The Single Biggest Dialogue Sin

Dialogue that is over real can kill your script stone dead – which is just about the opposite of what you think when you start out. Discover the difference between bad real dialogue and great ‘realistic’ dialogue.

In real life most of what we say is ephemeral – even banal. Even in formal situations, there’s a lot of stuff that is just quite meaningless.

Take a look at the following transcripts of real conversations. And then compare them to some ‘realistic’ dialogue from Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet.

Transcript 1: Informal Conversation

(It’s an office at the end of the day. Sarah, a picture researcher, is preparing to go home. She went swimming at lunchtime.)

Charlie:  So no swimming tomorrow, then?
Sarah:    Not on Tuesdays
Charlie:  Well I don’t think you’ve got so many pictures this week you won’t actually have much writing to do, will you? (Laugh) Wasn’t it much fun?
Sarah:    It was. It was er it wasn’t er it wasn’t so much the kids, it was the fact that they’d you know, they’d taken a lane out taken our
Charlie:  Yeh
Sarah:    lane out and er and the fact of having to swim in the same lane as er the er athletes but it was quite rough er
Charlie:  Yeh
Sarah:    Doing all the turns er and crawl and butterfly, all those other
Charlie:  Yeh
Sarah:   and every time we got to the end we had to stop, wait, let them go past again and go join on at the back, otherwise they just kept all coming into us
Charlie:  Mmm
Sarah:    and squashing us
Charlie:  It’s useless though, isn’t it, really, you just don’t build up a sweat or whatever, isn’t it. It gets your breath back and you don’t feel as though you are getting the full benefit
Sarah:    Well we were building up a s. We we we we we were actually having to swim faster than we really wanted to and because they were kind of coming up behind us all the time
Charlie:  Oh right, is that why you didn’t get your breath back?
Sarah:    (laughs)

Note the pauses, the repetition, “we we we … we we”, the filler words (er), the unfinished thoughts, the abrupt end to sentences, the lack of grammar. There’s also signalling to continue – the supportive ‘Yeh’ and ‘mmm’

It’s real alright, but who’d pay to see it in a cinema?

So how about in formal situations? Well, even here speech is nowhere near as precise as you might think.

Transcript 2: Formal Conversation

(A recorded interview with the chairman of a computer software company about the introduction of IT into the UK health system.)

Interviewer:    So, er, have you any particular areas in mind that you would like to erm see presume well erm presumably to do the task there must be one local group that
Chairman:      There’s no specific geographical
Interviewer:    Yeh
Chairman:      erm requirement I mean the
Interviewer:    I was just wondering if you  whether there you have seen areas of the country where there was greater co-operation (between …)
Chairman:      It’s very localised, I, mean I wouldn’t like to be specific, erm but I think it’s really about, you know, how the pharmacist and GPs in a particular town get on and er it would be inappropriate to rush it on people, in one particular place. It’s, it’s not you know the south-west or, wherever it’s, it’s er very much centred on a, a, natural community that practices
Interviewer:    (yeh)
Chairman:      but maybe it’s sensible it’s about time that primary care groups, that primary care groups and there are five hundred of those which serve a hundred thousand population

Even here, where the chairman is very much on top of his brief, he needs to think, he erms, he says “I mean” to give himself more thinking time, he starts down one track of thought and then stops to check where he’s going before repeating the last phrase.

When did you ever see an executive ever portrayed in a hesitant fashion like this on screen? Especially when he didn’t need to feel guilty about anything? Or when did you see a journalist portrayed on the screen so tongue-tied?

Compare the two real life examples above with a scene from a real movie.

Quentin Tarantino’s Screenplay for ‘Pulp Fiction’.

It’s an informal conversation, and possibly just as aimless as the first conversation above about the swimming pool. For the characters, it’s nothing more than filling in the time while they are on the way to their next incident, just shooting the breeze.

Jules:        So, tell me again about the hash bars.
Vincent:     Okay, what you wanna know?
Jules:        Hash is legal there, right?
Vincent:     Yeah, it’s legal, but it ain’t a hundred percent legal. I mean, you can’t walk into a restaurant, roll a joint and start puffing away. They want you to smoke in your home or certain designated places.
Jules:        And those are hash bars?
Vincent:     It breaks down like this: it’s legal to buy it, it’s legal to own it, and if you’re the proprietor of a hash bar, it’s legal to sell it. It’s legal to carry it, but that doesn’t really matter ’cause get a load of this, all right? If you get stopped by the cops in Amsterdam, it’s illegal for them to search you. I mean, that’s a right the cops in Amsterdam don’t have.
Jules:        Oh, man! I’m going, that’s all there is to it. I’m fucking going.
Vincent:     Yeah baby, you’d dig it the most. But you know what the funniest thing about Europe is?
Jules:        What?
Vincent:     It’s the little differences. I mean, they got the same shit over there that they got here, but it’s just – it’s just there it’s a little different.
Jules:        Example?
Vincent:     All right. Well, you can walk into a movie theater in Amsterdam and buy a beer. And I don’t mean just like in no paper cup, I’m talking about a glass of beer. And in Paris, you can buy a beer at McDonald’s. And you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with Cheese in Paris?
Jules:        They don’t call it a Quarter Pounder with Cheese?
Vincent:     Nah, man, they got the metric system. They wouldn’t know what the fuck a Quarter Pounder is.
Jules:        What do they call it?
Vincent:     They call it a “Royale with Cheese.”[2] Jules:        “Royale with Cheese.”
Vincent:     That’s right.
Jules:        What do they call a Big Mac?
Vincent:     A Big Mac’s a Big Mac, but they call it “Le Big Mac”.
Jules:        “Le Big Mac.” [laughs] What do they call a Whopper?
Vincent:     I dunno, I didn’t go into Burger King. But, you know what they put on French fries in Holland instead of ketchup?
Jules:        What?
Vincent:     Mayonnaise.
Jules:        God damn!
Vincent:     I seen them do it, man, they fucking drown them in that shit.
Jules:        That’s some fucked up shit.

(See it at

This conversation is gripping and it’s memorable, yet it’s humdrum and ordinary.

So What’s Going On?

Knowing about the cannabis cafés and burger names and dietary habits of Europe has nothing to do with the final resolution of the film. But it’s a great scene, nonetheless.

So why should we be happy as the paying public to watch this low-impact chat between two characters?

We can respond to certain elements that make it naturalistic. But, importantly, there are no hesitations in the script, or repetitions, or stumbling or sudden change of theme. It’s structured and moving in a clear direction with no back tracking. And, crucially, it’s very entertaining.

Some real world speech habits are introduced on screen by the actors, but nothing excessive, nothing to distract the viewer by being done to excess.

As an exercise, could you imagine what the above conversation would have sounded like in real life? Do you think that if the characters were real, the dialogue would have been as crisp and incisive?

Most likely not, but the writing sweeps you along and interests you and you forget this is completely artificial.

WARNING: Tarantino is Dangerous!

His writing seems the easiest thing in the world to copy. There’s a magic to what he does, a real subtle, inimitable skill, let alone the fact that everyone knows that he more or less cornered the market in dialogue like that. Trust me, one of the fastest ways to the script exec’s wastepaper bin is to set out to imitate his rambling, deceptively discursive style.

Here’s a more ordinary example, from another movie.

‘Glengarry Glen Ross’ by David Mamet

Two real estate salesmen flirt with the idea of breaking into their own office to steal a list of good sales leads.

The extract seems far closer to the hesitancy and stumbling nature of real speech, but that’s an illusion. It is highly structured, focuses on one idea only (the difference in the intentions behind the words ‘talk’ and ‘speak’), and follows that thought through, while allowing us to access the characters’ emotions very directly as they subtly express their unease about admitting they want to do the robbery.

Moss         No. What do you mean? Have I talked to him about this
Aaronow     Yes. I mean are you actually talking about this, or are we just…
Moss         No, we’re just…
Aaronow     We’re just “talking” about it.
Moss         We’re just speaking about it. As an idea.
Aaronow     As an idea.
Moss         Yes.
Aaronow     We’re not actually talking about it.
Moss         No.
Aaronow     Talking about it as a…
Moss         No.
Aaronow     As a robbery.
Moss         As a “robbery”? No.

See what’s going on here?

The big difference between the real conversations and the Mamet here is that the real conversations have no subtext. That is to say, the characters are simply saying what they are thinking. There is no hidden agenda.

In the Mamet the whole exchange just smokes with the fact that neither of the men is prepared to say what he really thinks – and we know it.

(Note that if there is subtext in the Tarantino I don’t know what it is. Yet it still works. That’s what I mean when I say he is magic.)

Practical Exercise

One exercise you might want to try to do is to take the two real transcribed conversations and rewrite them so that they could be performed on screen. You’d start by giving each party in the conversation an agenda that they wanted to keep from the other party, and you’d end with – well, all I ask is that you invite me to the premier if you manage to work them into a screenplay that sells.

So there are some thoughts about dialogue. But killer dialogue on its own just floats untethered and weak. You need to embed it into a killer story. And for that you should take a look at my guide to how to write a screenplay. Born of many years experience of writing screenplays that sell, it’s the real thing.

1 Comment
  1. Most HWOOD script writers are hacks, and here are two prime examples. I suppose in the context being offered, primarily that they make money come, they are both wonder boys. I would rather read a soup label’s ingredient’s list over and over than put myself through reading the flip constructions they generate as dialog.

    Formulaic and a thin shadow of life stuff. Trash.

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