In a movie (or in my case, an animated cartoon), dialogue can make or break a scene. For animation, the visual aspects may take a lot more time to create, but poor dialogue or poor voice acting can have just as much impact even though they take less effort. So I always find posts or YouTube videos on how to write great dialogue interesting. Here is my summary of one such video.
If you like this summary, you might like to watch the full video as it has more examples of bad and good dialogue, including before and after examples of rewriting poor dialogue.
What is Good Dialogue?
It is useful to first start out with an understand of what “good dialogue” is.
It sounds natural
It is consistent with the character’s attitude and with the audience’s expectations for the character (which includes the age group of the audience).
It attacks or defends
Dialogue is more interesting if there is some tension going on between the characters. It does not have to be overly aggressive, but dialogue is more engaging if the characters have beliefs and
- try to get another character to agree with them, or
- defend their own existing beliefs to avoid having to change.
If everyone just agrees immediately, that can be pretty boring to watch.
Expresses unspoken meaning
Avoid describing a topic directly. “Show not say” is a common expression in writing and films alike. Don’t say “I am happy”, instead a character may say “what a wonderful day it is today”. Also consider using an action instead of dialogue. Instead of a father saying “I love you” to his daughter as she goes to bed, make him gently tuck in a blanket to make sure the daughter is warm and safe.
What is Bad Dialogue?
Now let’s look at some characteristics of bad dialogue.
On the nose
The dialogue states the obvious. It directly states thoughts/feelings with no subtlety. Bad dialogue has no mystery, subtlety, or subtext. “I care about you johnny” vs “are you hungry? Thirsty?”. If too direct and obvious it can become cringeworthy. This can be dependent on the age of the audience. A children’s show may have to spell out more than a movie for adults.
This is where some modern children’s movies include jokes to amuse the parents, but where the story will still make sense to younger children who don’t understand the joke. For example, Ratatouille has a scene where towards the end he starts saying “I have a secret, it’s sort of disturbing … I have a tiny, little, …” (she glances downwards with a slightly horrified look … at his hand of course!!!).
Bad dialogue expresses over-the-top emotions. “My heart is breaking waiting for a single glance from your perfect eyes that shine like the diamonds in the night sky. Don’t let me die, uncertain of whether my heart is alone in a wilderness of my own making – tell me, tell me now, tell me that my heart should still beat with hope of a future full of love.”
Avoid emotion where it is not clear there is a good reason for that emotion. Don’t just make a character angry because the storyline wants them to be angry at that point. Use plot points to drive emotions, including sharing the point of view of a character.
Also avoid using angry / passionate outbursts all the time. You can often convey anger better with times of silence or long pauses. You can also get across emotions using the attack and defend pattern:
- “Why did you come here?” (attack)
- “I had my reasons.” (defend, without details, hinting something mysterious is being hidden)
- “Reasons he says. Well that explains everything.” (aggressive sarcasm, making it clear the omission was noticed)
Alternative approaches includes adding periods of silence or stillness to raise the tension in a scene. A second big man enters a room. They look at each other with eyes narrowing. For a long moment the eye each other off, not saying a word.
Finally for printed content (e.g. comic speech bubbles or printed material), too many exclamation marks can signal being melodramatic! Really!! Yes, really!!!!!
Exposition: “As you know, Bob”
It is considered weak exposition to have two characters discussing things they already both know, just to help motivate the next action or remind the audience. Lazy exposition often sounds unnatural. The conversation should have something new to move the story along. There should be some conflict or tension. For example, don’t say “John Wick is a deadly hitman”, instead say “John Wick is not the boogeyman. You send John Wick to kill the boogeyman.” Scary!
It can feel fake when everyday people suddenly become poets, or gruff characters start using flowery language that is out of character. Poetic phrases does not have to be a poem. Repeating phrases can be poetic. For example, a warrior might say “Justice? You want Justice? Real Justice is earned, with blood and sweat.” Reusing same word at start of multiple sentences often helps. To make poetic phrases feel natural, make sure they are consistent with what the character would say. For example, Anakin Skywalker speaks differently when alone with Padme. He uses very open expressions of his love, using flowery language. It may be there purposely to show a softer side to a character, but it’s easy to cross the line into being cringy.
This can overlap with “on the nose” dialogue above. Wooden dialogue is often too formal (don’t repeat other character’s name too often), stilted (“I went to do some research” is not what a muscle brained warrior would say), unnatural phrasing (a warrior might grunt rather than say “I understand the point you are making”), or off tone (“thank you for saving my life” from a warrior might be better replaced with “thanks, I owe you one”).
I liked the video because it gave examples of bad dialogue followed by examples of how to do it better. One thing that struck me however is there are no rules such as “doing X is always bad”. (When writing for a younger audience, you need to be more obvious at times as the audience might not understand subtle points.) Most of the things to watch for are about dialogue being out of character. Poetry is suitable for a singing minstrel, less so for a grumpy hermit who normally has nothing to talk about. But it can also be used in delightful unexpected ways. The Sphinx in “Gone in 60 seconds” says nothing during the whole movie, but then at the end comes out waxing lyrical. It was unexpected and funny.
So learn the rules, but remember all rules can be broken. You just have to know when.