sings. You’ve recognised it every time you’ve heard it, but hopefully now the mechanics of why it sings is a little more clear.