I am often asked by audiences and my screenwriting class students on how one writes dialogue. More specifically, almost ninety-nine percent of the time the question is, “How do you make dialogue sound natural and realistic?”
Like in many things in life, the answer lies in asking the right question. So is this the right question?
“How can I make my dialogue sound more natural and realistic?” My answer is always, “Why do you want to make it sound natural and realistic?” Not “why would you?” but “why do you?”
It’s not wrong to want something more “natural and realistic” from one’s dialogue, but consider the motivation of the writer who asks this question. Judging from the question, it is fair to assume that the writer feels his/her dialogue is unnatural sounding because the dialogue is being used to convey information.
Consider the following example from the first scene of a screenplay:
Woman A: I don’t know what to do.
Woman B: What are you talking about? He’s your husband who you love very much and Jack is someone you haven’t seen in ten years. Remember how he dumped you? You were devastated. And what about your three kids?”
There’s nothing wrong with this line of dialogue per se. We do say stuff like that. It’s just at the beginning of a script, it sounds like information is being shoved down our throat. We take offense. What makes dialogue sound unnatural is that it sounds informational.
As audience, we do not want information. We want drama. Drama is the Greek word for “do, act.”
If we see a character or characters engaged in an action that is part of a larger “conflict” then it’s easier to know what dialogue is needed. The simple truth is that the characters will say anything that they think will achieve what they want, not what the writer wants the audience to know. “What the characters want” is the answer to all questions regarding drama.
Consider this highly unnatural but extremely memorable and powerful speech:
“There’s a passage I got memorized, seems appropriate for this situation: Ezekiel 25:17. ‘The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother’s keeper and the finder of lost children. And I will strike down upon thee with great vengeance and furious anger those who attempt to poison and destroy my brothers. And you will know my name is the Lord when I lay my vengeance upon you.’”
One can ask, who talks like that? Actually, I know someone who walks around quoting Shakespearean monologues and he’s one of the shadiest people I know. That doesn’t give the writer license to write such unrealistic dialogue, especially since Jules, who delivers the speech, is a hardened gangster from Pulp Fiction.
It’s an exercise in dialogue taken to extreme theatricality. Jules wants retribution. He wants to put the fear of God into this traitor he’s talking to. He wants to make his killing a ritualized, justified act of his conscience, using the Bible. If you asked the writer, he may say it’s all of those things or none of those things. But we the audience are deciphering the motivation of his speech. We accept it because we understand his want. The speech is partly fabricated and partly taken from different passages in the Bible. Tarantino made this speech up which is an even more audacious act, taking this story into the realm of hyper-fiction.
What we want to ask of the characters is what we want to ask of ourselves: What does he want from her? What does she want from him? What do I want from her? What does she want from me?
What the characters want is really what we want. If what they want is not what we want deep down, then we can’t relate to it. Sounding natural without the want in dialogue is like the guy who is embarrassed at being naked so he puts on a pair of sunglasses to cover himself up.