Case studies: Writing Dialogue

The following clips illus­trate some of the aspects of writing dialogue mentioned in Screen­writing Tech­nique: Writing Dialogue. Note that this is only a tiny sample meant to touch on issues such as the use of dialogue to convey expos­i­tion effect­ively (one of the main prob­lems that novice screenwriter’s exper­i­ence) as well as to under­score the import­ance of sub-textual meaning.


Ordinary People 1980

Expos­i­tion in dialogue

Read the script
(It’s recom­mended that you read this early draft of the scene before watching the clip)

Ordinary People was a family melo­drama about the inab­ility of a mother to love her son. This scene occurred quite early in the film. Conrad, an alien­ated teen­ager, blames himself for the death of his brother and has attempted suicide. He looks up Karen, a girl who spent time in the same psychi­atric hospital, hoping to find common ground in the exper­i­ence they shared together.

The script extract here is from an early draft of the scene. It is not badly written but it contains quite a lot of anec­dotal inform­a­tion. The dialogue is used to propel the scene, rather in the manner of a stage play. In the version that reached the screen however much of that inform­a­tion has been pared away. There are silences and misdir­ec­tions. The scene is graph­ic­ally more about the lack of commu­nic­a­tion between the char­ac­ters than what is said.

The ability of film to penet­rate a moment — in this case, to capture the subtlest nuances — is some­thing unique to the medium. Dialogue written for the screen should exploit this by leaving room for it to happen.


Coup­ling 2000

Subtext — the unspoken and unsayable

It’s a general rule that dialogue written ‘on the nose’ is a bad idea but some­times it can be a great comic device. In Annie Hall, Woody Allen exploited it very effect­ively in one scene by using subtitles on screen to show what the char­ac­ters were really thinking.

Coup­ling was a very successful UK comedy series that, at its best moments, aspired to pure farce. Here the idea of a ‘truth helmet’ — a typic­ally throwaway comic inven­tion – uses video gaming conven­tions to show the subtext (i.e. what the char­ac­ters are ‘really’ saying).

The bonus speech at the end about cush­ions was another regular feature of the series and a good example of a ‘purple passage‘. These set-piece speeches were always given to Jack Davenport’s char­acter who would launch into a hilarious tirade about some­thing  tangen­tial to the action (most memor­ably trying to explain why Lesbian Nun Inferno was a film with artistic integrity.)


The Long Day’s Dying 1968

Mono­logues as an inner voice

Unjustly neglected, The Long Day’s Dying, directed by Peter Collinson in 1968, is an unusual war film that tells the story of a crack team of British soldiers behind enemy lines during World War 2. There is very little dialogue between the char­ac­ters; instead, through voice-over, we over­hear their inner thoughts. As a highly trained and close-knit unit, they also seem to be able to commu­nicate tele­path­ic­ally with each other.

It’s a very resonant idea: emphas­ising the isol­a­tion of a soldier in conflict and the frequent neces­sity to act silently. In contrast to this, the insanity of war itself prompts strange, random thoughts. In this clip, the inner mono­logue of the char­acter coun­ter­points the brutality of the scene, drawing a picture of someone who is completely at home with viol­ence but sickened by it at the same time.

Mono­logues in films are frequently done as voice-overs. Just as the tech­nique of contrasting what you see with what you hear continues to be a favourite way of creating a range of dramatic effects – comic, ironic and some­times tragic.


Passion Fish 1995

A purple passage

A ‘purple passage’ is defined as a story or part of a story, that is narrated by a char­acter within the main plot that may have nothing directly to do with it. Note that it is a speech, not a new scene filmed as a flash­back or a digression.

This mono­logue comes out of dialogue and is a confes­sional piece, revealing some­thing about the char­acter but also altering the tone and mood of the scene. It feels convin­cing because this is often how mono­logues occur: one char­acter domin­ating a conver­sa­tion because they have some­thing important to say or share.


Talking To A Stranger 1966

Read the script

The dynamics of a group

Directed by Chris­topher Morahan, Talking To A Stranger was a quartet of four tele­vi­sion plays by John Hopkins who also wrote the play upon which Stanley Lumet’s The Offence was based. Exploring the rela­tion­ships within a dysfunc­tional middle-class English family, each play was written from the perspective of a different family member. The psycho­lo­gical obser­va­tion and delicacy of touch, coupled with fine perform­ances from an excep­tional cast, made this a land­mark in tv drama.

The scene is a family meal and even banal inter­changes carry under­cur­rents of the tensions within the family. There are rival­ries and compet­i­tion, hurts and resent­ments bubbling under the surface, which erupt as the meal progresses.

Although written sequen­tially, the dialogue is beau­ti­fully orches­trated, with inter­rup­tions and non-sequiturs, so you really feel there are several things all happening at the same time. These are the kinds of exchanges that are instantly recog­nis­able to anyone who lives within a family but you could see also see them happening as part of any group dynamics.


Like A Long Day’s Dying above, this scene uses dialogue to create an effective juxta­pos­i­tion. The strained erotic fantasy of the woman talking ‘dirty’ to her client for money contrasts with the genuine affec­tion between her and her family and the reality of everyday relationships.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 1966

Finally, as Tucco The Rat (Eli Wallach) reminds us, there are times when dialogue is super­fluous and action is enough. It’s just as important to recog­nise the occa­sions when the absence of dialogue – or dialogue pared down to a minimum – is the best and most effective choice.

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David Clough © 2010

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