[Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared on WeScreenplay. It is reprinted here in collaboration with that site.]
by Mark Stasenko (@WeScreenplay)
1. GLENGARRY GLEN ROSS written by David Mamet
What we learn: Specificity makes dialogue work
It’s hard to talk about dialogue and not include David Mamet, and Glengarry Glen Ross is quintessential Mamet in all his glory. This play-turned-film shows the importance of being specific in dialogue. In his Oscar winning monologue, Alec Baldwin doesn’t say “It’s important for you to sell,” he says “Always be closing.” By using the vernacular of the occupation and a corporate A.B.C. pitch, the dialogue feels more honest.
Watch the scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q4PE2hSqVnk
2. THE HATEFUL EIGHT written by Quentin Tarantino
What we learn: Dialogue should be poetic
While this is a quality in almost all Tarantino films, especially his more recent, you’ll notice it even more so in The Hateful Eight – Tarantino writes dialogue in an almost song like fashion. The repetition of words, the alliteration, the allusions, and monologues all give the dialogue in his films a flow that is very rare to find anywhere else. While this isn’t perfect for every genre, its a great learning tool.
3. SEVEN PSYCHOPATHS written by Martin McDonagh
What we learn: Characters should say what we don’t expect
First of all, Martin McDonagh is the only playwright to ever have four plays running simultaneously in London other than William Shakespeare – so we know we can learn a lot from this writer. However, what he shows us in Seven Psychopaths is that having characters say what we would least expect in that moment is extremely powerful. When a gun is raised to Christopher Walken and he’s told to put his hands up he simply replies: “No.” There are so many other great moments where McDonagh surprises us with a simple line.
Watch the scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KsQq_w1jt5A
4. THE ARTIST written by Michel Hazanavicius
What we learn: Don’t say what can be shown
While this is an odd movie to think of in terms of dialogue, it shows how much can be SHOWN rather than TOLD. One of the best ways to improve your dialogue is to remove any dialogue that isn’t necessary and show us instead. The Artist is a great lesson in ‘show don’t tell.’
5. THE SOCIAL NETWORK written by Aaron Sorkin
What we learn: Misunderstandings are always interesting
Aaron Sorkin is another playwright (there’s a pattern here) who has mastered the art of dialogue for the screen. What Sorkin does so brilliantly is always have two characters misunderstand each other in conversation. This is an excellent way to reveal the priorities of the characters while keeping the pace of the story moving. The opening scene of The Social Network does this brilliantly.
Watch that scene here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IlXwTxpC6u0
6. FARGO written by Ethan Coen and Joel Coen
What we learn: Characters with the same accent can have different voices
Too often when we’re writing period pieces or stories where the local dialect plays a heavy role, we can find ourselves writing every character with the exact same voice. Fargo is a masterpiece for showing that despite every character coming from the same place, they can all have very different voices.
7. AMERICAN BEAUTY written by Alan Ball
What we learn: Subtext, subtext, subtext
Every single line in this script is dripping with subtext. However, this only works because the story sets up every character’s goals so clearly by showing what they want, and then having that character say what they want in a different way. The most interesting dialogue doesn’t actually mean what it says. American Beauty is one of the best examples of that.
8. THE HANGOVER written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore
What we learn: Dialogue is based in character
One of the reasons Lucas and Moore created such a great comedy with The Hangover is because the dialogue and jokes are routed in the characters first. Great lines of dialogue will fall dead if they aren’t believable. Had Phil (Bradley Cooper) said a line that was written for Alan (Zach Galifianakis) the comedy wouldn’t have worked. If you’re going to have insane lines of comedy, make sure to create an insane character to say them.
9. THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION written by Frank Darabont
What we learn: Sometimes a voice over works brilliantly
Voice overs can be perceived as lazy writing, but if done properly, they can also elevate the viewing experience. The rule of thumb with VO: never use it unless it’s revealing something about the character and story that the audience wouldn’t otherwise realize. The Shawshank Redemption has one of the best running voice overs of any film, with Red (Morgan Freeman) giving us a beautifully rendered narrative of the story.
Thanks for reading and let us know what your favorite lines of dialogue are from any movie!
Mark is a writer and co-founder of WeScreenplay.