Not too long ago I came across the script for one of my all-time favorite sci-fi films Ex Machina. Reading the script was practically like re-watching the entire movie, but from a different perspective. It was almost like seeing the movie stripped down to its bare bones, and then I realized why I was so drawn to it in the first place: the dialogue. How does it build so much tension when there is hardly any action? I feel like this script has helped me learn more about writing dialogue than any book or lecture I’ve come across recently. Not only do screenplays provide you with solid examples of effective dialogue, but they also help you understand why effective dialogue matters.
Since I’ll be using examples from the script throughout this post, let me give you my brief overview of what the film is about:
Caleb is a programmer for a popular Internet search engine who wins a competition to spend a week with the company’s CEO at his private retreat. He later learns he was chosen to participate in a Turing test-like experiment with an artificial intelligence robot named Ava. Ava has the face and characteristics of a normal girl despite her other body parts giving her away, but can she outsmart Caleb and convince him that she has a human conscience?
Though a screenplay is a different medium than what I’m used to writing, it has helped me grasp the concept of writing dialogue that is simple, yet complex. Here are 5 tips that have changed my dialogue for the better:
1. Show, Don’t Tell
Screenplays introduce characters the same way we get to know people in real life: by observing what they do and listening to what they say. Much like us, characters don’t always reveal everything about themselves when they speak. Sometimes it’s their actions that give them away, and that adds another dimension to their character development and dialogue. For example, as soon as Nathan opens his mouth you can tell that he’s got quite a big ego. On the other hand, when you notice how many bottles of beer he goes through each night you start to pick up on his deeper personal insecurities. That, and the fact that he had to build himself another AI (Kyoko) to be his other companion. Creepy.
2. Your Agenda vs. Your Character’s Agenda
As the writer, your agenda is to keep the story moving in a certain direction, but your characters have agendas of their own as well. In fact, all of your characters have their own set of individual goals that they’re trying to accomplish, and some may not necessarily align with yours. It’s important to understand each of your characters’ agendas because it will have a huge impact on their dialogue. If you impose your own agenda through your character’s dialogue then it will start to sound unnatural, forced, and even out of character.
3. Real People Don’t Sound The Same
Characters come to life when they have their own distinct voices. While I was reading the script, there came a point where I could clearly identify who was speaking (well, except for Kyoko) without having to read their character heading. That’s pretty impressive when you think about it. If characters are supposed to be believable then they should not have the same word choice or speech pattern. Real people speak in incomplete sentences; they also use incorrect grammar or simple vocabulary. Even educated people like Caleb and Nathan use slang and profanity from time to time. Ava is not a real person, so she’s pretty much the only one this doesn’t apply to.
4. Less is More
You would think seeing lengthy dialogue in a screenplay was commonplace, but it’s actually the opposite. Instead, dialogue is kept minimal and every word is carefully thought out to convey tension or a certain mood. Sometimes characters manage to say a lot without saying anything at all (e.g. long pauses, awkward silences), including when they say the exact opposite of what they think or feel (also known as subtext). A case in point is when Caleb asked Nathan why he would give his AI a female gender. Nathan assumed that his real question was if Ava (a.k.a. the AI) could have sex, which he confirmed. However, Caleb quickly shot down that assumption by explaining that he just didn’t see a point to the whole sexuality thing. Caleb may have brought up a good point, but we all know that he is secretly getting turned on by a robot girl.
5. Get to Know Your Characters
I think one of the biggest challenges in writing is creating characters that are completely different from you or anyone else you know. Unless Alex Garland (screenwriter and director) is a programming whiz or knows any AI robots, then he must have done some kind of research before he wrote the script. One of the best ways to compile your research is by creating a character biography that will act as a handy resource to fall back on. A character biography will help you establish who they are, where they’re from, and where they’re going in terms of character development. It will also help you figure out their quirks and ticks, and once you know your character inside out, their speech and word choice will come out naturally.