Plain-Speaking: How Character and Story are Hidden in Dialogue

By  · Published on December 16th, 2016

It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.

One of the first rules you should learn as a screenwriter – after “show, don’t tell” – is that every single line of dialogue needs to move the story forward, every single line, and if it doesn’t, cut it. We’re not just talking about plot here, though, dialogue can reveal character, it can intimate the nature of relationships between characters, it can be used to establish locale either physically, temporally, emotionally or socially, and it can state a film’s thematic drive. If dialogue reveals these things directly that’s blatant exposition and such a thing is to be avoided in screenwriting as surely as voiceovers; the best writers, however, slip these things into seemingly unimportant, casual, or innocuous conversations, thus delivering them more naturally.

Think about the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which has got to be one of the most brilliant, subtle, and succinct revelations of multiple character types through conversation in all of cinema history. Over the course of five minutes, every major character in the film is established – their traits, their quirks, their attitudes, their idiosyncrasies – without revealing anything of the past, present, or future. These are just men talking to one another about the most banal things (music videos, tipping policies, songs on the radio) but how they talk about it tells us all we need to know about them. We know Mr. Brown (QT) is a crass loudmouth, the flashy type; we know Mr. Pink (Steve Buscemi) is the weasely, self-serving one; we know Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) is the stern father figure; we know Mr. Blonde (Michael Madsen) is the playful, tough-guy type; we know Mr. Orange (Tim Roth) is the follower, the hanger-on. And the best part is, we aren’t consciously learning about these men, it’s just that when the scene ends we know them, and we can guess as to the kinds of things each are capable of, both individually and as whatever sort of unit they comprise. That’s good writing.

Using this scene from Reservoir Dogs as well as scenes from The Social Network (written by Aaron Sorkin) and The Prestige (written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan), UK-based essay channel Film in the Making eruditely examines how cryptic dialogue can be more impactful and significant than that of the straightforward, expositional variety. Writers especially – of any sort – should get their eyes on this one, though anyone who enjoys intelligent storytelling will be enthralled with the secrets here revealed.

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