7 Tips for Writing Good Dialogue in Your Screenplay
Every writer is different, but if you’re looking for some tried-and-true hits when it comes to writing dialogue, this list is for you.
You’ve done everything you’re supposed to. You’ve watched all the formative films, you’ve taken notes about the world around you, you’ve read other screenplays—you may even have taken some classes. You’ve lived with the idea for your screenplay for a while, and you’ve fanned it from a desperate spark into a bonfire that you just need to write. Maybe you’ve even been hanging around the blog here, and you’ve worked your way through Dan Harmon’s story circle. You’re ready to write.
There are several critical aspects of a good screenplay that we could talk about, but it’s no good to cram them all in one place. Rather, let’s think about one at a time. In this case, dialogue.
How do you write dialogue that doesn’t suck?
No one wants to go to the tremendous effort it takes to write a screenplay only to end up with amateurish dialogue. If you’re hoping to put your screenplay in someone else’s hands, the worst case scenario is that no one pays any attention. If you’re planning on putting this thing into production yourself, then you might waste a lot of people’s time with a pretty, well-edited movie that no one can bear to listen to.
It’s okay to write a terrible first draft. Giving yourself that freedom is one of the first smart moves you can make. As a guy who’s worked as a scriptwriter and a novelist, I can tell you that trying to write a perfect first draft is about as helpful as hunting for the Lost City of Gold. Getting the material down so you can shape it and weave it all together (a difficult task to do effectively as you go) sets you up to come back, follow your queues, and write an actually good draft. (Third, fourth, and fifth drafts are a good idea, too, but that’s neither here nor there.)
So, let’s take a look at a few things to keep in mind when you’re ready to turn your precious (terrible) draft into something we’d all love to see.
1. Arrive Late, Leave Early
This one sounds easy, but it’s a bit harder to put into practice than it seems. When we first start writing screenplays, we have a tendency to include more information than we should. We feel that we need to set up or explain or contextualize this or that situation, or the scene we want to show you won’t make sense. The first way you can help yourself arrive late and leave early is to stop asking if something makes sense (at least, at first). Things may not make sense to you (the creator of the story) if you leave information out, but a more important question (again, at least, at first) is: Is this interesting?
Concision, more often than not, is the name of the game in powerful screenwriting (more on that in a minute). Sure, one day you, too, can write meandering, three-hour character explorations and make a boatload of cash for it (remember the little people when you do), but to do even that effectively, you need a lot of practice with getting to the point and packing as much story into as few minutes as possible. Once you’ve mastered this, then we can start talking about stretching your legs and including a bit more—without boring us all to tears.
So, concision means we need to do as much as possible with our story and our characters at every opportunity. That means that whenever you think a scene should begin, that’s probably too early. And, whenever you think a scene should end, that’s probably too late. Begin your scene as close to the important action—in this case, an exchange of dialogue. If you frame your dialogue as contained elements within the larger context of the scene, you can make sure you don’t waste time with lines that, while representative of the way people really talk, don’t resonate in a movie. Most movie characters don’t talk like real people—for a reason. We don’t pay good money to show up and watch people talk.
Think of your dialogue as part of the scene painting. There will be contextual elements of the diegetic world that you can rely on to communicate information, rather than info-dumping it in boring lectures from your characters. Conversations, like characters, don’t exist in vacuums, so think of your setting as as additional speaking role — albeit one that likes to play charades or use props instead of actually speaking.
2. Write Twice
Subtext is what makes dialogue truly interesting, and the best approach to working with subtext is to write your script twice—at least in the beginning. As you gain experience weaving subtext into your dialogue, it’ll begin to come more naturally, and you can introduce it as you go. When you’re still mastering the skill, however, it can be difficult to organically introduce subtext to lines of dialogue when you haven’t even written the full script, and therefore don’t know all of the emotional and narrative reveals that will follow your dialogue scenes.
Get your scenes down, using more-or-less the beats you want to hit in the conversations. Then, add in some placeholder lines while you work your way through the rest of the screenplay. By the time you’ve finished your first draft and are ready to begin the second, you’ll have a fully fleshed-out experience with the characters, meaning you can revisit your dialogue and trim and rewrite as necessary—and introduce subtext.
Conversations, like movies, aren’t always about what we think they’re about. The disaster film genre is a good example. Ostensibly, these movies are about things going bad, and some number of heroes must survive. But, if you watch enough of them, they’re not usually about the thrills and chills at all. Most of them are about reuniting broken families, turning the entire disaster itself into one giant metaphor. Families struggle, a disaster tears them apart, they realize what they almost lost, and they reunite, stronger than ever. Go check a few out. We’ll wait . . .
Conversations work the same way, both in the real world and on screen. How many times have you asked a friend, “Are you okay?” Only to hear, “I’m fine,” when they’re clearly not fine? Have you ever found yourself arguing with someone over something you really don’t care about—but you’ve been carrying a beef around that just finally broke through? Or, have you ever withheld information to protect someone, physically or emotionally? In these instances, the conversations you end up having are not actually addressing what they’re trying to address. People do that. We talk around what we mean, especially if we’re avoiding conflict.
But sooner or later, the truth boils over, and the real conversation begins. The same is true in your dialogue. Your characters are struggling with something (usually themselves) greater than the plot you’ve placed them in. This struggle is going to influence everything they say, so use this to tease double meanings and mysteries out of your lines. Let your characters frustrate each other with subtext. Let them fight about it. The human drama is the dynamic behind most films, so don’t swim upstream.
3. Avoid Bob
“As you know, Bob,” is one of the classic blunders. It does have its uses now and then, but they’re very specific. So first, let’s establish why Bob is not our friend.
The “As you know, Bob” device goes by several names, but they all come down to one character telling another character something they both know that the audience doesn’t. It’s a shortcut to get some exposition into the scene—sort of like downloading pilot program for a B-212 helicopter. In theory, these lines are highly effective (like we said, they do have their uses), and they used to be more popular in the past. However, for the most part, these types of lines indicate that the world of the film’s story hasn’t done a good enough job of conveying the contextual information you feel your audience needs, so it falls to the dialogue to do the trick. That should be your first red flag—whenever it falls to the dialogue to do storytelling you could do another way, ask yourself if the dialogue is necessary. The answer may be yes, but what’s important is the asking.
(The first episode of Game of Thrones gifts us with an “As your brother” . . .)
If you have to inform us what we need to know to even join the conversation onscreen, then you’re dragging us through this story, not leading us. That’s not going to end well, unless you’re purposefully trying to make something hilariously bad.
Procedurals and medical dramas often have to find creative ways around this, such as explaining technical information to lay people or interns. And, in military thrillers, reports between soldiers and their superior officers often fill this role quickly and effectively. You can get away with it now and then in critical situations, but you need to earn those uses by powering the majority of your dialogue with early-in, early-out exchanges that the audience can relate to while sponging up your narrative world through production design, intuition, and inference. Remember: your audience is smarter than you think they are. If you’re not sure if your bit of exposition should make the cut, it probably shouldn’t.
4. Get to the Point
Let’s return to concision. Earlier, we talked about how you need to arrive late and leave early, but that’s really about when to begin and when to end an exchange of dialogue (or an entire scene). Concision is about the meat of your script—every word you choose to include in your dialogue.
Being concise means getting to the point. When it comes to content and communication, concision is a tool that helps you rise above the competing noise. For example, if you have two different sets of instructions, both describing how to make a bologna sandwich, but one is 1,000 words long, and the other is 500, and you give each one to a different reader, the recipient of the 500-word recipe will learn faster and make sandwiches sooner than the reader with the 1,000-word recipe. When we’re conveying information, the fewer words we can use to do it (meaning fewer opportunities for misunderstanding or confusion), the better.
Wait, you say. This is writing. What about literature? We don’t just shave every creative writing process down into a technical manual on repairing your lawnmower. What about style and tone and texture? Yes, to all of this. Style, tone, and texture are critical. They’re what make your concise writing sing on the page. However, the contents of your dialogue, in and of themselves, are not the whole of the writing. They’re only one part of the overarching story—the script. The script is your creative odyssey. It’s the work of art that will connect your viewers to the human condition the way only you can see it. That means the dialogue, as a part of a whole, has to work like a well-oiled machine with all of the other elements of an effective script.
You already know not to waste your viewers’ time. You also already know that dialogue isn’t the only way to convey information or tell your story. Now, when you return to your first draft (remember, your first draft should be as un-concise as you need it to be—whatever it takes to get the draft done), you can trim the fat. You want your dialogue to be a game of tennis between your characters. Or, in other circumstances, a dialogic standoff at the O.K. Corral. In either instance, you don’t want excess verbiage, descriptions, or soliloquies killing the pace of your exchange. It’s tempting to take your viewers on a dialogic magic carpet ride, but this should be the exception, not the norm.
Get to the point, and get there fast—there are other aspects of this script that need time to do their jobs, as well.
5. Conflict Is Power
Power is the control of resources, and most of the history of human conflict is about establishing control of those resources. Whoever controls the water, hoards the gold, has the most workers/soldiers/citizens (all, in turn, paid for with resources or resource-tokens) has the most power. Sure, a weightlifter may be more powerful than you, but if you’ve got ten weightlifters of your own who are loyal to your every whim because, say, you’re living in a barren wasteland and you have all the food and shelter to offer them . . . then who’s more powerful, you or the lone weightlifter?
This is the primordial struggle: gathering the things we need to survive, and then gathering in groups to band together and fight off those others who also want our resources, so we hate them. Eventually, it starts to track into things like luxury goods and items that stand in for that resource-control (most people don’t really know what to do with a bar of gold, but they know they can get other stuff they want from people if they have such a bar).
What does any of this have to do with dialogue? Everything. People, and the characters in our stories, exist in a perpetual state of conflict. We’re at odds with each other, the ones we love, and even ourselves. Our civilizations and the relationships we build within them are stratified onto that primordial struggle. Everything we’ve become as a species, all the art we’ve produced, all the buildings we’ve erected, is somehow a new chapter in the story of getting resources and taming the world. Remember this in your dialogue.
The most interesting conversations are those that pit (pun intended) characters against each other, even if they’re partners or in love or something similar. The real world is full of plenty of talking around our base conflicts to live happily (or, at least cooperatively). You don’t need your characters to actively antagonize each other in each line, but if you think of them as living in the perpetual pursuit of power, they’ll have more to tell you about themselves and the situations you put them in than they would if you’re just using them as mouthpieces.
Remember: all’s fair in love and war.
6. Characters Exist in Contexts
We like to think that good characters drive our experience of the narrative world in a film. But, in reality, the narrative world writes the character—the character doesn’t write the narrative world. Characters may exist in a vacuum while you’re first developing your ideas; however, once they start living on the page, they exist in contexts, not theory. Their dialogue should reflect this, or they’ll never feel like they truly fit in the film.
One way to think of it is like this: everything we do, as people, is a reaction to something else—usually somethings else. Things happen in the world around us that affect our state of being, from a car speeding toward you in an intersection to microscopic organisms in your bloodstream affecting your health and how you carry yourself. There are countless variables and stimuli and possible actions in any given instant, and the particular intersection of them all leads us to make the minute-by-minute decisions that comprise our day—including when we say something and why we say it.
When you’re writing dialogue, remember this. Sure, characters are responding primarily to what other characters are saying, but everything from the temperature in the room to whether or not somebody is shooting a gun will have an influence on how your character speaks. Pair this with the underlying nature of human conflict, and you get something of an unfriendly world, even if it looks nice on the surface. Every word your character speaks is a decision about the state of the world and unfolding of this story.
Make good decisions.
7. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff
Finally, don’t get bogged down in the details. Highly technical explanations, complicated back stories, or convoluted timelines may be part of the foundation of your film, but that doesn’t mean you need to spend your time on them. We may often think that if the audience doesn’t know every minute detail of the world we’re creating, then they won’t understand the story the way we intend them to. If you’re writing a science fiction story about a generation ship and the problems of propulsion, don’t bother. There are established ideas you can lean on instead of taking us through a lecture on astrophysics. If your vampire has been alive for 2,000 years, we don’t need to know everything.
Your characters live in a world that you’re chopping up into bits and stringing together to make a coherent whole. That means cuts and transitions and missing segments of their lives that aren’t necessary to the condensed whole. (In the theory world, we call this fabula and syuzhet—check it out if you want to sound cool at your next dinner party.) If conversational segues or queues are getting in the way of delivering powerful, contextualized, motivated lines, then don’t bother.
Don’t try to overthink the viewing experience of the film—there’s no way anyone will receive it exactly as you intend. Instead, concentrate on delivering all of the narrative ingredients for a solid experience, and let your viewers bake the cake however they like.
Noticing a theme here? Yes—less is more.
There you have it. Seven tips for writing dialogue that doesn’t suck. It’s important to note that these aren’t rules. There are no rules. You can write whatever you want, however you want to write it. These guidelines are more like your first set of tools. We want you to master a few screenwriting principles that have proven themselves effective at storytelling. When you’ve seen what they can do, you can choose which ones you like and which ones you don’t. We’re not here to tell you: You have to do it like this. Rather, if you’re wondering: How the heck do I get started with dialogue. Well, we think you stand a pretty good chance if you keep these practices in mind.
But the world’s your oyster. Prove us wrong—we love it.
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