How to Write Great Dialogue

Great DialogueSTORY consultant Linda Seger reminds us that great dialogue is an indispensable part of any enduring story.

Great dialogue has rhythm, context and veracity. It conveys character through subtext and promotes plot through subtlety, ingenuity and compression.

Making Dialogue Memorable

Sometimes a line of dialogue rises to the status of theme and serves to sum up the premise of the story. At its best, it becomes a meme, an item in our menu of commonly used expressions.

In my classes on storytelling, I urge my students to come up with several supercharged lines in their story that not only capture some important aspect of a character, but that also sum up or, at least, highlight important features of the tale.

Such snippets of dialogue increase their power through repetition, not only within the story itself, (the line is repeated by the same or other characters), but also extradigetically, through the viewers and readers who quote it in their everyday lives.

Who can forget these immortal lines?

1. “Go ahead, make my day.”
2. “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”
3. “Life is like a box of chocolates.”
4. “I’ll be back.”
5. “I love the smell of napalm in the morning.”
6. “I’m not bad. I’m just drawn that way.”
7. “I’m going to make you an offer you can’t refuse.”

Great dialogue echoes, sings, resonates, surprises and excites. Like great music, it keeps replaying itself over and over in our minds.

How many of the lines above can you place? Check below for the answers.

Summary

Great dialogue performs many functions in a story. At its best, it becomes a meme that spreads throughout society, immortalising its source.

1. Dirty Harry
2. The Wizard of Oz
3. Forrest Gump
4. Terminator
5. Apocalypse Now
6. Who Killed Roger Rabbit
7. The Godfather

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2 thoughts on “How to Write Great Dialogue

  1. Karel Segers

    I would argue that every single one of these examples is great, not because of the inherent dialogue quality, but because of the context.

    In themselves, these lines virtually have no meaning. It is the plot that fuels a very simple line with tremendous power.

    With a great plot, great characters, virtually any line can be powered to become immortal.

    In the script, nobody would have picked a line as “I’ll be back” to be ‘great’. It really takes the context PLUS Arnie’s delivery to work.

    Reply
    1. Stavros Halvatzis Post author

      Indeed so, Karel, that’s why I mention ‘context’ in my list of characteristics, as well as ‘rising to the level of theme’, etc. Dialogue mines these other aspects for meaning. However, I think the emphasis you place on plot is overstated. Plot, without deeply defined and finely crafted characters, is not enough to render a memorable story. But that’s an argument that’s raged for centuries!

      Reply

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