Many novice screenwriters seem to have trouble with their dialogue. They just don’t seem to have an ear for it. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where the words spoken by characters just sound awkward, very unnatural. No, I’m not even going to get into dialogue that is necessary versus dialogue that is unnecessary; or dialogue that reveals character, or subtext, or any of the other things you need to be well aware of in order to write a successful screenplay. Right now I’m just talking about dialogue that sounds like how people really talk. In fact, if you’re like most writers, you’ve probably asked yourself, “How can I get my dialogue to flow; how can I make it sound real?” It’s a good question…and one that needs to be asked.
In my opinion, either you have an ear for the way people speak or you don’t. But can you develop this so-called ear? I think, to a degree, you can. “But how,” you ask? Well, it can be as easy as simply listening. As for myself, I’ve always really enjoyed listening to other people talk. I listen to people as they speak on the phone; I overhear conversations at restaurants, coffee houses…everywhere. Always have. If this is not something you instinctively do, try it sometime. Go ahead, the next time you’re sitting at your favorite coffee house, working on your script, get those dang-blasted earphones out of your head and listen to what’s going on around you. Listening to great movie (and TV) dialogue is a huge help, too.
If you’ve never seen a Preston Sturges movie, I suggest you do. Sullivan’s Travels would be one excellent choice. The Great McGinty and The Palm Beach Story would be two others. Mr. Sturges was truly a master of dialogue.
Also check out some Billy Wilder movies. Mr. Wilder (a writer and director) was another master of great dialogue. Some Like It Hot, The Apartment, and Sunset Boulevard are just three of his classics.
You can also watch just about any movie written by Neil Simon for a fantastic lesson in dialogue. My personal favorite would be The Odd Couple. (Try to get your hands on the scripts for any of these movies…and study them.) But the actual words you choose are only one aspect of successful dialogue. You also need to know something about timing and rhythm. When you watch the aforementioned films, actually listen to the timing and rhythm of the dialogue. Very important.
Another big problem I read in most newbie scripts is robotic dialogue (I cover this on my website, in the “Fatal Flaws” section). People generally aren’t very formal in their speech; they tend to abbreviate. In other words, most people don’t say things like, “I am going to walk down to the corner market and get today’s newspaper.” No, they’ll more likely say, “Think I’ll go down to the market, pick up the paper.”
For those of you unsure how the dialogue in your script actually sounds, I suggest you gather some budding and/or pro actors together and do a table-read. This can be a fabulous way of hearing whether dialogue works or not. Believe me, you can say dialogue in your head over and over and it’ll sound fine, but give it to somebody else to read…well, it can really blow your mind, man.
So, if you’re having trouble with dialogue, set your pen down, close your eyes…and listen to what's going on around you. Listen.