Yesterday, I was having coffee with James Dalessandro, a noted screenwriter, and we mostly talked about dialog. He said, “Dialog is the characters passing information to the reader, with attitude. And attitude is more important than the information.”
The best example he gave was a prison movie where Clint Eastwood, a prisoner, was meeting with the warden:
Warden: “What was your childhood like?”
The subtext, of course, is that Eastwood’s character found himself on the streets fending for himself at a very early age. But more important, is the attitude that comes across with that one word answer, which says: “Screw you. Why are you asking me these bullshit questions? Mind your own f*&%ing business!”
That is a lot to say with just one word. It speaks volumes about the character, yet it is just one word, five letters and a period. Brilliant.
So, when thinking about what your character will say, give even more thought to how s/he will say it. What are they feeling, what are they trying to get at that moment. It’s all about attitude and impact.