Wednesday 1 April 2009

Natural & Realistic Dialogue

What is good dialogue? Is it natural dialogue? I've heard myself speak, if that was put in a movie - no-one would watch. So what is good dialogue?.

Good dialogue to me is like dancing. Likewise, bad dialogue can be as embarassing as seeing your parents dance. There's a rhythm to good dialogue. In a film like 'Manhattan Murder Mystery', where Woody Allen was really on-form, the one-liners just keep coming, and they fit so perfectly into the mouths of the characters that you just can't help but be swept away by it.

I've heard a few people say that Aaron Sorkin writes realistic dialogue. Give me a break!. Here's a little piece of Sorkin genius:

Sam Seaborn: So, listen, there's a fire in Yellowstone Park.
Josh Lyman: Well, put it out.
Sam Seaborn: Technically, I'm not a professional firefighter, though there was a time I wanted to be.
Josh Lyman: When?
Sam Seaborn: When I was four.
Josh Lyman: When I was four, I wanted to be a ballerina.
Sam Seaborn: Yeah?
Josh Lyman: I don't like to talk about it.
Sam Seaborn: Ballerina?
Josh Lyman: I'd kinda like that not to get around.
Sam Seaborn: Yeah. No chance of that.

President Bartlet: [Later, that same day] Josh?
Josh Lyman: Yes, sir?
President Bartlet: A ballerina?
Josh Lyman: Yeah, I didn't... I didn't know what it was at the time. I liked the word.
President Bartlet: We'll go with that for now.

Now, I LOVE this sequence - but is it natural? is it realistic? Of course not! But it's still great dialogue. So, whilst many people talk about loving natural dialogue; I strongly make the case that natural dialogue is bad dialogue.

Maybe I am speaking from a comedy point of view. My favourite writers tend to be those who write comedy. Look at Diablo Cody's 'Juno'; that film was hilarious, and within it held many truths and many things I could relate too; and in that sense -- perhaps you could say it was realistic. But was the dialogue itself realistic? Honest to blog - no, it wasn't.

For my money the greatest dialogue writer of all time is Billy Wilder. When I watch his films or read his screenplays I could literally cry with joy. For anyone who likes to read, or live - I beg you to read 'The Apartment' screenplay. It is PURE magic.

Billy's screenplays were not about realism. They were about something more interesting than that. In Billy's films we could learn a lot about his characters and a lot about ourselves. His characters feel like reflections of who we are; I feel like I know them, I feel like I could be them-- this is the magical world that Billy and his writing partners would create. But it's not REALISTIC dialogue, it's not NATURAL.

By the way, here's my all time top piece of dialogue, it's from 'Double Indemnity'

Barton Keyes: Have you made up your mind?
Jackson: Mr. Keyes, I'm a Medford man - Medford, Oregon. Up in Medford, we take our time making up our minds.
Barton Keyes: Well, we're not in Medford, we're in a hurry.

The first time I saw 'Double Indemnity' was at a packed screening at the ICA in London. Everyone loved at the Medford line, it was hilarious. But as we left the screening, I heard people talking about how natural Billy's dialogue is. And I just don't get it.

If Sorkin, Allen, Cody and Wilder's writing was natural would it be interesting? I think not. To call the dialogue natural is to do them a great disservice. They do something far more entertaining, moving and important than that. They do movie dialogue, and they do it better than anyone else.

Care to share?


  1. Good talk about dialogue. I always use this rule. It's basic but if you keepit in mind, it usually helps:

    Bob says something to Sam

    Sam' mind on something else. He talks about that.

    In time, Sam takes an interest in Bob.

    Then Bob has a sudden interest in what Sam was saying.

  2. I've honestly never thought about movie dialogue that much...and not in terms of natural or realistic. After I read this I thought, "Why HAVEN'T I thought about it?"

    I'm looking forward to checking out 'The Apartment'. After all, I like living...and you make a compelling argument.

  3. But surely, the best movie dialogue IS natural, it's just the natural part that people don't think of. It's a part that the writer has syphoned from real life. When you think of yourself having spoken to another person, you remember being inarticulate, stumbling over words; a conversation with no thrust leading to no specific place. You didn't know why you were saying what you were saying, what you hoped to gain, or what you were going to say next. Movie characters have the added bonus of having a point to their speech, a thrust behind their argument, a place where the conversation will end up. That's what make's dialogue great - certainty. In delivery. In the message. In the manner.

  4. Well, as you can likely deduce from my screen-name, I'm a huge Billy Wilder fan. I think that The Apartment is the very best thing ever written. Ever. Said and done. Wilder wrote dialogue like Charlie Chaplin moved: quickly, hilariously, and with a wonderful gloss of melancholy. Just as movement made the Tramp, Wilder's dialogue made all of his characters something special.

    Great to encounter another Wilder fan!