If I told you I knew how to write dialog I would be lying. I have no clue how I do it. I listen and type what I hear. (Yes, these are the voices in my head.) So when people go on and on about dialog it bores me. And not just because I feel like it’s easy for me. It’s because I don’t think dialog is all that important. Not fundamentally. Seriously, Edgar Allen Poe’s dialog is horrible. You quickly discover this when reading A Cask of Amontillado aloud. But it’s not enough to stop Cask from being a brilliant short story. Bad dialog is not enough to wreck a story. But there is a mistake that is made with dialog will tank a story. And to understand it, you need to buy into an observable fact about people. People rarely say what they mean. Listen to what people actually say. Better yet, record what people actually say.
Chip – How are you? Larry – I’m good.
We all know Larry’s not good. Larry got up this morning and he’s got a pain in his leg. It’s the end of the month and it looks like he’s not going to meet his sales quota. Furthermore he’s in a loveless marriage, his kid just wrecked the car and he’s realized that nothing in his life has prepared him to deal with middle age. In short he’s in pain, broke, sexually frustrated and afraid of death. But he says, “I’m good.” And if anything really was good in his life, he wouldn’t say, “I’m good” like the rest of us poor slobs, he’d say, “I’m great. I’m fantastic. This is the best day of my life.” Here’s an example from real life. I’m standing outside a movie theatre waiting for a friend. A father comes along and drops his son 15 year old son off to work at the theatre. And as he’s saying good bye, he calls his son’s attention back to him and asks him what he thinks about the game tonight. A game that the boy is obviously going to miss. The boy hunches over, the dad leans awkwardly across the seat and the talk about this game for a good five minutes. Traffic outside the movie theatre is stopped. Stopped because they are talking about basketball. Or are they? I don’t think so. Whatever words they were using, I think the father was saying, “I’m scared. You’re growing up so fast. Tonight we don’t get to watch the game, but soon you’ll be out of the house.” And I think the son was saying, “It’s okay Dad. I’m scared too, but I’m growing up. And it’s going to be okay. They’ll be other games. I’m still your son.” In essence they were both saying the same thing. “I love you.” Only guys don’t say that. They talk about basketball. And hold up traffic. And the words don’t matter. In fact, to get someone to really say what they mean, you generally have to put them in an extreme situation. And the reason the exact dialog doesn’t matter is that story doesn’t turn on dialog. It turns on action. Another example, from the second Godfather movie
KAY I’ll bring the children up now; they want to say goodbye. MICHAEL Kay, I told you… KAY Goodbye, Michael. MICHAEL I won’t let you leave! Christ, do you think I’m going to let you leave. KAY (meekly) Michael. MICHAEL No, I don’t want to hear anything. There are things between men and women that will not change; things that have been the same for thousands of years. You are my wife, and they are my children… and I love you and I will not let you leave, because you are MINE! KAY Oh, I do feel things for you, Michael; but now, I think it’s pity. For the first time since I’ve known you, you seem so helpless. You held me a prisoner once; will you try again? MICHAEL If that’s what it takes; then yes, I will. KAY At this moment, I feel no love for you at all. I never thought that could happen, but it has. MICHAEL We’ll go back tonight. Bring the children. KAY You haven’t heard me. He moves to her; he does love her, and is tender with her. MICHAEL How can I let you leave; how can I let you take my children away? Don’t you know me? You understand, it’s an impossibility. I would never let it happen; no, never, not if it took all my strength, all my cunning. But in time, soon, you’ll feel differently. You see, you’ll be happy that I stopped you. I know you. You’ll forget about this; you’ll forget about the baby we lost… and we’ll go on, you and I. KAY The baby I lost… MICHAEL I know what it meant… and I’m prepared to make it up to you. I will make changes; I can. (he clenches his fist tightly) I CAN change; that I have learned, that I have the strength to change… And we have another child, a boy… and you’ll forget the miscarriage. KAY It wasn’t a miscarriage. And you with your cunning, couldn’t you figure it out! It was an abortion; an abortion, like our marriage is an abortion, something unholy and evil. I don’t want your son; I wouldn’t bring another of your sons into this world. An abortion, Michael… it was a son, and I had it killed, but this must all end! VIEW ON MICHAEL He had no hint, not in his wildest imagination could he have guessed that she would do such a thing. KAY And I know that now it’s over; I knew it then, there would be no way you could ever forgive me, not with this Sicilian thing that goes back two thousand years. He is silent, though raging — then, with all his passion, and his strength, he raises his arms, and strikes her across her neck, literally knocking her down to the floor, and hurting her badly.
There is no bit of dialog that could possibly have the impact of Michael striking his wife. And if you watch the scene that made it into the movie you will realize that a fair amount of the script that goes missing on the editing floor. It’s the dialog that’s non-essential. So, in the final bit of ranting analysis. If you get the story right, any dialog stands a better chance of working. If you get the story wrong – no matter how brilliant the dialog may be – it won’t save the story.