Writers have told me that dialog is the key to a great script. Producers have paid little attention to dialog, especially since they can hire an expert dialog writer to spruce up the draft. Top selling writers pay a lot of attention to story structure and little attention to dialog.
Why the disconnect, especially when the industry needs more writers?
Since we’ll never figure out the answer, I’d like to at least encourage writers to understand the top five things producers look for in dialog. I’ll use Quentin Tarantino for the examples, since he is one of the best writers in Hollywood with nine prestigious awards including two Oscars®.
Dialog is NOT about Telling the Story
Tarantino never tells the story through the dialog, but rather uses dialog to reveal depth within his characters. Tarantino tells the story through structure, situations and action, leaving the dialog free to enhance his characters.
Dialog is About Characters
In Pulp Fiction, the dialog revealed the interesting quirks of the lead characters, while their actions revealed that they were hardened hit men. The characters were so fascinating that the audience was willing to sit through all of the hits in order to learn more about the men.
Tarantino toys with the audience using dialog and gets them to laugh at circumstantial humor, rather than being grossed out by the violence that is prevalent in many of his films. He is one of the few writers that can get a person who is soured by violence to laugh during a violent moment, due to his entertaining dialog.
Dialog Alludes to Subtext
D’Jango Unchained was loaded with subtext. This attribute makes an actor’s job easy and fun. It creates multiple levels of story without being spoken. In fact, actors appreciate it so much that Tarantino never seems to have a problem bringing actors back for another picture. There are two and a half dozen actors who have had roles in multiple Tarantino films including Samuel L. Jackson who performed in five of his films.
Dialog Creates Anticipation
Tarantino’s films are filled with moments of anticipation. Reservoir Dogs was the first film packed with moments that forced the audience to wonder what was going to happen next. Each subsequent film raised more questions and generated all the more anticipation. The unknown or unexpected helps heighten the anticipation.
Producers purchase scripts where the dialog is not about telling the story, but about setting up intrigue, entertaining the audience, alluding to subtext, and deepening the characters. Using dialog in any other way reduces the writer’s opportunities to sell their script.
© 2013 by CJ Powers