December 11, 2022

Article at Jason on Authory

Create a Great Movie Scene with Just 2 Lines of Dialogue

Recently I was having trouble with writing dialogue. Everything I put into my characters' mouths sounded either trite, obvious, or melodramatic. I started thinking about how characters, like real people, rarely say exactly what they're thinking or what they want.

Instead of conjuring up quick Aaron Sorkin-style conversation or epic, exposition-heavy fantasy discourse, I went back to the basics. How few words could still create an interesting scene and reveal character? Here's what I came up with, and maybe it will be useful to other TV and film writers out there.

A husband and wife are at home. They're getting ready to go out. Here are the opening lines:

WIFE: How do I look?

HUSBAND: We need to leave.

Believe it or not, a lot of plot and character is revealed in those two lines.

Let's start with the wife's question. She instantly gives us stakes -- she thinks it's important how she looks. Maybe it's important only to her, or just to her husband, or to whoever they're going to see. But it gives us some tension. And it's a tiny mystery to be solved: does she look "good" or not?

The husband's non-answer provides ample information as well. For one thing, he gives us a clock. To him, there isn't time even to answer his wife's simple question, because they need to go to their destination. Why? Will something happen to him, or his wife, or both of them if they're late? Another mystery that builds some suspense.

We also get a relationship from those two lines. The wife seems to need the husband's approval, which suggest a power dynamic. So does the husband's reply, which simultaneously dismisses her concern and seems to "order" her to leave.

Why is the wife asking how she looks? Is this a ritual, something she does every time they go out, and the answer doesn't really matter? Or is this the first time she has ever asked the question -- because she suspects the husband is having an affair? Why is this time different is a question screenwriters should always be able to answer, especially in Act One of screenplays or pilots of TV shows.

And why is the husband avoiding the question? Is he justifiably upset, because the wife is taking forever to leave? Or do they actually have plenty of time, but he's such an anxious person that he always needs to arrive early? Does he not simply answer his wife's question because he's no longer attracted to her? Is it because she's cheating on him? Whatever the truth, his response reveals character, along with his relationship to his wife.

All this plot and character information in just eight words.

Now with this solid foundation, we can get more story points from what comes next. If the wife meekly says "Yes, dear" and follows him out the door, that shows the husband has the power in the relationship. If she coldly replies "I asked you a question," that shows she's at least on equal footing, and may be ready for a fight.

Let's continue the scene, but without either character addressing their relationship head-on:

WIFE: I just want to impress the senator tonight.

HUSBAND: All he cares about is your checkbook.

Again, the wife is providing some stakes and context, and again the husband is shrugging off her concerns. If this continues, the plot and relationship will become even more clear.

I hope this exercise shows that characters can say a lot, even when they're only saying four words which don't seem directly relevant. Good dialogue is not explicit, but instead contains subtext that hints at what the characters really want.

Jason Ginsburg wrote The Sorcerer Beast, a fantasy adventure starring Corey Feldman and Jeffrey Combs, now streaming on Amazon. He has written and produced web series for Discovery, Science Channel, Playboy, and Home Shopping Network.