The "dead parent test" for effective movie dialogue


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Fairly classic analysis; a direct statement (“My parents are dead” or “You see the remnants of a dragon attack”) isn’t as useful to the story as an insinuation that lets you say multiple things (“There was no one to watch out for me anymore” or “Little fires continue to gutter and you smell burned meat”).


I appreciate how he brushed by Interstellar’s bad dialogue, but really, an entire college course could be written about how bad the dialogue is in that movie.


It’s sort of the verbal equivalent of “show, don’t tell.” You can “show” the effects of an incident without explicitly stating it even via dialogue.


I struggle to understand what people find so artful about “natural” dialog. As an autistic person, I tend towards being completely explicit and crudely functional in my daily communications. Basically, I think that natural, everyday spoken communication is often lacking in clarity and precision, and my mind boggles at why people would value and seek to replicate those same qualities.

Not unlike with music, I have an aversion to songs, melodies, and predictable structures. I prefer a unique complex edifice which I would never have guessed on my own. But the same lack of familiarity and common reference points makes the same music sound distressingly non-musical to many. Imitation and shared references can be expressive, but I usually prefer something which would never have “just happened” otherwise, which amounts to jarring artifice.

I see explicit communication as an unreachable ideal, not unlike freedom or safety. There is no final attaining of it, but it is always worth trying. Uncertainty is build into the universe, and our organisms. At least attempts at being specific count as an effort towards truly existing.


Because poorly written (or poorly delivered) dialogue breaks the viewer’s spell and reminds them that they’re watching a movie. If you want explicit communication in movies, find a copy with subtitles in Lobjan.


Well, artful =! precise. If perfectly unambiguous story communication was what people wanted from movies, they could just read the script and skip all the messy acting, photography, editing and other distractions.


This is a great YouTube channel. Thanks for making me aware of its existence, @frauenfelder.


Direct and clear speech is communication but dull, not in most cases art.

If you don’t have to think or process or question motives and headspace you’re just listening to VCR repair instructions or Siri telling you directions.

The “plain speech” in good movies (outside of maybe mumblecore) is used to illustrate concepts, themes, and aspects of human interaction. It should have a purpose.


I don’t know what projects you’re currently involved with, but I think that you should consider making movies. I’d like to see the results. (Not being snarky, I really think it stands a chance of being an interesting watch.)


Wait. Never mind.


Unfortunately some executives in Hollywood that I have known boast that they only read the dialog. And some demonstrate a strong taste for on the nose dialog when they give writers notes.


As someone with an Autistic sibling, that’s almost certainly why you struggle to understand it. The lack of clarity and precision that you perceive in “natural” dialogue is the more significant and complex dimension of social interactions that is what’s not being said, the implications and assumptions that lie behind silence or glibness, and the inability to grasp those unspoken social meanings is a direct marker of autism.

The purpose of “natural” dialogue is not to be unclear or imprecise about its content - it’s to convey the character of the person speaking.




Exactly. Communication occurs through affect, tone, references, especially in scenarios where the conversation gets about awkward subjects and the person wishes to deflect discussion.

Conflict drives many movies, and directness would cause less problems, would not project a person into absurd/fascinating situations, or would eliminate the back and forth ambiguity that causes strains of the heart.

Movies tend to enjoy being in a non-obvious spot.

I am curious about if he’s observed any enjoyable examples of dialogue from any audiobook, tv show or movie.


There’s not much else to read in a screenplay, is there?


Is it fair to apply this to a young audience movie like Big Hero 6? Kids kinda need heavy-handed exposition. Not that children are dumb, but anything that wasn’t obvious went over my head as a kid.


Many of the great “for kids” movies remain enjoyable longer precisely because they’re already fun at an age when you don’t “get” every single reference but have extra layers of meaning when you watch again years later.


I think you’re confusing entertainment and art. Many things are entertaining, very few are art. Film is a difficult medium.


you might well cringe at the source, but I was just reading an article on this very subject.