Writing (Non-Expository) Dialogue

Greta Gerwig: I don’t mean this to be arrogant, but I can write dialogue all day. That’s my comfort zone. Making the dialogue count toward the story, I always resist it but then I love it when it’s in place; because I feel resistant, it almost feels like I’m forcing a structure on something that doesn’t want to have a structure.

Curtis: I mainly discover the people by writing how they talk. And I write very fast, so I write 20 or 30 pages a day. And I will just have people chat to each other. And I’ll have a chat that will sometimes turn into a scene that is in the movie, but sometimes it’ll just be random conversation and I get a feeling for how they talk to each other and how they interact, and I’ll have long conversations between people — in Four Weddings, I would have had all of them spending a lot of time with each other, even though in the movie I mainly have them spending time just through Hugh. That refines them. I could have written Notting Hill in four days, but it took me 300. What happened to the other 296 days of dialogue?

Feig: I say [dialogue] out loud. If I can’t say it and make it sound convincing and not clunky, then no poor actor will be able to make it any better. You have to trust that your audience is generally way ahead of you. They’re smart and they know the language of film. They can guess who’s going to fall in love with whom and who works where and what they want. If you start telling them things they already figured out, they’ll start to hate you for treating them like idiots. The only people who tend to want more exposition are executives who think audiences aren’t smart. And so you’ll end up writing the reading draft, which is overwritten and explains a lot of things, and then the shooting draft, where you realize you don’t need all those longs speeches about how people are feeling and what they want out of life.

It’s all about being in a character’s head. I do like to sit in places by myself and eavesdrop on people’s conversations. I’m fascinated by people’s turns of phrase and their sometimes odd takes on the world. But I’m more interested in writing real characters with interesting personalities and then readjusting the dialogue once I’ve cast the actors who will play these roles. I’d rather use whatever odd energy they bring naturally, rather than dictate to them some quirky way of talking.

Jim Rash and Nat Faxon: Exposition probably gets thinned out as we revise and revise drafts. That first pass can feel like a “spit draft” just throwing out what needs to be accomplished in each scene even if that means the dialogue is crappy and filled with exposition or even “on the nose” statements about how that character is feeling right now.

Cody: I have to thank Austin Powers, because whenever that happens I’m just like, “Hey, here comes Basil Exposition!” and I laugh to myself. Sometimes you can’t help it. The studios like things to be super expository because they think you’re all dumb. I try to fight on behalf of the viewer. “They can figure out what’s happening. You don’t need all this.” I crack up every time I’m watching a movie and a character says, “Let me get this straight…” and then recaps everything!

Holofcener: I think I just understand the character. It comes easily to me. I just put myself in that character’s face and just start talking. Sometimes out loud to myself. I just picture that I’m them.

I guess sometimes I let myself be on the nose and then trim it, and realize that this doesn’t have to be told. I think I have an exposition meter at some point, and realize this doesn’t have to be told, this is really boring. And my scenes are generally very short.


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