Writing 80’s Dialogue
The 1980s are having their moment right now. It feels strange to write that, as one would figure the ‘80s had their moment already… when it was the 1980s. This is not the case, however, as nostalgia for that era is all the rage at the moment. We haven’t quite gotten to the point where big hair and shoulder pads are the look du jour, but culturally speaking it’s here.
Film as a medium has been dominated recently by this ‘80s wave. TV shows like Stranger Things and remakes of iconic ‘80s horror like A Nightmare on Elm Street, as well as more original fare borrowing heavily from a synth-heavy ‘80s aesthetic (Beyond the Black Rainbow, for example), are ubiquitous.
Maybe as a filmmaker you’re thinking you want to do something based in this era. The look and the sound will certainly contribute to the feel you may want. If you’re going to populate your 1980s world with characters that truly feel authentic, though, you want them to speak like they’re from that era. That’s the dialogue department.
The way we speak is representative of the times we live in. Sure there will always be some crossover with other ages (simply because different people of different ages will always be living among each other). But if we’re talking about recreating the feel of the ‘80s through dialogue, certain things should be evoked. The ‘80s, in particular, was an era defined by individuality and a desire to regain and rebuild. There was a level of sincerity in treating situations as they were and not portraying them with too much self-awareness.
This isn’t a hard and fast rule. It was the general case of things. Anyway, as dialogue typically is the final step in developing your visual narrative (for this article’s purposes, it will be), you’d already have decided what kind of story you’re looking to tell. Is it homage to the era? Are we thinking Hughes or Spielberg? Is it a satire, or something more critical, like Heathers or Wall Street? As writers we have the gift of hindsight and we absolutely should take advantage of it. Good dialogue will evoke a sense of the era and underscore the values you’re examining or critiquing.
At the end of this article, I’ll post some links to sites that offer all sorts of turns of phrase and different idiosyncratic words of the era. I’ll also put some links to books that try to give a sense of what was culturally important in the era. Research and write. Get to know the kinds of ideas that were floating around out there.
For now, I’m going to post here some dialogue that offers the kind of dimension I think works. There are plenty of scripts available online that you should definitely familiarize yourself with if you want a sense of how filmmakers of the era used dialogue. Here, I’m going to post a clip from the 1983 cult horror film Sleepaway Camp. The quality of the video is terrible, but I’ll go into why this dialogue works. Be warned, it’s NSFW.
The reason I chose this clip is due to the response many have had to shows such as Stranger Things or the 2017 remake of IT. ‘80s kids (be they Gen Xers or older Millennials) feel there’s an authenticity to the way the kids are speaking here, crass as it may be. The scene itself is clearly played for laughs, but there’s sincerity underneath it all. Honestly the large majority of the film is hilarious, possibly unintentionally, outside of some parts (one in particularly is disturbingly iconic). But Sleepaway Camp could be said to be more “80s” than other teen comedies precisely because it is so uncensored and uninhibited. That kind of filmmaking candor is something that would be increasingly undermined and parodied in the next decade. Sleepaway Camp is not exactly a well-made movie, but as a low budget artifact of the time, it offers something less manufactured than mainstream studio fare. The dialogue reflects that.
Below you’ll find a few links to different glossaries filled with ‘80s phrases and words. The sites generally share terms, but each page also offers something different. You’ll have at your fingertips information about ‘80s pop culture, as well (the page nostalgiacentral.com is great for that). I’ve marked the sites that could be NSFW (just profanity-based).
And if you really want to dive deep into what made the ‘80s the ‘80s, here are some books to check out. Again, these are helpful because besides giving you more context within which to base your stories, a more thorough understanding of the period will allow you to create dialogue in tandem that just feels more real. We want dialogue that gets at what’s going on underneath in all those ‘80s visuals you’re creating without outright explaining anything (exposition is always death).
With regards to ‘80s dialogue, and even filmmaking in general, it’s always important to keep in mind that sense of earnestness. It all goes back to the era’s emphasis on regaining a perceived lost sense of self. Whether you’re upholding it or satirizing it, this sincerity is key.
Adam D. Johnson is a New York-based writer and filmmaker with a taste for the weird. When he’s not writing, reading or watching appropriately strange films, he’s usually hanging around odd artists and performers. He also really digs traveling. Connect with him on Instagram