Dialogue is tricky, you try and be innovative and you either end up dead on the nose, or sounding like your characters are starring in their own lifetime day show. The reason it’s so tricky is because as a writer you have to find the balance of creating a character which feels real, while sneakily writing in foreshadowing, character development and even plot developments, yadda yadda yadda.
Bottom line, it’s not too easy.
So how do you do it? One show that’s known for it’s strong dialogue is Seinfeld; the show about nothing. Now I know what you’re thinking:
“But Greg, if Seinfeld isn’t about anything, how can I use it to write meaningful dialogue for my independant-character-drama about the anatomy of the human soul?”
Copying Seinfeld is not what I’m talking about; what I’m talking about is looking at what the show does really well and using it as inspiration for your own work.
- CHARACTER VOICE
One of the big traps about writing for multiple characters is accidentally making them feel like the same character instead of individual people.
This is something Seinfeld does really well; Jerry, George, Kramer and Elaine are all different characters that feel real and different. They get along, they clash, yet they all fit in the show’s quick-witted-sarcastic theme.
Give your character a quirk and let their dialogue reflect this quirk.
- PULL THE RUG OUT
Nothing is worse than cliche dialogue, it’s boring and we’ve heard it a million times.
Subvert your audience’s expectations, don’t give them the same run around again and again; pull the rug out from under them.
It’s one of the reasons shows like Seinfeld and directors like Wes Anderson, or Edgar Wright are as successful as they are. They know how to catch you off guard with their dialogue.
In Moonrise Kingdom When Bill Murray gets asked if he’s concerned that his daughter runs away from home his response is: “That’s a loaded question.”
When Simon Pegg starts excelling at work in Hot Fuzz he gets punished because “Frankly, you’re making us all look bad.”
And lastly when George gets told, “It’s not you, it’s me,” his response is, “You’re damn right it’s me!” Or when Kramer says… well when Kramer says just about anything.
When writing your dialogue remember, your audience probably has a sense of where a conversation is going, try to throw them off. Set your character up for a promotion then demote them, have them take control, or lose control in unexpected ways. It’s more memorable and you’ll probably have a lot more fun writing it out.
- BEND REALITY
When writing dialogue, you would think you’d want to write as realistically as possible. It’s not true. In real life our words get away from us. We trail on and on and on, go down tangents and rabbit holes, until we’re half way through a story about our cousin Louie.
Point is, you don’t really want to write to reality, but you do want to cater to your theme. Going back to point 1 all of the characters in Seinfeld are their own person, but their dialogue fits the tone and pacing of the show. Exhibit A.
It feels real and authentic because as the audience we like these characters and we’ve bought into their world. It’s also one of the reasons as a filmmaker why I constantly find myself using the show for inspiration.