Writing Real-Life Dialogue


Scene from Inglorious Basterds, Quentin Tarantino


Karl Iglesias, Instructor, UCLA Writer’s Program
Steve Faber, Screenwriter (Wedding Crashers)
William Martell, Screenwriter (HBO, Showtime, USA Net, CineMax Originals), First Strike Productions
William Massa, Screenwriter (Silver Pictures, Dark Castle, Warner Brothers, Sony, Maverick, MGM, USA and Mandalay)
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store

How important is dialogue in script?

Anthony:  Dialogue can be wonderful and funny, when you go through a script… and yet you’ll have scenes where actors say nothing in the scene. Unless you’re surrounded by a roomful of talented actors… whenever you can take words out of an actor’s mouth, do it. If you can show the character’s behavior instead, do it. Show, don’t tell. Most productions have no access to A-list actors. Have your character react a certain way, by default.

Steve:  No one speaks in real-life like they do in dialogue. Set-up, punch. Set-up, punch. Except for historical biography, there is no “real life dialogue”. There is a “hyper” or “meta” dialogue.

Karl:  Real-life dialogue.

How do you make hyper dialogue and make it sound natural?

Steve:  Depending on the genre, e.g. with horror, characters will scream.

Bill Massa:  The only thing when you’re reading is dialogue (script) telling the story therefore concept, story, characters, can be more important on a macro-level but dialogue jumps out at the reader.

Karl:  Least important – this doesn’t drive the story. What’s important is that readers read dialogue – trying to grasp the story through dialogue (vertically), and therefore, it’s not a conversation. It’s action. In a scene, there are only 2 ways a character can get something: either physically or verbally. Real dialogue is action.

Anthony:  Attitude towards the world. Flesh out character. Propels them to say things that are true to them.

How do you give dialogue distinctive character voices?

Bill:  Attitude of broad strokes: create conflict.

Steve:  Pick an actor at a given point in their career, and write in their voice. I pitched Wedding Crashers to 9 studios before I realized that Owen was not talking as fast as Vince… so I had to rewrite all of his lines.

Karl:  Contrast in scenes (emotional tempo: way characters feel in a scene). Favorite expressions, pet words.  In Lost: Jack Sawyer’s character nicknames every character.

Steve:  Moral lines in the sand. One character offending another character. That can manifest in great dialogue.

Bill:  Rhythmn. Cadence. The Coen brothers are masters at this.

Anthony:  Look at archetypes. Choose attitudes. Writer as an actor in the room. Drop into a place in your stomach that emotionally resonates with how a person is feeling in the scene. With each draft, find out all the characters’ ticks. Not all is lost if the components are not all working in the first draft.

Karl:  Every line has to have a reason. Not exposition (interrogation scene). Use dialogue to get something from someone.

Bill M:  In the Matrix, big chunks of the movie is exposition. Because we’re so intrigued, we don’t feel that this is just dumped on us. Very strong visuals. Exposition on the run. (Elements of danger). 

How do you make dialogue sound natural, again?

Karl:  Stilted dialogue is something that is grammatically correct, with full sentences, like an encyclopedia. Use contractions. If you want to say, “I want to go to the theatre tomorrow”, the trick is to contract it “I’m…” “I’ll”…. Have fragmented sentences. Cut words out.

Anthony:  Go through your script, and take out “well” and ‘look” from all the first words.

Karl:  It’s about trimming to the bone.

Steve:  I like characters who F*** up what they’re saying and then correct themselves. It’s a trick, it’s also part of human nature.

Anthony:  Have your character spit a question out in their mind, and then state the answer before asking the question out loud.

Bill M:  In real life, people interject. Running paragraphs don’t work in Casablanca – it’s all one line.

Karl:  Finger rule: it should be no thicker than a finger horizontally. Write tightly. (Subtext) Imply vs stating on the nose. E.g. first date questions – Quentin Tarantino, Ron Bass write good dialogue.


Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters

Cast of Characters

Does character drive story, or does story leave place for characters?

In other words, how do you go about figuring out plot? What comes first? Character, or story? I took notes recently on a conversation between screenwriting experts on the matter:

Dwayne Alexander Smith, Screenwriter, Damn Good Ideas Productions
Steve Faber, Screenwriter
Pamela Jaye Smith, Consultant, Teacher, MYTHWORKS
Anthony Grieco, Screenwriter, Story Specialist at The Writers Store and a mentor for the Industry Insider Screenwriting Contest
Michael Hauge, Story Consultant/Author/Lecturer
Lee Jessup, Career Coach for Screenwriters

Pamela: “Character-driven story” vs “Action adventure” – both are valid instances of screenplays that start with character

Anthony: Various inspirations lead to story. The big question, “what if”… and start to play with a ball…How would the ending sentence go and what is the moral of the story? I will create a character with a flaw in opposition to the moral…If you’re not interested in figuring this flaw out, the reader won’t be. I would find the story and then find the character that helps me find that story.

Michael: Don’t think stories are plot or character-driven. They are DESIRE driven, but character in pursuit of goal drives the plot. What is the big desire?

Steve: Obsessed with story. Best when focused on, outline story like crazy. It’s about an outline. Tell the story in a few sentences. No more high-concept stories. They are anomalies. Done. When budgets were high. A good story can be described to someone in a few words.

Dwayne: It starts with story. Outline like crazy: Always be writing for a star. Then create a protagonist or lead that a star wants to play.

What are the must-have ingredients for a great lead character for a star?

Dwayne: Changes by genre/movie. Likeable. Focus on Point-of-view. A strong character is in almost every scene in the movie. Rocky, Raiders, Indiana Jones. And looking over their shoulder and follows the movie (pulls you in).

Michael: Elevating character from OK to great: What terrifies this character emotionally? What is the deep, hidden emotion, fear they don’t want to face? Where does it come from? What armor do they wear? Unite this with plot: find the fear they must face. In Wedding Crashers, it’s the fear of commitment.

Steve: Level of ambiguity. This is one important aspect that propels them along the journey. It makes them stop to question, are they doing this for the right reasons? They must have some level of uncertainty and ambiguity.

Pamela: Aligned with one of the archetypes. This works. Because it’s about who we are. The closer they are aligned, the easier it is for us to sympathize (subconscious patterns that live in the psyche of humanity). Get recognition. A great character’s job: is to use Point-of-View as a lens to view humanity.

Anthony: Make sure your character has an attitude towards the world (what Michael calls “armor”). Whether they’re introverted or extroverted, how they approach the world matters. Throw people who don’t have that attitude with them. A curmudgeon with a Sunshiny. Other characters must be affected by or impacted by the lead character. Don’t buy into your character must be likeable.  Dude in Big Lebowski – identify with strong, laissez faire. We like watching people get tortured.


How much does the development of character dictate their ultimate fate?

Anthony: With one of my heroes, the outline falls apart at the midpoint because character becomes…uncontrollable? Interesting. By the time I get to that part of the script, I let them take control… it’s very organic. You should outline and structure, but once you get good at it, throw it all away… Most sell-able screenplays have happy endings. Cautionary tales and heroic tales.

Pamela: Inner drives – putting a different backstory to characters to same lines of dialogue is a good way to flesh out characters’ inner drives…

Michael: Don’t use biographies. I often get bombarded with questions about stories and characters. Oftentimes, writers don’t know their character… yet they more likely to say, they know the answer to these questions. The end goal is to know the character as well as your siblings, or spouse.

Steve: The Graduates. Did they stay together at the end? You need to know every aspect of character. Question: do your scenes compromise the character? Be stubborn. Throwing a cake away, in the script, that you don’t necessarily need. Always give them a cut if the budget doesn’t work out. If you really know your character well, they not to compromise (on throwaway scenes).

Dwayne: Rarely gets a note about character. More about changing the story.


How would you pitch a character-driven story?

Steve: Would spec Napoleon Dynamite. Not pitch it. Very difficult to pitch them. Well done, but not easy to pitch. e.g. Juno is never going to come out to people even if it looks good in your head. “Pitching to an oil painting” – you get nothing.


If you had 10 aspects to a character, how many would you bring in as subplot?

Anthony: Never approach a story that way. The big question is what bomb went off in their lives before this movie started? How do we break this spell? The other stuff fills in with re-writes. “I don’t need to know what my character had for breakfast.”


In an age of Transformers, is film the place for character development, or more TV?

Pamela: New fertile ground: short-mini series. Storylines over six to twenty episodes produced by people like you. Not done with majors. Freedom of expression without the restrictions of studio executives, development people, and investors. Check out the Web Series (Marseilles Webfest/ LA Webfest). A lot of creative projects ** All into TRANSMEDIA. Transformers is about toys. The movie platforms put a story that is more attractive to investors.


What do you never want to see in a character?

Steve: Pedophelia. Unnecessary side journeys to go make sandwiches. Romcom’s bother me. Because I know what’s going to happen.

Michael: Static, inaction, indecisive characters. Whether it’s a right or wrong decision, force them to take action.

Anthony: If a character can just stop what they’re doing and say “I don’t need to be here” then you have a problem. Because there are NO STAKES. It must be about life and death.

Michael: Whatever they pursue, if they fail, what are the consequences? Don’t have a millionaire who falls in love. It has got to be life and death.

Dwayne: I don’t like protagonists who don’t believe in their course. They must be totally gung-ho about their goal.

Beginning with the Pitch…8 steps to Pitch Perfect by Michael Hauge

Once I’d done OODLES of research, reading, and conceptualizing for The Black Tail, I decided to pitch it. Yup, to 90 agents in Hollywood at a Screenwriter’s World Conference October 2012 in the Kodak Theater. In Hollywood, I learned that the industry considers writing a given. Authors and screenwriters start backwards by pitching first to as many agents as they can — and they normally pitch a few ideas, so that they can sit back and write knowing that someone is either funding the effort, or that it needs reworking because it isn’t ready yet for commercialization. I can’t emphasize enough, the importance of pitching, if you’re really passionate about an idea. What better way to get feedback on moving forwards?

At Storyworld, I was extremely fortunate to have the opportunity for a 30-minute one-on-one coaching with Michael Hauge, from Storymastery.com. To quote his bio from his official website, “Michael Hauge is a story and script consultant, author and lecturer who works with writers and filmmakers on their screenplays, novels, movies and television projects. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez, Kirsten Dunst, Charlize Theron and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network…He is on the Board of Directors of the American Screenwriters Association and the Advisory Board for Scriptwriter Magazine in London.”

So, I was in the Ray Dolby Ballroom, teeming with budding screenwriters, agents, and producers… and Michael sat me down at a corner table and recorded me as I pitched my idea to him for 10 minutes. In under 20 minutes, he  then proceeded to give me feedback, which was exceedingly useful. I’m going to paraphrase: “stop saying you’re not a writer. Everyone is here to write, and writing is a serious business whether you’re making money doing it full time or whether you’re doing it on the side.” I sat up straight away, taking him seriously. He then went into the heart of my story. “Listen, this is clearly, obviously, a romance. You’ve got a great storyworld of monsters and themes from Greek mythology, but it is obviously a romance. And romance sells! It’s the largest selling genre in the world. Why wouldn’t you want to make this a bestselling romance? Why do you think it’s hard to write? You’ll have many resources at your fingertips with this genre…” and then he went on to put structure to my pitch, especially seeking out certain key elements that needed to be made explicit. (He wanted the 3 Labors I was putting my heroine through to be stated to the agents). When he was done, I went back and reshaped my whole pitch, and had something like the perfect back cover review for my book. This then served to structure the entire outlining process, that led to the process of building my novel scene by scene. Pitching is so important because the key elements that inform the structure of the story — plot, character, conflict —- has to be nailed in order to get it right.

Michael then went on to say that he’d be happy to work with me long-distance on the development of my story, and that is something I’d definitely recommend to those who have the time and resources. I am currently still learning a few tricks, through online courses at Writer’s Digest University, and still getting the first draft together. By the time I do, I’ll definitely work with Michael, because I see the potential in having my book also be a screenplay, and he’s definitely the go-to guy to get it right!!!

Without further ado, here are my notes from Michael Hauge’s “Screenwriter’s Pitch Perfect” lecture. He says that pitching is all about conveying an emotional experience.

8 Steps to the Process of Pitching


A. Review the story, identity and key elements of the story

  1. Who is the hero/protagonist of the story?
  2. What is the everyday life that character is living at the beginning of the story? (Before picture of the hero)
  3. Why will we empathize with this character? Why will the audience connect emotionally with this character? Eg. Avatar – we become Jake. Why we care (ways to develop empathy):
    1. We feel sorry for the person. Some undeserved misfortune.
    2. Character is in jeopardy. Someone who finds out she’s about to lose her job. Doesn’t have to be life-threatening.
    3. Make the hero likeable — tell us something in everyday life that shows he/she’s a kind, good-hearted, loving person
  4. What opportunity is presented to your hero at the 10% point in your script?
    1. e.g. Harry Potter learns he is the son of a wizard…
  5. New situation (character moves into~) something happens to create new desire in the person
  6. What is the hero’s outer motivation?
    1. Harry Potter has to find the Sorcerer’s Stone and stop it from falling into the hands of evil Lord Voldemort
    2. The outer motivation is the visible goal that takes the character to the end point of the movie (visible finish line that the character will cross)
  7. What makes that scene possible? What’s the conflict?
  8. What are the 2 antecedents for your movie? Example of movies in the same genre (similar tone), same audience, doesn’t have to be the same subject matter: Immortals, Clash of the Titans

B. You write. Take these elements, and compose that picture-perfect pitch

C. Rehearse. (Don’t read – can have note cards)

D. Research. Know as much as you can about the buyer.

  1. Go on Internet Movie DataBase and see what they produce, what’s in development


Create rapport  – identify commonality with the person…

  1. Acknowledge the person for something they or their company have done
  2. Don’t bullshit – why did you love the movie? “I saw it with my daughter and we had the best conversations about it…”
  3. They’re here – They took the time to come here (Thank them). “I’m here from Malaysia… it means a  lot to have the opportunity to talk to you…”


  1. Pitch
  2. Do not open with the title of the script or ____? Emotionally confusing
  3. Begin by telling the person about how you came up with this idea. HOW. Show originality. You want to draw the buyer into the pitch (get into it). If not listening 100%, it doesn’t matter. True, less nervous. The things about your story that generates passion and excitement…
    1. Good place to step in and link idea to the story; “I started thinking… WHAT IF”… (What movies you liked that led to this)
  4. Go into 8 elements
  5. Awkward moment #1: finish staying story… silent because buyer doesn’t know you’re finished.
    1. 1 short peek: summarize (title and log line) can be conveyed in 1 sentence)
  6. Silence again.
    1. Request feedback/next steps– “So, do you have any questions about my story or would you like me to send you a copy”?
  7. Q&A
    1. When someone asks a question, you must answer in 10 seconds. If they want to know more, they’ll ask.
    2. If someone was not interested in your pitch, 99% of the time, it had nothing to do with your pitch. No means their company is not interested in making that kind of movie right now (they already have stuff in development).
    3. “Got a couple of minutes left, can you give me some suggestions to sharpen my pitch?”
    4. If YES, see a copy – thank them, “great, I’ll get you a copy this week, I look forward to seeing what you have to say”


  • Begin your pitch with a question
  • In your pitch, don’t tell the buyer how the story ends. END your pitch with a CLIFFHANGER. … that’s why CONFLICT was the last of those 8 items…
  • Don’t say if you want to know the ending, read the script
  • If you’re pitching a true story, don’t tell the person it’s a true story. Just pitch it. Only in the end – the title is this, 1-sentence summary, and can you believe it, it’s actually true (hook at the end)
  • Do not hype your story: this gets you nowhere – “this is really heartwarming, will appeal to children of all ages…”. Don’t tell them why or how good it will be – let them make the commercial conclusions of your story
  • Don’t apologize for nervousness. Don’t apologize during the pitch.
  • Don’t try to tell your whole story
  • Do not worry about getting rejected