Dialogue Writing Lessons from Quentin Tarantino

An ultimate summary on how to write dialogues like Quentin Tarantino.

Dialogue Writing Lessons from Quentin Tarantino
“I make movies that I hope will inspire other people to make movies.” - Quentin Tarantino

When you hear the name "Quentin Tarantino" you always think about amazing characters, incredibly done dialogues that feel real, excessive violence with rivers of fake blood,  genuine atmosphere and aesthetics flavoured with music from the 60s - 80s, sometimes a nonlinear structure with flashbacks. All of these are important parts of his style, and he always keeps a similar atmosphere throughout his filmography.

Being a fan of Tarantino's work I watched dozens of YouTube videos, interviews and read a couple of articles all about his craft. I summarised them and distilled into one essay for anyone who wants to learn about the topic.

So here we go - an ultimate summary on Quentin Tarantino's writing style.

Influence

Tarantino loves cinema. He worked at Video Archives, a video store in Manhattan Beach, California. He has a deep encyclopedic knowledge and understanding of how films are made because he watched tons of them. And like any other artist, Tarantino has his influences - people and films formed his style.

In every film, he pays homage to cinematic moments that resonated with him and made a genuine influence on his work. Tarantino's films are full of cinema and pop culture references. As with any other artists, he has his influences, people who inspired him and shaped his personal style.

Quentin Tarantino himself reveals the writers who have influenced him the most:

  • Elmore Leonard - an American novelist, specialize in crime fiction and suspense thrillers. His novel Rum Punch was adapted as the film Jackie Brown
  • David Mamet - an American playwright, film director, screenwriter and author and Pulitzer Prize winner.
  • Richard Pryor - an American stand-up comedian, actor, and writer

And Paddy Chayefsky. Tarantino didn't realize he influenced him when he was looking for "own voice". But later he found some symmetry between how they write dialogues. As a screenwriter, Paddy Chayefsky received three Academy Awards for Marty (1955), The Hospital (1971) and Network (1976)

Here are a few takeaways:

  • Know your influences - if you want to form your unique style it's a good idea to learn where you get your main inspiration from - films, books, music or any pieces of art. You can even write them down and have a file or page where all you can see all your influences and who are the people behind them.
  • "Steal" like an artist - Inspiration + Idea = Something new. Some people suggest to aspiring artists to copy the style of your favourites. If you find an artist whose vision and passion resonates with you - stick with it, absorb all his/her work, try to copy and one day you will find your style.

Exercise: When Tarantino was in acting school he was making some notes during the rehearsal but couldn't write down everything. So after returning home he tried to fill the blanks with his own ideas. And one day friend of him told that "blanks" are as good as the original. That's how Tarantino was unconsciously practising his dialogue writing skills.

Characters

The best action films are those when you care about character outcomes. But it should be supported by great storytelling as well. In contrast to traditional cinema, when the core thing is a story. In Quentin Tarantino's films characters are main building blocks and story is developed thought dialogues of charismatic people interacting with each other in a "word" battle. They always have a deep personality and sometimes controversial unique ideology and philosophy.

Characters are what makes Tarantino's films so different. Unlike modern blockbusters, all of his characters are very well developed. They are not just templates created to promote the story, but bright, colourful, charismatic and alive. Real personalities. And there aren't often clear protagonist/antagonist scheme, many characters participate in story equally and the plot isn't focused on one person unlike in many movies.

To create great characters you need to care about two things:

  • Who they are when alone - informal or neutral state. To learn that you need to know each of your characters intimately. Tarantino often write out backstories in a screenplay even if it won't be in a film eventually. It does not only makes screenplay better to read but gives a writer an opportunity to dig deeper into each character, know their motivation, preferences and origin. And the audience will be impressed by not HOW characters fight, but FOR WHAT they do it.
  • Who they are when around others - dramatic state. Or how do they behave with friends, enemies or in public, etc. Each character is playing a "character". We all do. We often pretend to be someone else, someone we want people to see us, even subconsciously. E.g. in Pulp Fiction, compare the behaviour of Jules and Vince during the hamburger dialogue in a car or foot massage scene with how Jules threatening guys with the briefcase with the bible dialogue.
"When I have a film idea I see the character and his role. I imagine a character in the same room with me and think what we would talk about first - TV, music, fast food, his past. Then we're just chatting until I understand his true self."

To show both these states Tarantino gradually shows us characters in different settings interacting with different people and events. Here are four points on how to make character images stronger.

  1. First, reveal character - what they like, how they behave. Characters have their unique traits - each line they say uncover who they are.  Tarantino often develops characters using only dialogues and sometimes does it during only one scene.
  2. Putting foreshadows for the future during an informal scene. Specific phrases or actions, some of which you can even miss, but they are important and if we spot them we will understand the future character's much actions better.
  3. "Rehearsal" before an important event - It gives you a chance to feel your characters, how they struggle, feel their vulnerability and their uncertainty before the dramatic moment.
  4. Contrast. It makes the audience to wait and relax and conflict happens only when we know a lot about characters and stakes are extremely high. The transition from an informal state to dramatic state makes us very surprised and often shocked by characters actions. Quentin Tarantino often make him characters mysterious like Jules, Landa, Bill or Ren - they may be too polite or grotesquely courteous. Then it can be SHOCKING when we see the real essence of a character.  E.g. Hans Landa can be very polite and intelligent first, but then show himself as we usually imagine SS officers - maniacal and cruel. A similar example is Dr King Schultz from Django Unchained -  we are surprised to see the dentist as a bounty hunter and killer.

After the first 2-3 points, usually the first half of the film, we learn a lot about characters and, even subconsciously, we start loving them. It also can be achieved putting flashbacks in the middle of a film or using a non-linear structure, which is also pretty common for Tarantino. Then in 3-4, Quentin puts the character into hell and the audience is shocked and impressed. We see real personalities with ideas and views on both sides of the conflict - it's never boring.

Many of Tarantino's characters are not like real people - they are too bright, grotesque, charismatic and "cinematic". What they have in common is they are talking a lot. But about what? Well, they often talk musings on everyday topics, discuss new Madonna's song, hamburgers, comic book heroes. Whatever it is - it's almost always about pop-culture or real history. Even in his westerns like Django or Hateful Eight characters talk about what is currently happening in their world, their time - what they care about as normal people. So we might think it is bullshit first, but actually it's not - it could be a key to the characters and their essence.

Such dialogues are often not moving a plot at all, but they reveal character and let us know them in person. There's always an ideological conflict between them which sometimes leads to bloody madness and rivers of fake blood. So, after we learned about character, let's talk about how Tarantino crafts his outstanding dialogues.

What makes a great dialogue?

"Dialogue in fiction is what characters do to one another." - Elizabeth Bowen.

Each letter in dialogues in theatre, cinema, cartoons are supposed to be perfectly polished. In an ideal case, characters say only exactly what a writer needs to develop a story. There are three functions of dialogue by Robert McKee:

  • Show exposition, fictional facts about the situation, characters and story which are essential to the audience to understand what's going on.
  • Reveal the character's personality. Create unique characters which are very different from one other.
  • Empower a hero with abilities to act. Physically (gestures or any kind of physical activity) or Mentally (what happens in a characters head, choices and changes in personality which affect behaviour) or Verbal. The stronger the tension and higher the stakes in the scene, the more characters' words show us who they are.

Characters are not supposed to say things irrelevant to the story. Each line should empower storytelling and feel real at the same time. But Quentin Tarantino breaks these rules. And does it very authentically and accurately, with his own style. His dialogues are different and that's why we love them, some scenes are made only for dialogues, but they are not meaningless and make his stories strike with genuine beauty. He puts the lowest and unspiritual manifestations of human life and makes art from it.

His dialogues are like competition - we always see who is winning at each moment of time, we don't know the outcome and we care about it a lot. Just like a sport.

Let's can highlight a few traits in Tarantino's dialogues:

  1. High Stakes. There's always something at risk in each scene and we both as audience and writer should know what exactly. It creates tension and suspense especially if it's what we waited for, either a few or a dozen of minutes. However, It's hard to spot this if the film has just started.
  2. Structure.  You are probably aware of the three-act structure. In Quentin's dialogues this is often very clearly identifiable, the longer scene the more important it becomes. It helps to make long scenes more engaging and interesting and sometimes feel like a standalone short film. Act 1 - characters enter the scene, revealing or foreshadowing happens. Act 2 - power shift, dialogue's topic change. Act 3 - the culmination, dramatic release or contrast. Each of those acts has it's own purpose and tone. Act 1 could be physical, Act 2 - intellectual, Act 3 - emotional. Just remember, there always should be a conflict, characters should argue, and it cannot just end - there's always should be a logical resolution of it
  3. Stories inside stories.  Characters in Tarantino's films often tell stories - either about their lives, anecdotes, some random stuff or with an intention to explain something to other character or subtextually threaten him or her. These stories often reveal us their authors and can be crucial to understanding a character's moral or origin. If the purpose of this story is to threaten someone it also creates suspense and feeling that something inevitable should happen.
  4. Humour and jokes, which includes visual jokes. The whole situation can be funny, or character can say something hilarious, like anecdotes. It's often very dark humour but it always feels very organic and real.

Let's talk about the three-act structure and what tools you can use to empower it. In most of the films, an average scene length is about 2-3 minutes. In Tarantino's films, it can be 10 minutes or more. And everything is happening in this scene is just dialogue. So how to keep the audience engaged?

Tarantino always use such a device as the pledge, or foreshadowing, as I mentioned it before. It's a promise to the audience that something interesting will happen. Using it you can get the audience's attention from a first few words.

Just remember how Pulp Fiction is starting - "No, forget it, it's too risky." It immediately sticks in your mind and you're curious what's exactly is risky and what these guys are going to do. The main function of it is building anticipation towards the future and maintaining it, making a viewer or reader want to know more.

Subtext. It is what is not set, the difference between what we see and what is actually happening. Tarantino has an abundance of subtext to many of his lines. There's often a hidden purpose, threat or thought that is incredibly easy to miss being not attentive enough. For perceptive viewer or reader, dialogue becomes more interesting, witty and fun to watch.

And the most important thing is long-form suspense. It's related to the previous points or even depends on them. The best example is the opening scene from Inglorious bastards - which is genius and always interesting to watch, even for 10th time. One of the main elements is showing the Jewish family hiding under the wooden floor. It makes us wait for a resolution, we feel that they are in danger, and at the end of the scene, we see exactly what we were afraid of. The same effect is in the scene in the bar where one of the characters shows "three" with his fingers in a wrong way and nazi officers spot it.  It is also additional information about something inevitable which we are going to wait for each second until the scene ends.

"The essential fact is to get real suspense you must let the audience have information." - Alfred Hitchcock. More about this.

The key to the great scene is tension and suspense. Establishing goals of the two characters with the potential to clash in a devastating conflict is a great approach not only for dialogue but for building any kind of story in general.

How Tarantino Directs dialogue

This section is more about directing style of Quentin Tarantino, but I think it is still useful for writers and I should mention it anyway. The following traits shape and represent his style and help to show dialogues better on the screen.

  • Light is close up on heroes. It helps to highlight them better, shows a face and makes us concentrated on dialogue.
  • The camera is making circles around characters which make us to see characters from different angles and also spot any movements around them. It also makes us engaged with what is happening on the screen - static images could be boring for ten-minute dialogue scenes.
  • Foreshortening changes. As characters become mentally closer to each other we see closer shots, or sometimes they are separated and now shown together - depends on the mood, context and character's relationship.
  • Several mise-en-scenes inside one scene - characters can walk, drive, just move from one location to another. During that, they can change topics of the dialogue as well. Which becomes very dynamic and interesting. A great example is the first scene with Vincent and Jules in Pulp Fiction. On the way to get a briefcase, they change location from car to multiple corridors and finally a room.
  • Usage of food in scenes. Characters are often eat something. It shows us characters' personalities and relationships between them - someone could eat a burger with hands, another using a fork and a knife. Or when Jules takes a burger from the guy they were going to kill showing his power and dominance.
  • Characters smoke a lot - works the same as food. We can notice who is smoking and who is not - who is boss and who is not, how characters respect each other.
  • Visual jokes. Many jokes work by a similar principle of set up and punchline. Which is genuinely similar to reveal and contrast as discussed above. Sometimes they use foreshadowing which then strikes as the finisher. In Tarantino films, there are many types of visual jokes. For example, character or his/her actions can look ridiculous (but deceiving  - like the scene with Landa's huge smoking pipe). Or any types of accidental violence also could be sometimes considered as a visual joke - shock often causes a laugh (if you like dark humour and scenes when people get hurt).

Other tips

That's pretty much it. I believe, it is possible to write much more on dialogue, visuals, references and anything which makes Tarantino's films so great. This summary article was focused on writing and dialogue in particular. But I have some useful piece of advice  left from my notes about the writing process.

Write your story naturally and focus on characters. Tarantino doesn't do outlines, sometimes he starts writing not knowing the ending of the story. He thinks it is easy to get distracted by overanalyzing and overplanning and any unnecessary information which comes from it. The ending is going to be pretty obvious if you dig deep enough into the characters and their conflict. When characters are the top priority, planning is not that important. Instead, you can focus on your characters' backstories and work out their personalities better.

A real and natural story is what keeps the audience engaged. To achieve that Tarantino often rewrites the script from scratch multiple times. He tries to find new interesting situations and plot twists. It may feel a bit excessive but it works. Don't stick with a plan, be a flaneur while building a story, let it flow naturally.

Tarantino uses simple tools to write. He wants to avoid any distractions and to achieve perfect clarity. It's more a productivity tip, but don't look for a perfect tool to write. Paper or plain text is enough to create a great story. Instead of spending time on swapping tools, just sit and write.

“My ritual is, I never use a typewriter or computer. I just write it all by hand. It’s a ceremony. I go to a stationery store and buy a notebook — and I don’t buy like 10. I just buy one and then fill it up. Then I buy a bunch of red felt pens and a bunch of black ones, and I’m like, ‘These are the pens I’m going to write Kill Bill with.’ ”

He writes his script as it is a novel not blueprint for a movie.

"Novelists have always had complete freedom to pretty much tell their story any way they saw fit. And that’s what I’m trying to do." ... “When I write a movie, I want to write a piece of literature. I want to write a novel. I want to say, if I just stopped right here, and did not make a movie, that would be good enough.”

After finishing his first film, Tarantino realized that he should have spent more time on the writing. He wasn't satisfied with a story, it was messy which affected the overall quality of the film. Quentin says “I failed, but I learned how to make a movie.” That was his film school.

One of the most important things you can do to improve your writing and craft better dialogues is to read more screenplays and novels, watch films with the subtitles turned on. The key is not to just read but analyze, deconstruct and pay attention to things you want to improve in your writing process, including dialogues. Tarantino school is tons of films and series of wins and losses. Accumulate knowledge, absorb information thoughtfully, make notes, and more importantly, just write.

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