Can you think of any recent movies with great dialogue? Can a good movie be dialogue-driven, or should movies always be driven by plot, action or visuals? When we say a film is character-driven, do we often really mean dialogue-driven?
Saying something, communicating, is also an action. This is important for screenwriters and filmmakers to remember. Sometimes you can get the impression that dialogue in many modern screenplays is considered a necessary evil, rather than an important part of the story itself.
There’s a difference between dialogue in feature films and on TV shows. Roughly speaking, a TV story is more likely to have scenes driven by dialogue. There are longer plot lines, more room for arcs and development. Different genres have differing approaches to dialogue. Comedy generally contains much more dialogue than action or thrillers.
Many of the great dialogue writers have come from the world of theatre. One of my favorites is Neil LaBute. Check out this post where he talks about writing dialogue, and making his new film Dirty Weekend.
When you plow through books and manuals on screenwriting, the good advice is often hard to spot in between all the bad advice. One of the most confusing topics is on Character. Who are the people in your story? Who’s the protagonist? What does the hero want, and what does she really need?
Stop right there. Is it really true that all good protagonists have something they want at the beginning of the story, but needs to realize that they need something else?
No, wrote John August in this excellent post from 2008. He argues that using this template is often a pointless excercise, and doesn’t really help your story. His main point is that want vs. need is sometimes useful, but just as often it can be artificial and cause frustration.
August suggests asking another question instead:
Why is the character doing what he’s doing?
This question can be asked in each scene, as well as the story as a whole. It implies visible action, where the want vs. need can often be too internal or passive. Thirdly, it ties the physical action nicely to the psychological.
Of course, you have to work to find the really interesting answers to your questions. Beacuse, as August points out in this other post on character motivation, the writer is in control of the plot, not the characters.