Nothing reveals character as much as dialogue.
This applies in real-life as much as it does in fiction. I can hear your objection to this. Talk is cheap, you say? Actions speak louder than words. I understand your position on this. If a person’s actions are inconsistent with the words they speak, that still reveals a lot about character.
When I’m reading a novel, I tend to enjoy those authors who include a lot of dialogue and handle it well. Just off the top of my head, here are a few tried-and-true authors I count on for this: Elmore Leonard; Robert B. Parker; Stephen King; John D. McDonald; Dennis Lehane; Donald E. Westlake; Bill Pronzini; Marcia Muller; James S.A. Corey. So many others.
If I’m considering a new author, the first thing I will do is flip through the pages to see the dialogue-to-prose ratio. Too many black blocks of paragraphs can be daunting. As much as I appreciate a well-turned phrase, I like to be able to “hear” the characters as I’m reading them.
Nowhere is this more true for me than in film. The author of a movie script doesn’t have all of the same storytelling devices to fall back upon that a novelist has. Film relies on visuals and dialogue. Sure, you may reveal a character’s secret thoughts through voiceovers, but I’m not a big fan of those. This usually just serves to remind me that I’m watching a movie, putting more distance between me and whatever’s on the screen. Even high-energy action movies require scenes in which characters speak to each other.
Sure, you can rattle off several effective films with little in the way of dialogue. The early Clint Eastwood spaghetti westerns come to mind. As does There Will Be Blood, WALL-E, 2001: A Space Odyssey, No Country for Old Men, and The Road Warrior. All great movies, and I’ll concede that point. Movies with little dialogue are terrific for stories with only one main character, or to highlight the quality of loneliness. The Tom Hanks’ film Cast Away featured one man stranded alone on an island for much of the film, but even he began talking to Wilson, the volleyball. De Niro, in Taxi Driver, talked to himself (“Are you looking at me?”).
I’d argue that these movies are remarkable because they are exceptions to the rule. The movies I enjoy the most have dialogue, and usually lots of it. Men must have something to quote, after all.
I’ve been watching the television series The West Wing for the first time recently. Aaron Sorkin’s facility with dialogue is nothing short of amazing. I was immediately reminded of two of the movies he wrote, The American President and A Few Good Men. Neither movie featured much in the way of on-screen action, but, boy, did I love to hear his characters talk. Whether it was witty repartee between Jo (Demi Moore), Kaffee (Tom Cruise), and Sam (Kevin Pollak), or Col. Jessup (Jack Nicholson) being grilled on the stand, or an intimate conversation between President Shepherd (Michael Douglas) and Sydney Ellen Wade (Annette Bening), Sorkin’s dialogue kept me riveted to the screen. Sure, it helps that he had Hollywood heavyweights reciting his lines; however, it’s all there on the page. Read the scripts and judge for yourself. There’s a reason good actors wanted roles in these movies.
This newfound appreciation (or reminder) of Sorkin’s work made me think about how I became a fan of two other American writer/directors.
I haven’t liked everything that Kevin Smith has created, but I became a fan for life after watching just two of his movies. Chasing Amy was my first exposure to Smith’s unique viewpoint on life. Holden McNeil (Ben Affleck) and Alyssa Jones (Joey Lauren Adams) were the main characters. While I enjoyed the verbal dance between those two, it was Banky Edwards (Jason Lee) who held my attention with his angry speechifying. That the movie was set in the milieu of independent comic book creators helped as well, of course. The Kevin Smith movie that sealed the deal for me was the low-budget Clerks, which was genuinely almost nothing but dialogue, set in or on the roof of a New Jersey convenience store. Listening to Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) talk to each other reminded me of similar pointless (but entertaining) conversations I had with my own friends. Their conversation about the destruction of the Death Star in Star Wars communicated with me on a near visceral level.
I became a Quentin Tarantino fan in a similar way. I believe it was Pulp Fiction which first drew me in. Let me say here, at the beginning, that Tarantino is a much more accomplished filmmaker than Kevin Smith. Even Smith would admit to that fact. But, again, it was Tarantino’s use of dialogue that made me a fan. The Royale-with-Cheese scene between Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) is now iconic of course, but nearly every scene in this movie is. The near-monologue delivered by Mia Wallace (Uma Thurman) about shooting a television pilot, and the one about Captain Koons (Christopher Walken) smuggling a watch in a Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) flashback spring instantly to mind, but there is literally no scene in this movie that makes me tune out what the characters are saying to one another.
I watched Reservoir Dogs after watching Pulp Fiction. I discovered that the things I liked in Tarantino’s work had already been on display. I had just missed them. I recall a scene in which one character—I think the one played by Tim Roth—described the character played by actor Lawrence Tierney as looking like The Thing from the Fantastic Four comic. Which he did. I knew then that I was enjoying the work of a kindred spirit.
It was more than just the pop culture references in Smith and Tarantino’s work, though. It was the way their characters spoke to each other. The same quality on display in Sorkin’s creations.
I haven’t watched interviews with Aaron Sorkin, so I’m not sure what he sounds like in what we call the real world. I have heard Kevin Smith and Quentin Tarantino. A lot. And both men sound just like the dialogue they are putting into the mouths of other actors. In this case, their writer’s voice seems to be the same as the one they use everyday. I like the way they talk. I bet I’d discover that this was true of Sorkin as well.
There are other creators who belong on this list, I know. J.J. Abrams, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Joss Whedon demand to be counted in my mind as well. I’m sure you could add a few others.
If you want to improve your own dialogue writing, you might consider watching television and movies for inspiration.