Biggest Mistake Screenwriters Make With Dialogue by Karl Iglesias


Watch the video interview on Youtube here


Film Courage: One of the techniques or topics regarding dialogue interests me that remember you talking about was dumping dialogue versus just kind of like “real dialogue.”  So dumping of information?  I don’t know if that is correct.  It’s all at once.  It’s not breathing. So dumping of information?  But sort of like giving everybody everything they need right then and there.  It’s too much.  It’s not breathing.  It’s not natural.  It doesn’t evolve.  So how can someone slow down without giving the reader or the audience too much information?

Karl Iglesias:  Well, the first thing you have to understand about dialogue is that it’s got to be connected to the character’s desire line in the scene.  In other words if the character has an objective, an intention in the scene, the dialogue has to match that intention.  And what I see a lot of times, especially with exposition and information, is that a character is saying all that information and you can tell that it’s really the writer’s objective.  In other words, the writer wants the audience to know this information because they think the audience need to know this, and this and this, so the character are going to say this, and this, and this.  And that doesn’t work because scenes and dialogue are about the character’s intention in the scene.  Everything a character says is matched to what that desire line is.  So anything that doesn’t belong to that doesn’t fit.  And you can tell whether it’s the writer wanting the audience to know that information or if it’s part of the character.

I am trying to think of an example…So write the dialogue, first draft, do you whatever you want to do.  Don’t worry about that.  But when you re-read the dialogue, ask yourself for every line “Why is that character saying this?  Why is that character saying that specific line?” Most of the time it will be because they’re responding to or they’re reacting to something.  That’s fine.  But a lot of times you will find that a character is saying something because you want the character to say that, not because the character wants something in that scene at a specific time.  So you’ve got to know what the character wants and then every line of dialogue is a strategy for that character to get what they want and if that dialogue is not that, then you rewrite the line until it fits.

Now in exposition, there are ways to make sure the exposition in your dialogue matches the objective. For example, if I’m suspected of murder and you’re the detective who is asking me questions, right?  And telling me “Where were you?” and I didn’t commit the murder, well whatever I’m going to say is my desire to make you think I didn’t do the murder.  There is a reason why I’m saying that line. I didn’t do it.  I was at the movies.  Saying at the movies is exposition but its connected to my desire to convince you that I was not the killer.  You see, so the exposition matches the objective of the character.  So there are ways to do this.  There are techniques to make sure the exposition is settled, you know, part of conflict, part of your desire line.  There is a lot of stuff you can do.  But that is the lesson you really have to know.  That is the most important thing.  Make sure you know what every character wants in the scene, make sure that what they say matches that objective.

So I always bring up David Mamet, who is genius at dialogue and he said once “Nobody says anything unless they want something.”  So unless you want something, nobody says anything.  Nobody is going to say “Hey, I’m a trustworthy character.  Right?  If somebody said that to you, you’re going to think “Whoa…why is he telling me this?”  There is always a reason, right?  And if we know what the reason is in the movie, if you know what the character wants, you can kind of figure out what the character wants, it’s more interesting than somebody dumping exposition.  Characters who just dump exposition, it’s just boring because it’s not connected to desire.  Even characters who disagree with each other.  Even though that might be kind of interesting because there is some tension there, if we don’t know what they want it’s going to be boring.  So you see this a lot with amateur scenes, like “Oh, I need conflict so my character is just going to argue” and you have people arguing back and forth.  It doesn’t mean anything.  Right?  Because we don’t know what they want.  That’s what makes something interesting is intention and the obstacle to that.


“…I always bring up David Mamet, who is genius at dialogue and he said once “Nobody says anything unless they want something.”  So unless you want something, nobody says anything.  Nobody is going to say “Hey, I’m a trustworthy character.  Right?  If somebody said that to you, you’re going to think “Whoa…why is he telling me this?” 


Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage:  We talked earlier about dumbing things down, which this is a different way of talking about it, but let’s suppose it’s a doctor speaking to another doctor but they’re not going to say…

Karl Iglesias:  But they’re not going to use doctor lingo?

Film Courage:  Exactly!  And they may say something that is grammatically incorrect.  They may use slang.  They may say “Um.”  Right?  It’s not going to be perfect.

Karl Iglesias:  It depends on the character.  I like to talk a lot about contrast.  If we have two characters in a scene, it’s always more interesting if the characters are contrasted.  So if a character is speaking in a formal way, so someone who is an academic or a professor, or a doctor speaking in a formal way, make sure that the person that he’s interacting with speaks more slangy or in a more contracted way because then you are going to create that contrast.  Just like in painting, if you want to highlight the color blue, you surround it with the color yellow.  Right?  It’s opposite.  So it’s the same thing with characters.  A lot of the techniques in the dialogue chapter in the book are about individuality.   How do you create individual voices because having all the characters sound the same are a very common problem with dialogue.  It’s usually the writer’s voice. And (Aaron) Sorkin has actually been criticized that all his characters sound the same.  But when I talk about his dialogue and show clips and the actual script I show that he actually does individualize and the characters do sound different.  So it’s an unfair criticism.

But you have to do that.  If there is some difference in character speech or cadence or contractions versus stilted writing, grammatical, correct writing.

Watch the video interview on Youtube here

Film Courage:  What if the characters speak to themselves?  What if they’re thinking out loud?  What if they’re looking in the mirror?  What if they’re berating themselves, driving and talking to themselves?

Karl Iglesias: That’s fine.  It’s really a character thing.  As long as you keep it short.  The problem that I see (with a character talking to themselves) is it’s too long.  You know then we kind of wonder “Where’s the conflict? What’s happening here?”  I mean it might be interesting, but even something that is really interesting for too long, we’ll tend to disengage an audience after awhile.  So you can do it, just don’t do it for too long.

Question for the Viewers:  Do you have trouble writing dialogue?  What helps you write better dialogue?




Watch more videos in this series with Karl here on Youtube



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