I was going to do my yearly post of the best movies of the year, but you know what? I don’t wanna. “Best Of” lists are boring to me right now. And if I’m bored, then my posts are definitely going to be boring. So instead, I’m going to share some screenwriting advice with you. Now that excites me. Helping all of you become better writers. For those who just have to know, however, here are my Top 10 films without explanation.


10)Captain America: Winter Soldier
9) The Equalizer
8) Blue is the Warmest Color
7) Guardians of the Galaxy
6) In a World
5) John Wick
4) Gone Girl
3) The Skeleton Twins
2) Philomena
1) Jodorowsky’s Dune

Did not yet see: Nightcrawler, Boyhood, The Imitation Game, Foxcatcher, Lucy, Whiplash.

Now let’s talk about something that can actually help you. How bout a hefty dose of DIALOGUE ADVICE? Yeah! Nobody offered you that over the Christmas holiday, did they? You see, the other day, I was giving notes to a writer, and the dialogue in the script wasn’t up to par. Dialogue is always the hardest thing to help a writer with because it’s the subtleties that make it or break it. And most subtleties are intrinsic, making them hard to dissect and explain. This is what people mean when they say some writers have an “ear” for dialogue. What they really have is an ear for the subtleties of conversation.

So I had to take a few hours off, go through old sets of notes, pick out tips I’ve given before, look for new solutions specific to this writer’s problems, and package it all in a way that would help this writer dramatically improve his dialogue. The end result was more comprehensive than I expected, so I thought I’d share it with all of you. With that, here’s what I wrote…

The big weakness here is dialogue. There are too many on-the-nose, melodramatic and cliché lines. Here’s an example from Hunter and his son, Nicky (note to readers – part of the backstory here is that Hunter’s wife died).

Nicky: “Wish I could’a protected her that day…”
Hunter: “Me too, Nicky… me too.”

Let me ask you this. Is there any doubt that father or son wished they could’ve done more to save mom? Of course not. Therefore, to say it out loud is the definition of “on the nose.” This is followed by an extremely cliché echo-line. “Me too, Nicky… me too.” The echo-line has been used so many times throughout history that by this point, it’s only used as parody. I’ve personally seen the guys on South Park use it endlessly. Stay away from on-the-nose lines (characters saying exactly what they think/feel) and any line you’ve seen used more than a handful of times in other movies/shows.

Here’s another line (note to readers: our protagonist, Colin, accidentally killed a child while trying to save a group of people. Claire, our romantic interest, has just tried to convince Colin that it was an accident and there’s nothing else he could’ve done).

Colin: “He was just a little boy, Claire! His whole life ahead of him.”

Take note of how familiar and melodramatic this line is. It feels like something out of a soap opera. Also, once again, we know he was a little boy. We know he had his life ahead of him. Therefore, stating it out loud is on the nose and obvious. If you find your characters saying exactly what they’re thinking, exactly what they’re feeling, or anything that’s obvious, you’re probably writing bad dialogue. So how do you make this line better? In this instance, I wouldn’t have had Colin respond at all. As Claire tries to convince him it was an accident, I would’ve had him take it in. A look of frustration or disagreement, then, is all you need to convey his feelings on the matter. Often times, the absence of dialogue is the best dialogue option.

Overall, the dialogue here needs to be more unpredictable. It needs to be more natural and messy. Moving forward, I would suggest studying dialogue on a much deeper level. Start by writing down all your favorite dialogue-centric movies, then reading those scripts and noting where you liked the dialogue, then trying to figure out WHY you liked the dialogue. For example, a writer whose dialogue I’ve come to enjoy always inserts a unique phrase where a generic one would typically be. So instead of writing, “Joe went bar-hopping,” he might write, “Joe’s down at the strip of broken dreams.” Yet another writer reminded me how important specificity is when it comes to dialogue. A character shouldn’t say, “I need cereal.” He should say, “I need Tony the Tiger.” Paul Thomas Anderson, who many consider to be a dialogue master, says he rarely lets his characters finish sentences. He constantly has them interrupting before the other character finishes, as that’s more like real life.

I would go to coffee shops and eavesdrop and write down, verbatim, what people are saying to each other. Pay attention not just to what’s being said, but what’s being implied, aka, the subtext. “That’s a nice new purse,” doesn’t always mean, “That’s a nice new purse.” It might mean, “Looks like your sugar daddy’s treating you well.” Compare all this dialogue to your own dialogue. Figure out why yours doesn’t have the same naturalism.

I would spend every day writing a few practice dialogue scenes. Experiment. Take chances. Be creative. For example, write an entire scene with dialogue you’ve never heard before. Write an entire scene focused on subtext. Write an entire scene focused on suspense. Compare your scenes to scenes from professional scripts and note the differences. Pay specific attention to word choice.  What words are the professionals using that you’re not?

Try to create scenarios where there’s conflict or tension between characters, as both result in more interesting conversations. Create secrets for your characters, so there’s subtext to what they’re saying. For example, in your script, Claire tells Colin right off the bat that she’s dying. Instead, what if you only give this information to the audience, and now when she meets Colin, she DOESN’T tell him she’s dying. Now the dialogue will be a lot more interesting. We’ll fear for Colin as he falls for Claire, knowing he’ll be devastated when he finds out the truth. Dialogue is one of those things, unfortunately, that doesn’t have a quick fix. It’s the culmination of a lot of small discoveries. But it’s not an area you can hope readers will overlook. Bad dialogue is one of the easiest ways to identify an amateur screenplay, so you have to put a lot of effort into getting it right.

  • Citizen M

    The entire script of The Counselor was written in subtext. Didn’t seem to help it.

    Not to take anything from Carson’s important point, but clarity trumps subtext. I’ve read scripts with dialogue so innovative and subtext-y I had no idea what they were saying.

    Fresh and original — GOOD. Convoluted and obscure — BAD.

    In conclusion, here’s a New Year wish for you all: May the Procrastination Muse forget where you live. (Cartoon from the New Yorker)

    • klmn

      Another muse to muse on.

      • Trent11

        What the hell is going on in this picture?? Is he drawing a picture of her butthole?!!

    • brenkilco

      I’m one of those few who loved The Counselor. The movie really isn’t about the drug deal, whose details, I admit, are left dangerously murky. It’s about those amazing conversations. Bruno Ganz waxing romantic about diamonds and somehow sequeing into jewish history, Ruben Bladez mixing Mexican poetry and cartel executions, Brad Pitt detailing the horrors of snuff films while sipping orange juice, Bardem describing the technical workings of the bolito strangulation device. It’s obscure. It’s twisted. But scene for scene it’s also pretty great.

    • charliesb

      I loved the script for The Counsellor, and HATED the movie. McCarthy’s subtext just works better for me in the written word then it does on the screen.

    • fragglewriter

      I have to agree. I saw the Counselor and just had to guess why something happened. My friend hated the movie asl well, as explained to me the ending with the DVD. I completely forgot about it.
      That above cartoon was me yesterday, I got caught up into rewriting the last 5 pages of my script that I didn’t go to the gym. But realized this morning, that I need to tweak the dates of the characters. Oh well. I guess no gym tonight.

    • zhezhune

      The Counselor is an experiment in form–the dialogue wasn’t subtext being spoken, it was theme. All other ingredients are commonplace by design: standard glossy camera look, tropey setting, flat character archetypes, predictable power-plays, basic money & drugs plot. It took every pretentious cringe-flaw of a second-year-student-art-film and built a masterful immersive experience. The film aimed to embody the exact philosophy it was laying on the table.

      That’s the point of the form Scott/McCarthy chose: there’s almost nothing in our lives that we don’t ‘see’ coming yet consciousness by its nature makes consequence and fate nonetheless ‘feel’ surprising to us as individuals. The human condition is to be perfectly un-original and to know that on all fronts, yet still be damned to experience our lives and choices (and suffering) as our own private isolated narrative.

      • Citizen M

        I watched The Counselor last night. Maybe what you say is true, but as someone who just wants to watch a movie (and who has read the script) I found the first half really dragged. All that philosophizing and setting up of characters was self-indulgent crap on the part of McCarthy IMO.

        Once you saw the threads of the story come together in the second half and it picked up a bit of pace it became very enjoyable.

        At 117 min it was 20 minutes too long. A heavier hand in the editing room snipping away some of the irrelevant stuff (e.g. the diamond seller in Amsterdam) would have resulted in a better movie.

  • Mhocommenter

    It’s no fault of Carson’s If these flicks are the best of what 2014 had to offer, then it’s a major DOWN YEAR.

    I barely recognized two flicks among the tepid list. Please try later, 2015.

  • LostAndConfused

    I think the biggest problem with writers is that they don’t connect their own emotions with their own characters in fear of creating a cast too similar to themselves.

    When I hear the advice write what you know, I think that gets misunderstood as write what you know intellectually, with like science, geography, history etc. I take that as being write what you know emotionally. When writers have actually suffered and experienced the emotions their characters are going through, there’s an undeniable layer of authenticity that can’t ever be replicated, and that seems to reflect the best through dialogue. And we know if it’s real or not.

    In one of Carson’s rare Impressive rated Amateur offerings, Rose In The Darkness, one fault that a lot of people agreed on was that the boy didn’t feel realistic. It’s not like anyone knows what it’s like to be trapped in an antic most of their life, but they still got the sense that he wasn’t different enough to come off as realistic.

    Not saying that you need to have experienced a car chase to write about one, but there must be some familiar experience in the past that parallels it on an emotional level. Maybe you were running away from a dog, a bully, or security if you stole a Snickers bar as a kid and were making a run for it. In both cases we’re only thinking about escape and getting the hell away from danger as much as possible. Our hearts are pumping crazy adrenaline, and we feel the consequences pursuing us on our backs. The magnitude of the situations are so different it’s not worth comparing to, however emotionally they’re the same. Our emotions aren’t discerned by the numbers of reality.

    The loss of a pet to a child is the same emotionally to the loss of a parent to an adult. A struggling student losing $100 dollars is emotionally the same as a millionaire losing thousands.

    I think when writers write out about some magnificent fictional situation they’ve never experienced they feel invalidated in injecting it with their own opinion on the matter. So they deliver stock answers that they think the characters might feel in that situation and it feels generic and bland as a result.

    • RK

      Cool, Method screenwriting.

    • Midnight Luck

      Use this (One) simple trick on how to tap into yourself, how to get to know who you are, so you can use it effectively in dialogue for your story (I will get to that later).

      I see this issue much the same as with fine art. When you are drawing a person, you are ALWAYS drawing yourself. It has been proven repeatedly that people just end up drawing themselves. It doesn’t mean you can’t draw another person, it just means your body and brain have a natural tendency to mimic what it knows, and it knows itself.

      So it makes sense that we would write about, and create ourselves, over an over again. So we take pieces, we elaborate on parts, and over and over we are “drawing” ourselves into our scripts. It could be us, with a crazy super power we can imagine would be amazing. It could be us doing something horrific and awful, we can’t imagine ever doing, but can when we are placed into a fictional story.

      I agree, that many writers don’t tap into that part of themselves deep down. They don’t allow a character to feed off parts of themselves. It scares them. It seems wrong. It is uncomfortable, etc.

      Or they just don’t know how to.

      So now to the simple way to connect with yourself, get in touch with your inner being, and figure out how to create rounded characters, that utilize some of your own personal characteristics, and seem more rounded and whole. And plainly, get dialogue from your own brain.


      I know, the world as a whole, recoils at the thought or idea or word.
      But it is true. A very good way to become centered and gain understanding of yourself and the world around us, is to meditate.

      We can go to coffee shops and listen to people talk, we can tape record conversations and listen to them, we can go to a billion movies and read scripts and books, and mimic the dialogue there.

      But, unless you have an innate ability to read and hear this, and then use that to create your own, unique, individual dialogue, in the end, it does little more than waste a ton of time. (I have done all of these things, the best sentence I got listening to people talk in a coffee shop was: “He came around, just like, well you know, and then went, zipppp, and, like a banana peel…. out to the end”)

      Ok, so it wasn’t great, and I really have no idea what he meant or was talking about, but it was an odd conversation that stuck with me. Still, not a lot of useful stuff out there. Most conversations at coffee shops is incredibly banal, dull and boring.

      again, just my twisted two cents.

      • LostAndConfused

        Great post Midnight Luck.

        • Midnight Luck

          Hey thanks Lost.

          My point was I really liked your post as well. I was just expanding on some of the ideas you posit.

          I do think though, something specific like a car accident, is helpful if you have gone through it (not good, but helpful). Not for the majority of people who haven’t, but for those who have. It is obvious to those people who have, if you are being disingenuous about it. Now they make up the minority of people watching (hopefully), but even the people who haven’t been in a terrible one will sense if you aren’t being truthful. And by truthful i mean the same thing you say. That in our hearts we “get” the idea of our adrenaline pumping, being helpless, being terrified being beaten to a pulp. As long as the writer taps into all the “base” feelings people feel, the “Lizard Brain” actions and reactions one might go through when locked in an Attic or surviving a life and death car wreck, then the reader or viewer will be honestly affected or involved.

          People immediately sense when the writer is faking it. Unless, of course, they somehow are someone who has been completely unaffected by the terrible things the world has to offer. (it is an almost impossible thing, but there are people out there who, the worst they have butted up against in the world are things like getting a sliver, or a bad dye job, or losing a minimum wage job. Like you said though, to them, losing a minimum wage job, at the time it happens to them, can be as horrific and terrible as the Dad who loses their 30 year steady job when their wife has just gotten the news she has stage 4 cancer, and there is no way they can now afford the proper care for her. It is all about levels and perspective. but in the end, it all comes down to the HONESTY in the writing.)

  • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

    Hey, dialogue is nice and all, but I’d kill for at least a one-line explanation of why Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune is number 1.

    • brenkilco

      Not really a great movie. But Jodoroswsky is a great character. And about 180 degrees from the egomaniacal nutball I’d always assumed he was.

      • http://apairoftools.wordpress.com/ Sebastian Cornet

        Oh, Jodorowksy is the king of the characters, no question there. Maybe it’s Carson’s way of telling us how important characters are to carry a movie–even if it is a documentary.

  • Matthew Garry

    “Often times, the absence of dialogue is the best dialogue option.”

    I think is one of the most important pieces of advice when it comes to dialogue. Dialogue should be treated with dread, since it’s a game of minesweeper where every next line can make the whole scene come tumbling down. If you can reasonably leave something out, consider it; it’s one less opportunity to make a wrong call.

    If you’re stuck on writing a piece of dialogue, don’t just write words that sound relatively appropriate for the circumstances. Step back from the scene; step back from the plot, and focus on the characters. Think about their back stories, their origins, and deepen your understanding of them. What makes them different? And if they’re not different enough, tweak them until they are. Characters are never normal people, even the ones specifically designed to be normal, so use that to your advantage.

    I think much like problems in the third act find their causes in the first one, problems with the dialogue find their causes in the character. So work on your characters until dialogue writes itself simply by having interesting characters in a location with a goal for a scene, and all you have to do is be a fly on the wall and transcribe what they are saying.

    • LostAndConfused

      I didn’t see this post until now, but it resonates with one of the best pieces of advices about dialogue I’ve ever read.


      Movie dialogue rule #1. Apply the Golden Rule:

      You probably heard it many times already. Writing a screenplay is about showing – not telling. Why? because a movie is about pictures and a picture says more than 1000 words.

      You should therefore tell your story as much as possible in pictures rather than in words. Therefore the Golden Rule: Use Movie Dialogue Sparingly.

      A good practice is to ask yourself if you can replace a dialogue with a picture. It forces you to think visually and be creative.

  • ThomasBrownen

    Yes! Great lesson on dialogue. It’s especially timely right now since I’ve been trying to slip some rewriting time into all these holidays.

    But Carson’s top ten list left me feeling bad about myself for two reasons. First, Captain America?? I should just admit that whatever people saw in this movie, I did not. Usually I love these kinds of movies but this one just felt like such a hot mess of a script to me. I watched it back-to-back with Divergent, and although Divergent was incredibly derivative, it still felt like it had a better grasp on how to tell a coherent story than Captain America did. Since it’s the end of the year, maybe Carson just included this movie on his list so he could write off the movie ticket for tax purposes. :)

    And second, In a World. Isn’t this the one that keeps popping up on Netflix? Now I feel bad for ignoring it. I’ve come close to watching it, but I can never work myself up to committing the time to watch it. I dunno… maybe I just didn’t know enough about it and it seemed like it had the potential to be more of a personal passion project than a good movie? Maybe I should give it a chance and be pleasantly surprised!

    • S_P_1

      I’m onboard as far as Captain America. My only gripe with the movie is the fluctuating damage of his shield. Early in the movie Cap threw his shield at a steel bulkhead on a ship. His shield penetrated the bulkhead. In the same scene he threw his shield at a soldier. The shield knocked the soldier out and ricochets back into his hands. The shield should have decapitated the soldier. For the majority of the movie I sat back and enjoyed.
      I posted yesterday the drawback of not living in a major market. I would have loved to see Jordorowski’s Dune. I’m more interested in the director versus the actual movie.
      Blue is the Warmest Color is on par with Nymphomaniac – Pretentious. When movies like this are released there’s always an art gallery / museum in the background. That’s to show you the subtext of how shallow these movies actually are.

  • brenkilco

    Since we’re into top tens, tried off the top of my head to come up with my top ten dialogue scenes:

    1. The taxicab scene from On The Waterfront

    2. The horseracing conversation from the Big Sleep

    3. The opening scene at the 21 club in Sweet Smell of Success with Lancaster, Curtis and the Senator(you could pick half a dozen scenes from that movie)

    4. The climactic courtroom scene in A Man For All Seasons

    5. The stream of Consciousness interrogation scene in The Quiller Memorandum(Harold Pinter at his most amazing)

    6. The final scene in An Affair to Remember( offhand banter masking total heartbreak)

    7. The opening scene of the Godfather(What is there to say?)

    8. Nicholson and Huston at the murder scene in Chinatown(Why are you doing this?)

    9. Newman meeting Gleason in the Hustler(You like to gamble Eddie? Gamble money on pool games?) Another movie you could lift a bunch of scenes from

    10. Any scene with Bogart and Rains in Casablanca(I was misinformed.)

    Don’t think this kind of stuff can be taught, alas.

    • Citizen M

      Cool Hand Luke.

      “What we got here is a failure to communicate.”

      • brenkilco

        “You run away once you get one pair of chains. You run away twice you get two pairs. You ain’t gonna need no third pair cause you gonna get your mind right.” Yes, great scene.

      • Paul Clarke

        Looove Cool Hand Luke. As you can probably tell from my avatar.

        Also worth a mention – the opening scene of Once Upon a Time in the West.

        “You brought two too many.”
        – It’s like poetry with a gun-fight. Shows you, often fewer words works best.

    • charliesb

      Night of the Hunter.

      I remember seeing this movie when I was a lot younger and this line going right over my head. Seeing it later I remember laughing and thinking it was a pretty great line.

      “When you’ve been married to a man for forty years you know all that don’t amount to a hill of beans. I’ve been married to Walt that long and I swear in all that time I just lie there thinkin’ about my canning.”

    • Magga

      still the best:

      • brenkilco

        Left out only because I’ve always read that it originated as an actor’s improvisation and I’m not sure how much credit to give the writer.

        • Magga

          True. This, though, is pure exposition and works like gangbusters, and basically follows all the scriptshadow rules for dialogue scenes including dramatic irony, scene agitators, a ticking time bomb, character goals and on and on, as do almost all the scenes on this show:

    • davejc

      • brenkilco

        Unless it’s an adaptation of a famous play you hardly ever get monologues in movies. Chaefsky was one of the few screenwriters who loved them and could get away with them. George C. Scott also has some great speeches in The Hospital. Chayefsky, along with Mamet and Tennessee Williams too if you overlook the fact that virtually all his stuff belongs to the stage also represent dialogue at its most heightened, stylized and unnatural. But it works within the worlds these guys create. Glen Garry is great but I much prefer the Pacino monologue in the restaurant where he’s spinning all kinds of intimate, pseudo profound bullshit to sell a sucker some swamp land (You ever take a dump made you feel you’d just slept for twelve hours?)

    • davejc

    • davejc

    • davejc

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  • Michael

    Carson’s sad list is further proof that 2014 was a bad year for film. Ignoring his number 1 pick is a documentary and he could not come up with ten films (this is a screenwriting blog after all), the number 1 and number 2 picks are from 2013. There was not one film in 2014 that made you hunger with anticipation, strain for its release and rush to the theater on opening weekend.

    • http://screenplayamonth.tumblr.com FilmingEJ

      I actually disagree, I mean, Birdman, Whiplash, Foxcatcher, all great films along with the superhero movies with elements we haven’t seen in other past superhero films, such as Guardians of the Galaxy and the new Captain America. I felt 2013 was a year of disappointments and dry releases, but I that this year was an awesome year for some more original fare and fresh takes on franchises.

  • fragglewriter

    I suffer from dialogue as I have trouble writing down what I say and hear on paper. I would definitely follows Carson’s advise and sit in a coffee shop to understand dialogue, but also try to keep yourself ‘unplugged.’ I was in Sephora two weeks ago, and there was this college-aged student sitting off to the side on her cellphone. She was having a very strong conversation with the person on her cell phone demanding him/her not to commit suicide. She didn’t say those exact words, as she was in public, but the subtext to it was so crazy. I turned off my iPhone and just listened.

    I agree that the best dialogue is hiding something from someone (secret) but also works best when another person in the scene knows that secret except for a third character. Or the character knows a secret but can’t/won’t say it aloud. One of my friends told me the other day that she has problem but she won’t admit it; since we both majored in Psychology, as long as nobody calls her out on her $hit, then she’s fine. If they do, then she’s embarrased.

  • charliesb

    We should have taken bets on Carson’s #1, no way I would have picked Jodorowsky’s Dune.

    My top 10:

    10. Guardian’s of The Galaxy
    9. Predestination
    8. Gone Girl
    7. Jodorowsky’s Dune
    6. Force Majeure
    5. Edge of Tomorrow
    4. Blue Ruin
    3. Snowpiercer
    2. The Guest
    1. Under the Skin

    Other movies I liked:

    Grand Budapest Hotel
    Dear White People
    The Signal
    The One I love
    Top Five
    John Wick
    Only lovers left alive
    Starred up
    Cold in July
    Skeleton Twins
    Night Crawler
    The Babadook

    A Girl Walks Home at Night
    Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    X-Men Days of Future Past (mostly)

    • Eddie Panta

      Blue Ruin was 2013 I thought, maybe end of… right? Either way great film.
      Snowpiercer may also be 2013 technically.
      Under The SKin was visually stunning, but I thought it was uneven, still confused about things in the film that I shouldn’t be.

      • charliesb

        Ya I was torn on both of those, but since I saw them this year, I figure they work for 2014 to me. I think they both had their wider releases in 2014.

        UNDER THE SKIN really got to me. Every 15 mins I was like wtf is going on here? It was a bit uneven (as are many films on my list) but I think that worked with the narrative. The scene on the beach stayed with me for a long time after I saw it the first time.

        • Eddie Panta

          There is a great Bret Easton Ellis podcast where he goes into depth about that scene on the beach. I think it’s the one with James Gray as the guest. Basically he sums it up as the difference between what is a movie or a tv show. Even True Detective wouldn’t attempt a scene with that much open space.

          • charliesb

            Will check out. Thx!

          • Eddie Panta

            Sorry, the podcast in which he discusses Under The Skin is with Community’s Jim Rash 4/21/14

  • Eddie Panta

    In the most chilling scene from Abel Ferra’s 90’s re-make BODY SNATCHERS

    Meg Tilly does a very direct dissertation on the practicality of her husbands situation.

    Her dialogue is not only scary, but it also ties up the story with a bit of exposition, delivered at one of the most extreme moments of tension in the film and within the action.

    ( see clip below) It such a refreshing scene, especially for a horror re-make, where most of the audience knows the premise, here the writer, owns it, makes use of it and turns it around on the one that doesn’t know, the lead, her husband.

    In the same film, Forest Whitaker has a scene where he is confused and paranoid, he rattles off a list of confusing episodes that have occurred on the military base while the new base scientist listens. Whitaker’s character is not parsing words, he’s at his wits end. And you feel the emotion, his struggle at the same time the backstory is revealed.

    The point is, they don’t drag it out, the exposition or backstory, is neatly wrapped up, emotionally delivered and the story gets to on about its business.

    I believe in reading AF scripts I have shuddered or groaned more from meandering and wasteful overly subtle dialogue, than I have from dialogue that was too ON THE NOSE.

    Bad Guys or Antagonist should be able to drop big, juicy one-liners that explode.

    We become invested in characters when we know what they want. Sometimes they do just have to say it. Also, check out SEXY BEAST for some serious bad guy direct dialogue.

  • Eric

    I think a lot of the conflict in dialogue stems from the difference between what the speaker means and what the listener hears, be the listener the audience or another character. As a result, I’m constantly looking for the double meanings behind words and sentences. Sometimes you know exactly what you’re looking for, sometimes you don’t, but once you find it you can begin to construct passages of conversation that play off of that double meaning.

    A good example of this is Walter White’s “I am the one who knocks” speech. At first glance it seems like a pretty on the nose statement of where his character is at, but the conflict is between what he’s trying to tell Skylar (I’ve got this handled, we are not in danger) and what she hears (I’m out of control, “I AM the danger”). By the end of the episode she informs him that her job in the house is to protect the family from Walt. He’s also lying pretty heavily to both her and himself, as he was in way over his head at this point.

  • charliesb

    Good dialogue is a product of multiple reads and rewrites. As you fill out your story and characters and learn your characters voice you’ll be able to go back and rewrite what they say.

    I think we write bad dialogue when we focus on what we want to tell the viewer instead focusing on what the characters want to say to each other. When we focus on the point of the scene, and who has the power in it, and the background to the relationship between the people talking we’ll write better conversations.

  • IgorWasTaken

    The big weakness here is dialogue. There are too many on-the-nose, melodramatic and cliché lines. Here’s an example from Hunter and his son, Nicky (note to readers – part of the backstory here is that Hunter’s wife died).

    Nicky: “Wish I could’a protected her that day…”

    Hunter: “Me too, Nicky… me too.”

    On-the-nose. OK.

    But can’t you imagine a scene in which those very sames lines would be perfect? Maybe for their subtext? Or maybe because everything up until this point has been confused, and so now something on-the-nose tells us that we’ve reached a pivot point?

    • http://vimeo.com/adamwparker Adam W. Parker

      Yeah, dialogue in context is what really makes or breaks it. That’s why a brief backstory is given to set it up. The real problem Carson is pointing out is that this particular dialogue isn’t working within the context and for the goal.

      The suggestion is to tap into the subtext: A father’s duty is to protect his son, but his son feels like he should have protected his mother. Depending on age, this is either a sign that his son is growing up or could be taken as an indictment on the father’s ability to protect his family.

      Subtext is in reality an opportunity to misunderstand and for empathy. It’s a double edged sword, and why (statistically) women use it more in relationships.

      “Are you going out again tonight?” allows for you to either say “yeah” or “Maybe I need to spend some more time with her”. And it allows a reader to participate in the meaning-making of your movie – 1+1=…

      • Eric

        Not too long ago my wife explained to me the subtextual difference between “Yes” and “Sure”.

        Yes means, “Absolutely, I will and I agree that I should.”

        Sure means, “I’m letting you win this one without a fight”

    • brenkilco

      Those lines will never be perfect. Consider a not dissimilar exchange from No Country For Old Men.

      ELLIS: You’re discouraged.

      BELL: I’m discouraged.

      ELLIS: You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.

      It’s direct. It’s simple. Also resonant, portentous, a little mysterious, suggestive of human ego and human limitations. At once on the nose and oblique. That’s good dialogue.

  • ripleyy

    Dialogue takes more than one shot to perfect. It’s never-ending, always changing, forming, adapting – like a living organism which reacts to everything you do to it. But it does help if you imagine yourself as the character and writing the same thing you would say, but often times that doesn’t work.

    Carson’s advice is really sound. I couldn’t have said it better myself. Dialogue, much like space, is the final frontier in screenwriting. Some people can get there, but the percentage is very rare.

  • Cuesta

    I find myself liking less and less movies every year. As an example the Marvel films, they’re too soft and predictable, like live versions of the nineties Disney classics. Same with the Hunger Games.

    And most of Hollywood action films are very bad either story-wise or technically, presenting the action with too much cuts, preventing me of grasping what is happening.

    And on top of that, my most anticipated movie of the year, Lucy, was tremendously disappointing. It suffers the same flaw as every Superman film- the protagonist is too damn powerful, so i got bored after the first sequence.

    So, this is my top 5 of 2014:

    5. Mortadelo y Filemón contra Jimmy el Cachondo (Spanish animation).
    4. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Hong Kong action).
    3. Special Id (Chinese action)
    2. Interstellar.
    1. El Niño (Spanish drama)

  • http://vimeo.com/adamwparker Adam W. Parker

    Lucy had the best first ten minutes of any film I’ve seen this year. I think it would have been more interesting if she was just a runaway drug mule – have her find out they’re going to kill her when they take it out (no witnesses) and have her try to sell it to earn enough money to disappear (cause she can’t understand/trust cops in Japan). Boom. Movie. You’re welcome.

  • lesbiancannibal

    Watched The King’s Speech last night – so so good for subtext.

    This is a good book on acting and writing – I think someone might have posted it here after the scene rundown with the excerpt from Basic Instinct, which was excellent on dialogue/conflict/subtext etc


    This focuses on ‘status-swapping’ – how every line or movement is designed to increase one’s status against someone else. Very good.

    • Citizen M

      ‘status-swapping’ or ‘one-upmanship’ I would call it is one of the biggest things I miss in amateur screenplays.

      When two people meet, there is always a period where they feel one another out, trying to determine who is the alpha dog. Of course, it’s usually very subtle, done with pauses and intonation and so difficult to render in written dialogue, but writers should be aware of it and try to convey it.

      People who are friends or long-standing colleagues have sorted out their status and accepted it, so their interaction is strictly business, but two people (male or female) who are not familiar with one another will always interrogate, however subtly, each other.

      Sometimes it’s not so subtle. I was at a wealthy person’s rented home this weekend, and the owner’s mother came to call. Very much an upper-class matriarch. Her questions were like the Gestapo: What school did you go to? What do you do? Where did you live before? And most important: who do you know that I know? (i.e. are we the same kind of people and do we run in the same circles?)

      • Midnight Luck

        Reminds me of L.A. Story. (Patrick Stewart as Mr. Perdue was priceless.)

        Mr. Perdue @ L’Idiot: Where do you Summer?

        Harris: I’m sorry?

        Mr. Perdue @ L’Idiot: Where.Do.You.Summer?

        Harris: Right here. In L.A.

        Chef: He can have zee Chicken.

        Mr. Perdue @ L’Idiot: You can have za Chicken.

  • Midnight Luck

    What if,
    it might hurt,
    but, what if,

    Dialogue is something you either have, or don’t have?

    What if some people have it, and others just don’t?

    Everyone says they have no idea how to teach better dialogue.

    They give “tips” and they give guidance like “always be listening”, and “go to coffee shops and pay attention to people’s word patterns” and what is going on “under the surface”.

    Honestly, in most cases, there is nothing going on under the surface at coffee shops.

    I have sat, I have listened, and all I can say is, people talk about nothing 99.9999% of the time. And 99.9999% of the time they speak in incredibly uninteresting ways. It is a problem with people, not with conversation.

    The greatest gift a writer has is not to listen to these people and try to write/talk like them. But to write like you, and make dialogue NOT BORING. Keep the reader interested. Write in short staccato sentences, end in the middle of one. Make strange speech patterns, write so people don’t necessarily understand the sentence, but they understand “what is being said”.

    I believe many people can’t write dialogue. So they figure out how to write their OWN dialogue.

    Then people stand up and take notice.
    Something they haven’t seen before, something that makes them intrigued.

    Also, much like taste in writing and movies, everyone seems to have their own idea of what is acceptable, and what is “good”.

    I will once again take the cesspool that is JOHN WICK. But only talk dialogue.

    This movie seems to be at the top of many people’s list as a Favorite, or runner up Favorite. Carson liked it, others loved it. I hated it. Terrible, terrible dialogue. It was a class unto itself on how to write poor, cliche’d, on-the-nose dialogue.

    Yet people seem to have liked, if not LOVED it.

    So why did the dialogue in Wick do what it needed to for so many, and not for me? (I am not seriously asking for answers)

    I think many people do like having a story told to them through dialogue. Having the tricky parts spelled out so they don’t have to figure it out. In the end I think there are many, many ways to make dialogue work FOR you as a writer.

    I use the words “bad” “poor” “terrible” “cliche’d” and on and on, yet they are just descriptors for what I hear and see and feel. Others can have a 180 degree different opinion. Same terrible dialogue to my ears in Wick, sounds like poetry to someone else.

    So back to my main point.

    Maybe we all can’t write incredible dialogue.

    But we CAN write OUR OWN dialogue.

    We can make it OUR way, we can PLAY with it. We can MOLD it into what WE WANT.

    Like Tarantino. In an article I read long ago, he references “Figures of Speech: 60 ways to turn a phrase” by Arthur Quinn.

    so I did like any screenwriter would do, I ran out and bought it. Luckily we had it at the used book store nearby. Did it help? I have no idea. It was an odd book. It was kind of a mystery.

    In the end, I write dialogue from my gut. I use my own intuition about what a character would say, and “how” they would say it.

    and I pay attention all the time, to everything.

    I think that is the best anyone can do.

    Never has a class taught me how write dialogue better. Not a teacher, never a book, or course. It is the ONE SPOT where everyone throws up their hands and just shrug.

    • Cuesta

      Thanks for the book Midnight.
      If anyone wants to give it a look, the book can be libgen-ed. Just saying.

      • Midnight Luck

        you’re welcome. If it helps, great. It supposedly was “the” book that helped Tarantino write like Tarantino when it came to dialogue.
        I am not so sure. Maybe you will see things in it I never found.

    • charliesb

      “Dialogue is something you either have, or don’t have?
      What if some people have it, and others just don’t?”

      I think this can be said of almost any “skill”. Some people have a natural talent to sing, play basketball, dance, write. But as with any of these, anyone can get better with time, practice, reading and listening. In fact, I would say reading is more important than listening to people in a coffee shop. I think understanding how words and thoughts flow together is something that is much easier to absorb through the written word than the ear. Most of the time we are not looking for hyper realistic dialogue in a our screenplays, otherwise there would be a lot of, “uh’s, likes, mmm hmm’s, and ya’s”.

      But I think what you’re saying is true we have to learn to write our OWN dialogue and develop our own voice. It’s not about being true to some standard of perfect dialogue, it’s about being true to the individual character’s and the tone of the piece.

      • Midnight Luck

        But, again, what you are saying is what many people say. So, in the end, it seems to come down to, “you have it or you don’t”.

        I whole heartedly agree, and Stephen King said the same thing. When it comes to writing, reading is most important.

        Over time people pick up this or that. But writing dialogue isn’t becoming a plumber. There isn’t a guide where you can connect this to that. or “this is the problem, so just use a whiziwig to unclog it” kind of thing.

        I don’t know that an ear can be grown or built over time. And I have never come across a teacher or guide who can instill any help or knack at writing better dialogue. They just give simplistic guides and tips.

        The reason? There is absolutely no way to help people write “realistic, yet, not real” dialogue. It needs to SOUND real, but you don’t want it to be real. because REAL dialogue is devoid of pretty much everything. I would reference Hitchcock here and say, dialogue is what people say “with the boring parts cut out”, and add in— include variety, depth, character, red herrings, off balance, false starts, hills and valleys, and pretty much anything you can throw at it.

        Anyone can smell bad dialogue. No one can explain why.

        And i don’t think there is a soul who can help shit smell fresh and new.

    • brenkilco

      And yet, somehow we know good dialogue when we hear it. Or most of us do. I can’t comment on John Wick because I’m not paying to sit through it. One recent scene that really impressed me was the cabinet scene in Lincoln. It contains a lot of exposition. Great, steaming globs of exposition. Daniel Day Lewis just sits there and ladles it out for what seems like ten minutes. But somehow, between the actor’s performance and Kushner’s off kilter way with lines( and slipperier still….) I wasn’t bored. In fact I’ll stop and rewatch that scene when I run across it channel surfing. The explanation of the legislative posture of the amendment isn’t even all that clear. Somewhat digressive and roudabout. But I watch. The guy can write dialogue.

      • Midnight Luck

        We DO know good dialogue when we hear it. Which is why I am so astonished how many people liked John Wick. It was sooo painful for me to watch. Which is why I am analyzing what it was that people found so good about it or interesting. I think many people actually enjoy on-the-nose dialogue. Or dialogue that gives them the information the story needs.

        I would say, whatever you do, avoid paying for Wick, if you can.

        I haven’t seen LINCOLN, it wasn’t really something that interested me. But I have seen plenty of movies or TV shows where the use of exposition dumps was effective and even intriguing. That is the key though if a writer MUST do exposition. Make it so interesting, keep their focus on something else so they barely notice they are being spoon fed all this needed info. Wick didn’t do that. Maybe they thought all the people speaking in accented dialogue would throw people off.

        • brenkilco

          I don’t want to oversell Lincoln. I also expected it to be a solemn bore. And Spielberg with his penchant for never knowing when to end his movies doesn’t help. But the combo of a phenomenal lead actor, a literate but eccentric writer and a bunch of eccentric character actors, all clearly having a good time, makes it a lot more entertaining than you’d think.

          • Midnight Luck

            Makes me wonder. If you got the most incredible actor around, and gave them the worst, most cliche’d, on the nose dialogue, would it seem that way when they did something with it? would it no longer be bothersome? would it suddenly work? or is crappy expositional dialogue always and forever bad?

          • brenkilco

            It’s interesting to watch good actors in bad movies. Ever catch the original Blob with Steve Mcqueen? I don’t think even the best can spin straw into gold dialogue wise. But the best know how to fill the moment, convince you their character is real and kind of take your eye or ear off the specifics of the words they’re saying.

    • S_P_1

      The best learning experience I’ve recently had is having actors perform your script. There may be instances in which an actor flubs a line. But it comes down to the material.
      While I was on set, I heard and saw the awkwardness of some of the lines being performed. Multisyllabic words are not an actors friend. Complex concepts are great to read but a beast to perform.
      The current trend of embracing the white space is more beneficial to actors than it is to readers.
      I realize not everyone has access to actors. But to achieve that natural flow of conversation you have to hear the words physically being spoken.

      • Matthew Garry

        > Multisyllabic words are not an actors friend.

        More specifically, non-iambic meter is not an actors friend. You’d think it wouldn’t matter, but if you look at universally acclaimed (modern) dialogue a lot of the good parts scan nicely, right up to being straight blank verse.

        > I realize not everyone has access to actors.

        But everyone should have access to a mirror. Yes, it might feel silly, but hearing it out loud gives you access to your build-in scanning apparatus, which gives you hints about the natural flow of your dialogue.

        I think it’s an excellent point you make: hearing your dialogue out loud is definitely one of the easiest and best ways to improve it.

        • S_P_1

          WOW iambic pentameter would be a great feature in Final Draft. The ability to dissect an individual character’s speech pattern could literally raise the bar of scripts being written. What’s interesting is I recently read another article bringing up the subject of how well a script scans. You’re definitely in-tune with the pulse of creating memorable dialogue.
          I’ll definitely have to experiment with iambic meter.

  • andyjaxfl

    Carson, if you liked Jodorowsky’s Dune, check out the documentary on John Milius on streaming Netflix. I enjoyed J’s Dune, but Milius blows it out of the water.

  • Nicholas J

    My current strategy for writing good dialogue has been to find a writing partner who is way better at it than I am.

    • Midnight Luck

      Awesome strategy.
      My multiple personalities are the only ones I can rely on, and they all suck, and only want to write musicals, which I despise, and they always want to break into song while we’re writing, which is annoying as sh*t.

  • Midnight Luck

    I love, love, freakishly love movies.
    But the years are getting sadder.
    Read SLEEPLESS IN HOLLYWOOD and she breaks down exactly why. The combo of greed, the influx of the Global movie market out doing the American, the use of almost exclusively known IP work (leading to uninteresting, and repetitive stories) and then just plainly, the powers that be being unable to spot a truly good idea, and then craft a spectacular film.
    This year was poor.
    It isn’t just looking into the past and saying “it used to be X”, no it actually and truly isn’t what it used to be.
    All the movies I looked forward to this year ended up being let downs.
    I do everything I can to ferret out the best films I can, but the selection this year was so lacking compared to others, and the selection has been dwindling every year since about 9/11.

  • jw

    Weird. Everyone just bypassed Carson’s mention of his top films like they were totally legit. Sometimes I think we should stage an intervention. I guess it’s wrong to hold readers & producers & whatever the hell Carson is to a higher standard because at the end of the day they are just people like the rest of us. But, it does kind of make you wonder! I mean Guardians of the fucking Galaxy is one of Carson’s top 10? Why do I feel like sending him a get well card?

    • Midnight Luck

      I agree. Guardians #7 and John Wick #5? Seriously?
      He needs an intervention.

    • klmn

      A get well card might not help. I think he’s been lobotomized.

  • S_P_1

    My current theory…
    Most dialogue may seem bad coming from amateur writers because the writer is using the characters to advance the plot. So in that regard a degree of exposition is needed. The common response show don’t tell doesn’t apply to every situation. In real life the majority of daily interactions is through conversation versus physically expressing ourselves.
    A fresher view on screenwriting may be not to craft a script that is a comprehensive literal document. But to craft a blueprint of what’s visually interesting and easy to grasp.
    Why do certain regions of the world primarily embrace a certain type of genre? In India the Bollywood musical is embraced culturally. In Nigeria the Nollywood local drama. In some Muslim countries documentaries are the preferred choice. In many Sino-countries martial arts pictures reign supreme.
    In this limited dissection, all of these regions have certain basic viewing traits. They continuously support local content, the concepts are closer to everyday life, and the movies are visually distinct.
    If we as screenwriters embrace a certain genre we may increase our chances of seeing it produced.

  • Sullivan

    I’ll throw these British films into the mix for top films of the year:

    Mr. Turner
    Starred Up

    All well-written, acted, and DIFFERENT from the usual fare.

  • brenkilco

    Re Carsons top ten. Just watched Gone Girl. Yeah, by today’s genre standards it’s good. And Fincher does his carefully detailed dread thing. But, hell, variations on this plot were being wrung dry seventy years ago. And seventy years ago they would have knocked the whole thing off in a fast, sharp, dark ninety minutes; timed the twists better; and revealed just as much about societal hypocrisy, the quiet desperation of the middle class, and connubial hate, without becoming bloated and self important. It’s not that they don’t make movies like they used to. It’s that when they do they’re seldom as good. If that makes me a curmudgeon so be it. Maybe if this thing hadn’t been so hyped I wouldn’t be so pissed.

  • davejc

    The key to writing good dialogue is polish. Polish, polish, polish. And then when you’ve got it where you want it polish it some more. Keeping in mind good dialogue is as much if not more about delivery as it is about the written word, it helps to constantly visualize how the dialogue would be performed.

    And like with any other element in screenwriting good dialogue is highly subjective. i personally love the following, some people may not.

    • walker

      I can barely write in English so I think Polish dialogue is probably beyond me.

  • brenkilco

    a story set in themes of melancholy and sadness leads to dialogue as uninteresting as the premise itself

    No. Death of a Salesman, Waiting For Godot, The Glass Menagerie, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Wit,The Iceman Cometh and on and on.

  • http://antixpress.com/ kidbaron

    Have I missed any talk about BLUE RUIN? Did anyone put it on their top 10 list?

  • Sullivan

    I see the achievement in “Boyhood,” having been filmed over 12 years, but it lacked plot other than the boy grows up. How is it being nominated for screenwriting? Also, the characters are not very likable, and the boy lacks any personality. Beautifully filmed and well-acted for the most part though.

  • Midnight Luck

    Good list. your picks are close to mine.

    I think my favorites of the year were “Hector and the Search for Happiness”, “Nightcrawler”, “Boyhood”, “Whiplash”, “Theory of Everything”, “Life Itself”, “Bad Words”, and “Kill the Messenger”.
    I haven’t seen “The Imitation Game yet, but will be.
    I also want to see “Inherent Vice”, “American Sniper”, and “Selma” before I make an official list.
    I would put “Birdman”, “Enemy”, and “Under the Skin” as my “almost” top favorites as well.

  • Dan J Caslaw

    My top 5 –
    5 Interstellar
    4 The Babadook
    3 Edge of Tomorrow
    2 Nightcrawler
    1 Locke (and hey, a post about dialogue should see a dialogue-driven thriller that works being mentioned)

  • Film_Shark

    ‘Blue is the Warmest Color’ and ‘Philomena’ are films from 2013. Why are you including them in your best of 2014 list? Want to talk action films? ‘The Edge of Tomorrow’ was the best summer popcorn film of 2014. Want to talk art films? ‘Birdman’ and ‘Boyhood’ are two indie films that will get attention during the Academy Awards. Want to talk about the best foreign language film? A small Polish film titled ‘Ida’ is a masterpiece.

  • W. X. Wall

    Sounds similar to the very good advice given here:


    (He even makes a point specifically about writers ;-)