It’s no question that one of the most powerful elements in a story is dialogue. In film, dialogue builds the overall tone of the movie, establishes the relationships between characters and subtly reveals the main thematic messages to the audience. Thus, writing dialogue effectively is a critical part of succeeding as any kind of writer.
In this article we’ll examine:
- What is the Meaning of Dialogue?
- What is Great Dialogue?
- The Evolution of Dialogue.
- 10 Examples of Great Dialogue (2010-20)
Different genres function well with different dialogues. Sometimes, its an unexpected use of dialogue that makes the story most effective. Other times, a foreseen dialogue is necessary in order to move the plot forward without confusion. This is why writing dialogue for film can be tricky.
When writing dialogue, filmmakers must decide how they want their audience to perceive their film. Will it be comedic and sarcastic? Will it be serious and realistic? Oftentimes, filmmakers will use a combination of these characteristics when writing dialogue.
One of the best ways to learn about writing dialogue is by standing on the shoulders of giants. To help with this, we’ve gathered together some of the best dialogue examples from ten notable Oscar-nominated/-winning films from the past decade.
Before we dive in though, let us go over the basics.
Overview of Cinematic Dialogue:
Cinematic Dialogue is defined simply as
“oral conversation between two or more characters.”
This straightforward definition gives the writer a lot of room for creativity. On the other hand, it also gives them a lot of room for error. One must remember: There are films, and then there are great films. Equally, there is dialogue, and then there is great dialogue.
Ultimately, great dialogue has purpose. Great dialogues have a reason for each word exchanged. If a film’s dialogue is out of character, unnecessary or misplaced, it can easily bring the entire production down. We don’t like to vilify, but have you seen The Room?
To perfect dialogue, writers must ask themselves two questions:
- What does this conversation give to the audience?
- What does the film gain by this exchange between these characters?
If these questions cannot be answered, the script needs revision.
What is Great Dialogue?
Above all, the most crucial use of writing dialogue is development. Great dialogue progresses the story effortlessly. Additionally, it builds the characters’ personalities in the most expressive way.
Writers are often told “show, don’t tell,” and this is exactly what dialogue does. The audience wants to judge the characters for themselves, and dialogue is how you let them. Dialogue is how characters express themselves. The best dialogue can reveal a character’s personality just by its very tone rather than its actual content.
Great dialogue contains much more than the sum of its parts. It can be the tip of an iceberg, hiding a great deal beneath it. Or great dialogue can be music to the ears, yielded like a linguistic weapon, cutting to an audience’s very core, either positively or negatively (to make them laugh or to make them cry).
Evolution of Dialogue:
It’s generally noted that cinematic dialogue came to life with Talkies, also known as Sound Films. One could even argue that cinematic dialogue dates back to the silent film era. During this time, local actors were hired to act out the characters’ lines in person at the movie theatre.
Furthermore, due to the state of technology at the time, Sound Films wouldn’t come into commercial use until the late 1920s. However, by the early 1930s, Sound films and, inherently, dialogue, were global phenomenons.
Within the next few decades, directors and screenwriters took advantage of the opportunity for synchronized dialogue. A lot of filmmakers developed very meticulous and extravagant dialogue styles. This is evident in many screwball comedies of the 1940s. One of the most well-known, His Girl Friday, used a whopping 191-page script in just 92 minutes.
Contrastingly, with writing dialogue now being an unquestionable staple for films, some writers have taken the opposite approach, demonstrating how sometimes less if more. An example of this is in A Quiet Place. This 2018 horror film, directed by John Krasinki, features a short 67-page screenplay for a 91-minute movie, with hardly any of it containing dialogue.
Overall, dialogue can be heavy and brisk, or it can be short and simple. As long as each line is impactful and contributory, dialogue can certainly carry an entire film.
10 Examples of Great Dialogue
1. Marriage Story (2019)
Noah Baumbach’s drama film Marriage Story received six nominations at the 92nd Academy Awards. The film’s screenplay highlights the emotional turmoil of divorce and received critical acclaim for its sharpness and realism.
Marriage Story teaches us that when it comes to writing dialogue, the uncomfortable truth can often resonate with viewers the most. An audience likes to connect to a film, even in the most unlikely ways. Some films remind us of humanity’s compassion and life’s blissful moments. The dialogue in Marriage Story is not an example of this.
Baumbach has a tendency to scrutinize almost all of his characters, exhibiting excruciatingly true flaws that can be found in many of the people around us and even in ourselves. In Marriage Story’s dialogue, there’s evidence of gaslighting, egotism, selfishness, greed, and external loss of control.
Ultimately, the result is a painful display of two people bringing out the worst in one another. They each pinpoint the other’s flaws and insecurities, cutting to their core. It’s brilliantly demonstrative of the difficulties of a long term relationship, each holding so much knowledge about the other they can yield it like a weapon.
“First of all, I love my mother, she was a wonderful mother. Secondly, how dare you compare my mothering to my mother! I may be like my father but I am not like my mother!”
“You are! And you’re like my father. You’re also like my mother. You’re all of the bad things about all of these people!”
We see this when Nicole and Charlie Barber, the divorcée and divorcé in question, have an aggressive argument after a court date. Long story short, Charlie tells Nicole that life with her was joyless, and she should be glad sleeping with someone else was “all he did.” He proceeds to violently yell to her, “every day, I wake up and I hope you’re dead.”
Most viewers don’t approve of Charlie’s or Nicole’s words to each other in this scene, but the emotions behind them are unfortunately and uncannily familiar to many people. The film’s dialogue is certainly complex, featuring many strings of sentences so cruel they’re almost too much to bear.
This uncomfortable, yet recognizable speech demonstrates how dialogue can ring true for different people, even if it may not be actually applicable to any of them directly.
2. Her (2013)
Spike Jonze marked his solo screenwriting debut with his eccentric sci-fi romantic drama film, Her. Her won the 2013 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. In this film, much of the dialogue is between Theodore Twombly and his virtual assistant, Samantha, who is an artificial intelligence operating system.
What Her teaches filmmakers about writing dialogue is how to attribute realistic emotions to their characters regardless of how they are presented on screen. Samantha is an operating system, so the audience never visually puts a face to her. Despite this, the viewer is able to witness her personality shape itself solely through her conversations with Theodore.
“And then I had this terrible thought. Are these feelings even real? Or are they just programming? That idea really hurts.”
Not only that, but the audience is also able to see Theodore’s personality shift as his relationship with Samantha progresses. His conversations with Samantha push him to finally sign the divorce papers with his ex-wife. Additionally, the effects of their relationship demonstrate the dialogues’ ability to move the plot forward.
Her teaches us that writing dialogue doesn’t have to take on conventional forms. A film can feature the most unlikely characters and can still find rationale in the eyes of the viewer.
The way the dialogue forms in Her feels almost classical, just two characters getting to know one and other through talking to each other. In a futuristic setting, this classicism feels intelligent and rewarding.
3. The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)
Wes Anderson’s The Grand Budapest Hotel, like many of his other films, is known for it’s rather dead-pan but compelling dialogue. This comedy-drama film won four out of nine nominations at the 87th Academy Awards. Anderson’s script teaches us that when writing dialogue, understatements can actually serve to emphasize a film’s tone.
In The Grand Budapest Hotel, much of the dialogue is spoken matter-of-factly even though the situations or content is quite bizarre. What this does is elevate the comedic irony throughout the film.
In the hotel shootout scene, there are practically a dozen people shooting at each other from across the hotel floor. In reality, it’s hard to determine what words one could say to actually stop this many people from firing at one another.
However, in this film, all it takes is one investigator to yell “crease fire!” and everyone immediately obeys his command. The investigator, Albert Henckels, proceeds to say “who is shooting who?” And the characters actually respond.
From this, Dimitri, the original instigator of the shootout, provides a brief description of Gustave H., calling him a murderer and a thief. Gustave then gives a brisk but detailed description of Dimitri, recalling all the people he has murdered. Neither character states these details with fright or terror, but rather with childish sureness that mimics the tattle-tale phrase “he did it!”
This exchange is taking place as most everyone still holds guns up at one another. The impracticality of the dialogue taking place within this context is what strengthens Anderson’s overall ironic tone. Though far from realistic, the dialogue is what makes the film so distinguishable.
4. Carol (2015)
Carol is a romantic drama film based on the 1952 novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith. This emotional film, directed by Todd Haynes, was the best-reviewed film of 2015. In addition to global praise, Carol received six Oscar nominations at the 88th Academy Awards, including a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay.
The film chronicles the prohibited romance between Therese Belivet and Carol Aird. Carol teaches us that when it comes to writing dialogue, subtle details are everything.
Throughout the first half of the film, Therese’s and Carol’s affection for one another is never explicitly stated. The audience is instead presented with various dialogue clues that make their romantic feeling perceptible.
The audience receives the first verbal notion of the pair’s shared attraction when Carol tells Therese she’s divorcing her husband. She then asks if Therese lives alone, to which Therese responds yes.
Therese goes on to mention Richard, a man who wants to marry her. Carol asks Therese if she wants to marry him, and Therese replies “Well, I barely even know what to order for lunch.” Though nothing is said outwardly, both characters subtly express, to each other and to the audience, a disliking for the men in their life.
“I doubt very much if I’d have gone to lunch with him.”
This dialogue is very referential to the time period in which the movie takes place in. Because same-sex attraction was frowned upon in the 1950s, most conversations regarding the topic were hardly ever straight forward. Often, anything pertaining to homosexuality was spoken with discretion.
Carol’s divorce lawyers use phrases like “pattern of behavior” and “manner of conduct” when alluding to her previous relationships with women. Additionally, Carol’s husband also never directly states her sexuality. He instead speaks to her about the matter by saying things like “women like you.”
By using minor details like these, Carol is able to carry the audience through the first half of the movie without using any obvious, overt dialogue. This not only builds suspense, furthering the ‘secret’ nature of Carol and Therese’s relationship, but it also stays true to the context of the time period.
5. 20th Century Women (2016)
Basing the film on his adolescence in 1970s Santa Barbara, Mike Mills wrote and directed this comprehensive coming-of-age comedy-drama film. 20th Century Women was nominated for Best Original Screenplay at the 89th Academy Awards.
The film features a lot of narrative monologue that provides background stories for the main characters. However, it is the dialogue in this film that goes even further to show us how these background stories shape the characters’ personalities. What 20th Century Women teaches us about writing dialogue is how to keep details on topic and in connection with one another.
An example of this is Greta Gerwig’s character, Abbie Porter. The monologue detailing Abbie’s life before living with Dorothea tells the audience how she came to be this free-spirited, spunky photojournalist. It also tells us about Abbie’s history with cervical cancer, which she got due to her mother’s use of a fertility drug when she was conceived.
Abbie’s mother won’t talk to Abbie about her cancer, and resents her out of guilt. Because of this, Abbie begins to rent a room from Dorothea.
One night, Abbie has her head on the table during a dinner gathering at Dorothea’s house. Dorothea tells Abbie to wake up and Abbie says “I’m menstruating.” Abbie’s bluntness shocks Dorothea, who tells her that not everyone needs to know she’s on her period.
What follows is Abbie frustratingly detailing why men and women should be more comfortable talking about menstruation. She even makes several men at the table repeat the word “menstruation” back to her casually to show it isn’t a big deal.
This shows the audience how Abbie’s mother’s reluctance to talk about difficult situations with her induced Abbie’s current boldness. Abbie is now even more inclined to confront uneasy topics with others. This scene serves as more than just a brief comical dilemma regarding the feminist perspective. Its purpose is to illuminate Abbie’s current personality with reference to her past.
6. Get Out (2017)
Jordan Peele’s Get Out was nominated for four Academy Awards and won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. It’s no wonder why this incredible horror film was labeled one of Time Magazine’s top ten films of 2017. Peele’s script shows us the power of subtext in creating atmosphere and how important it is when writing dialogue.
Throughout the beginning of the film, there is an off-putting feeling with many of the characters.
Initially, our protagonist, Chris, experiences a sense of relief when he sees Logan King, another Black man, at a gathering full of white people.
This relief quickly turns into concern because of Logan’s unusual response to Chris’ greeting. Chris greets Logan casually by saying, “it’s good to see another brother around here.” Logan responds uneasily by saying, “Hi, yes, of course, it is.” Logan’s eerily formal response makes Chris confused. His confusion is even more heightened when Logan’s much older, white wife appears.
Logan leans in and tells his wife, “Chris was just telling me how he felt much more comfortable with my being here.” This unusual expression of detail is recognized by Chris and Logan’s wife, who rushes him away to greet other guests.
“Logan, I hate to tear you away dear but, the Wincotts were asking about you.”
By adding subtle, yet strange and impactful dialogue, an underlying message is perceived even though very little is said. A notion of knowing something is wrong without knowing exactly why it is wrong is established. From this, the audience can feel a disaster developing and is anxious to know the full story.
7. The Florida Project (2017)
The Florida Project is a film that has quite an opposite dialogue style to that of Wes Anderson’s. Sean Baker, the director and co-writer, actually hired many “non-professionals” for this Academy-Award nominated film. Because of this, the dialogue is very genuine to the setting of the movie.
What The Florida Project teaches about writing dialogue is how and when to stay true to the reality of a story. While some films thrive from being histrionic and others relish underplaying themselves, The Florida Project’s dialogue hits home because of its slice-of-life manner. It takes things as they are, and presents them to the audience as such.
This kind of dialogue, one that gets reality so spot on, can be nothing short of admired. Taking place in the rickety motels near Orlando, Florida, the film centers around Moonee and her mother Halley. They live in The Magic Castle motel in poverty, barely affording to pay rent.
A perfect example of how authentic the film’s dialogue is occurs at the end of the film. At this point, DCF is taking Moonee away from Halley. After an emotional outburst between Halley and the police, Moonee also panics and runs away from a child service’s counselor. She makes it to the nearby motel where her friend Jancey lives.
The dialogue at this part of the film is explicit, aggressive, and emotional. With such an intense scene that portrays the actuality of many families in poverty, there is no need to be anything other than realistic. There has to be foul language, mumbling, and interruptions in speech. Denying this would render the film naive and insensitive to the real world.
8. Lady Bird (2017)
Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird was nominated for five Academy Awards. This film thrives in a script centering around the dysfunctional relationships of a strong-headed adolescent. The coming-of-age comedy-drama film zeros in on the eagerness of a soon-to-be high school graduate and her distaste for the world around her.
What Lady Bird teaches us about writing dialogue is how a film can build conflict through words alone. The dialogue in Lady Bird is what sets off many of the characters and pushes them to behave how they do.
We see this within just the three minutes of the film. As Christine (Lady Bird) and her mother, Marion, drive home, they finish listening to the audio of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath. Christine goes to turn on the radio, but Marion wants to sit in quiet.
An argument quickly erupts from this one disagreement, but the content expands and evolves to reveal the entirety of the characters’ personalities within only a couple of minutes. The result of this brief exchange is more than just an introduction to the film. It is an overall summary of Christine’s and Marion’s personalities and their mother-daughter relationship.
“No one’s asking you to be perfect, just considerate will do.”
From this one scene, we can see how anxiously Christine is itching to gain more from life, but also how her naivety clouds her ability to appreciate her current life. On the other hand, Marion is practical and realistic, leaving her resentful of Christine’s ability to undermine all she has done for her. These fundamental mindsets clash throughout the entire film.
To bring this scene to a close, Christine simply throws herself out of the car. This kind of intemperate resolution just wouldn’t sit right if it was not premeditated by the dialogue that ensued beforehand.
9. Green Book (2018)
Green Book is an example of dialogue that truly exemplifies the characters’ personas. This biographical comedy-drama won three Oscars for Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor. The film was also on the American Film Institute (AFI)’s list of top ten films of the year.
Similar to Lady Bird, in Green Book, we are able to see the characters’ personalities so intensely and so quickly because of their contrariness to one another. What Green Book teaches filmmakers about writing dialogue is how setting your characters apart can bring your story together.
In this film, Tony Lip is a currently unemployed bouncer. Despite his job history in roughhousing drunkards, Tony is frank, nonchalant, and good-natured. On the other hand, Dr. Don Shirley is excessively formal, orderly, and critical of Tony’s easygoingness.
Tony, a white Italian, gets a job driving and protecting Dr. Shirley, a Black pianist, throughout his concert tour in the deep south. The unlikely pair end up learning and growing from each other more than they expected.
The dialogue in Green Book keeps the audience entertained because of how much personality is given to both Tony and Dr. Shirley.
When interviewing Tony for the job, Dr. Shirley tells Tony, “you have impressed several people with your innate ability to handle trouble.” Tony responds with, “okay here’s the deal, I got no problem bein’ on the road with chu, but I ain’t no butler.”
The contrast in diction between Dr. Shirley and Tony shows us that writing unconventional dialogue is not always an opposition between script and genre or context and response, but can also be the unconventionality between the characters themselves.
10. Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012)
Benh Zeitlin’s Beasts of the Southern Wild was nominated for four Oscars at the 85th Academy Awards. This illuminating drama film was adapted from co-writer Lucy Alibar’s one-act play Juicy and Delicious. This film also gave 9-year-old Quvenzhané Wallis the title of youngest Best Actress nominee in history.
Beasts of the Southern Wild takes place in The Bathtub, a fictional community in a Louisiana Bayou. Residents of The Bathtub refuse to move out of the rundown area despite its severe flooding. The film’s protagonist, Hushpuppy, is a spirited six-year-old girl trying to fend off the crumbling world around her while her father, Wink, suffers from a terminal illness.
What Beasts of the Southern Wild teaches about writing dialogue is how to demonstrate a character’s ulterior motives through their speech.
Hushpuppy’s conversations with Wink show us his internal frustrations with dying. Initially, Wink’s verbal aggression towards Hushpuppy gives the audience the impression he is completely neglectful towards her. However, each piece of dialogue gives us more and more insight into the reasoning behind his behavior.
Wink tries to emotionally distance himself from Hushpuppy because of his illness. He wants to isolate himself from her to make his death easier on the both of them, but he also wants to ensure she will survive without him. His parental philosophy is tough love, challenging her so she is prepared for life without him.
“Everybody loses the thing that made them. The brave men stay and watch it happen. They don’t run!”
This is seen during a storm when Wink puts tape on the floor to make a border in the house, defining which side is his and which side is Hushpuppy’s. Despite making this physical separation between them, he yells at Hushpuppy to put on arm floats in case the water rises too high. He says to her, “it’s my job to keep you from dying, okay? So sit back and listen to me.”
Wink’s attempt to dissociate himself from Hushpuppy continually fails because of his innate protectiveness over her. The dialogue between them shows us that Wink’s actions are not ill-intended, but rather side effects of the personal battle he’s fighting.
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This article was written by Brenna Sheets and edited by IS Staff.
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