So much has been said about how to craft effective dialogue that it is difficult to take it all in. This article distills the best advice into four powerful techniques
In his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain, stresses that dialogue performs four main functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.
1. Dialogue reveals new information: Tell the audience what it needs to know to follow the story. The trick is to do it subtly.
Inglorious Basterds is a great example of how to provide information while maintaining the tension. At the start of the movie a Nazi officer, Colonel Hans Landa, interviews a French farmer, monsieur LaPadite, about the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area—a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the floorboards where the interview is taking place! The tension and irony are palpable.
“Effective dialogue performs several functions, and does so in a seamless way.”
2. Dialogue generates emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should generate emotion. Failure to do so makes for flat, listless speech. In the above example, each line spoken by Landa heightens the stakes for LaPadite and his family, since discovering the Jewish family under the floorboards will lead to disaster.
3. Dialogue promotes the plot: Dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously—it should not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that Landa is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that Landa already knows the truth and is merely prolonging the questioning to torment the farmer.
4. Dialogue deepens character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. Colonel Landa, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially feels more like a conversation between friends than an interrogation. LaPadite, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial—part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.
Taken together, then, these functions make for effective dialogue—a great addition to a writer’s toolkit.
Effective dialogue performs four functions—it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.