Dialogue should never be direct because it’s too short, fast, and leaves no room for interpretation. For example, the moment two people say, “I love you,” to each other, there’s no longer any doubt or mystery about their affections. That’s why romantic comedies never let the main characters reveal their true feelings for each other until the end.
With dialogue, you almost never want to say anything directly. Instead, you want to imply an answer that serves several functions:
- Implied dialogue forces the audience to feel actively engaged in the story
- Implied dialogue provides additional background on the story world or character
- Implied dialogue reveals character
- Implied dialogue indirectly answers questions for the audience
In “The Sting,” two small town con men accidentally steal money from a mob boss. Here’s how direct dialogue would work.
BODYGUARD: Do you want me to have those two con men killed?
MOB BOSS: Yes.
Notice how short and boring that dialogue is? In the actual movie, the dialogue goes something like this:
BODYGUARD: Why bother going after two street grifters?
MOB BOSS: You see that man in the red shirt over there? I’ve known him since we were both six years old. We’ve been friends that whole time. He runs the racket on the other side of town. If anyone knew that two small time grifters could get the better of me, he and everyone else will move into my operation and that will be the end. You follow me?
BODYGUARD: Yes. I’ll get somebody on it right away.
Notice that this indirect dialogue gives us background information about the mob boss and the world he lives in while also explaining his motivation. Now that we understand him, we feel more engaged in the story and the story’s actions. With the direct dialogue example, all we know is that the mob boss orders a hit on two con men. In the indirectly dialogue version, we understand the cruel world the mob boss lives in and why he needs to order a hit on two con men. The indirect dialogue version is far superior, interesting, and more colorful.
In your own screenplay, feel free to start off with direct dialogue so you understand what actually goes on in each scene. Then disguise the direct dialogue with indirect, implied dialogue to make it far more interesting. Once you know what the dialogue has to say, you can use implied dialogue to make it far more colorful, interesting, and engaging.
That’s where true creativity lies, not in coming up with convoluted plots that make no sense. Dialogue alone can’t make a screenplay great, but it can definitely make a good story that much better.