13 movie dialogue rules to write great dialogues (part 3)

Did you know that a flat movie dialogue is one of the Top 7 Deadly Flaws of a Bad Screenplay?

And it's one of the main reasons for a screenplay to get tossed instead of read ?

So, if you wonder if YOU broke any of these 13 rules, or how you can write an original dialogue, check this series of articles.

It's practical and full of movie scripts and video examples.

Apocalypse Now Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore

Movie dialogue rule #7. Know your characters intimately

We asked our dialogue expert, David, aka Blablator, to lead us through the 13 movie dialogue rules.

If you missed the first two parts of this series, you may want to check them out first.
Here is the link to Part 1, where it all started.

What a script!:
While in Dudeville I interviewed Cool Dude, an expert on how to create compelling characters.
He stressed the importance of knowing your characters as much as you know yourself. Are you saying the same applies to movie dialogue?

Definitely. It's your access to write great dialogue.

Consider something. You, me, everybody, we do not see the world the same way.
Our view of life is colored by our past - our experiences, our education, our decisions etc. - and the meaning we gave to everything that happened to us.

And our behaviors and actions are in line with our view of life.

All of that shapes what we say - how we say it and what we don't say.
And what we say and how we say it, is totally consistent with our view of life.

What a script!:
Can you please give us some examples?

I'll do better than that. I have a quiz for you. It's called: Who said it?
I give you 3 characters who have some things in common and 3 movie dialogue quotes.
Your job is to match the characters with the quotes based on a short summary of each character's past / view of life.

Character #1:
Will Hunting Will Hunting, from the screenplay Good Will Hunting, written by Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
He's in his 20's, a mathematician genius, a past of orphan, abuse and violence. He trusts no-one, does not know what he wants to do with his life, does not dare to commit and fights with everyone - verbally or physically - except with his friends.

Character #2:
Homer Welles Homer Welles, from the screenplay The Cider House rules, written by John Irving.
He's also in his 20's. He's been raised by Dr Larch whom he assists in performing abortions although he does not agree to it. He decides to leave the orphanage where he spent all his life to discover the world and what he wants to do with his life.

Character #3:
Sam Monroe Sam Monroe, from the screenplay Life as a House, written by Mark Andrus.
He's 16, cynical, fights against his divorced parents, thinks he's nothing and spends his time getting high.

And now the quotes:
a) "Why can't you all just die and leave me alone!"
b) You think I'm afraid of you, you big fuck? You're crowdin' the plate.
c) Killing mice is as close as I want to come to playing God.

Did you guess who says what? Check the results here

Although these characters have something in common - they are all young, orphans or feel alone - the way they see life is very different. And as a result they speak very differently.

Sam could not say "Killing mice is as close as I want to come to playing God". It would just not fit.
But when he says "Why can't you all just die and leave me alone", we get it. We get the rage, the frustration, and at the same time the cry for help.

The same applies to Homer. Imagine the following lines coming out of his mouth: "You think I'm afraid of you, you big fuck? You're crowdin' the plate." It would not work either. That's not Homer.
But when he says "Killing mice is as close as I want to come to playing God" we get the moral conflict he faces every time he helps performing abortion.

Will could not say either "why can't you all just die and leave me alone!". Only a victim would say that, and Will is not a victim. He's a fighter. So this quote would not fit his character.

My point is that when you know your characters intimately, you know what they will say and how they will say it - whatever situation you put them in.
Someone threatens your character with a gun? you know what he will say. Your character is in love? you know how he will show his affection. Someone accuses your character of a crime he did not commit, again you know what he will do and say.

So your main access to great movie dialogue is to know your characters intimately.
Because when you do, you know what to let your characters say and how to say it.
And every movie dialogue will then sound right, natural and distinct.

Movie dialogue rule #8. Create characters we root / care for

What a script!:
What's the link between this rule and writing great movie dialogue?

You could say it's a prerequisite.

Imagine you have created great dialogues. They are sharp and really work. You are really happy about them. Congratulations!

Only problem is ... we don't care about hearing them. Oops!

Why? because we do not care about those who say them. These characters leave us indifferent - we are not moved, inspired or triggered by them. Actually, as far as we are concerned they might as well shut up or even die.

This is by the way one of the Top 7 Flaws of a Bad Screenplay.

How to avoid that?

Create characters we root and/or care for.

We created a whole series of articles about how to write compelling characters.

By the way, when I say characters we root and/or care for, I don't mean characters we necessarily love.

Hannibal Lecter Hannibal Lecter, the well-educated and refined killer who eats his victims in the screenplay written by Ted Tally, The Silence of the Lambs, is not a character the audience loves.

But he fascinates. So when he says

                             DR. LECTER                  A census taker once tried to test                     me. I ate his liver with some fava                  beans and a nice chianti...     			
the audience listens.

Lieutnant Colonel Bill Kilgore The same applies to Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore from Apocalypse Now, written by John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola.

He's reckless, loves the smell of napalm in the morning, puts the Walkyrie on in his chopper to "start the dance" (i.e. the attack against the enemy) and tells his men to go surfing while being under fire.

He has a very strong and exentric personality, which has us be intrigued - if not fascinated.

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Results of the quiz of movie dialogue rule # 7

The pairs to match were:

Will Hunting:
- b) You think I'm afraid of you, you big fuck? You're crowdin' the plate.

Homer Welles:
- c) Killing mice is as close as I want to come to playing God.

Sam Monroe:
- a) Why can't you all just die and leave me alone!

Go back to rule #7

Liked this article? Then, don't plead the 5th!

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Pictures and screenplay extracts:
-- "Apocalypse Now" - Robert Duvall (Lieutenant Colonel Bill Kilgore), Francis Ford Coppola (director), Vittorio Storaro (cinematography), John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola (screenplay)

-- "Good Will Hunting" - Matt Damon (Will Hunting), Gus van Sant (director), Jean Yves Escoffier (director of photography), Matt Damon and Ben Affleck (screenplay)

-- "The Cider House Rules" - Tobey Maguire (Homer Welles), Lasse Hallstrom (director), Oliver Stapleton (director of photography), John Irving (screenplay)

-- "Life as a House" - Hayden Christensen (Sam), Irwin Winkler (director), Vilmos Zsigmond (director of photography), Mark Andrus (screenplay)

-- "The Silence of the Lambs" - Anthony Hopkins (Lecter), Tak Fujimoto (director of photography), Jonathan Demme (director), Ted Tally (screenplay)

Maybe I'll go home*:

Go from 13 Movie Dialogue Rules (part 3) to Whatascript! Home page

* Josh in "Life as a House", screenplay written by Mark Andrus

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