How not to write movie dialogue

how to write movie dialogueHere’s a great scene from Sophia Coppola’s The Bling Ring that I think says a huge amount about how not to write movie dialogue. It’s the sort of forced, totally unnatural piece of dialogue that only makes sense in a script, where the writer wants to tell us something but doesn’t know how to succinctly show it. Looking at it on paper, it might not seem that bad. It apparently worked for everyone involved in making the film. But if you read a little between the lines, it’s a textbook example of how not to write dialogue.

Mark drives Rachel to an airport terminal. He stops the car. 

MARK

When are you coming back from Vegas?

RACHEL

I don’t know. Just gonna stay with my dad until things calm down with my mom. I’ll call you from there.

MARK

Okay.

RACHEL

Will you hold on to some of my stuff for me?

MARK

Yeah, sure.

RACHEL

Okay. Bye.

Rachel leaves the car.

What’s wrong with this movie dialogue?

There’s one overarching detail that makes this brief conversation seem incredibly odd. The context.

They are having this exchange at the airport. Mark has presumably been driving with Rachel for at least a few minutes. She presumably asked him to take her to the airport. They have, therefore, presumably discussed beforehand the fact that she is going away. Yet their entire exchange, as she leaves for her flight, seems to be covering a few new details about her future plans, as opposed to, say, the more natural exchange of two friends saying goodbye.

But that’s not all. If we took away the first line, the exchange could almost work in another context. But really: “When are you coming back from Vegas?” The aforementioned aside, in real life would Mark feel the need to qualify ‘coming back’ with ‘from Vegas?’ He clearly knows where’s she’s going, she obviously does too, why would he say ‘from Vegas’? Answer: because the audience doesn’t know that’s where she’s going, and the writer wants to tell them. In real life, people say “When are you coming back?”

Next: “I’m just gonna stay with my dad until things settle down with my mom.” Thanks for telling us your life story in one neat sentence, Rachel. But you’d sound a bit odd saying that to someone who already knew the reason you were moving away, or where you were moving to, wouldn’t you? In reality, you’d generally make the answer to the question the subject of the sentence. Think, “How long are you gonna stay?” “I’m just gonna stay until things settle down.”, maybe “I’ll stay until things settle down with my mom.” Not “How long are you gonna stay?” “I’m gonna stay with my dad…” Too much detail (or inappropriate details) makes it sound like you’re trying to give people information that they weren’t privy to earlier.

Then: “Will you hold on to some of my stuff for me?” “Okay.” “Bye.” is just…what? Now would be the time Mark would start asking questions. Like “What stuff?” “Where is this stuff?” “How are we going to make arrangements for me to get this stuff considering you’re just springing it on me as you run off to catch a plane?” Maybe just “Why are you asking that now?”

What this whole exchange achieves on paper is: it tells us Rachel is going away suddenly, we don’t know how long for, she’s given Mark an excuse and she’s palmed her stuff off onto him whilst she’s away. These are important plot points, worthy of exposition in a scene’s dialogue. But because the lines are so clumsy in the scene’s context, what we see on film is: “Here’s a quick breakdown of important details about what Rachel’s up to.” It screams artificial, because the writer is more concerned with telling details than how people actually talk.

So.

Please don’t write dialogue like this.

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