Great dialogue has provided some of the most memorable moments in film history and can make or break the viability of your screenplay.
Dialogue is the expression of your character’s point of view and the relationships between characters. It serves as a vital tool for developing your characters, establishing back story and tone, as well as advancing your plot. But a word to the wise, dialogue when written poorly can be a clunky vehicle for exposition. As screenwriter Josh Friedman said, “Bad exposition is like bad lighting. It exposes more than it illuminates.”
Your dialogue should feel natural and real while being carefully crafted to serve the narrative.
Dialogue also serves to build a bond with your audience by inviting them to understand what the characters say “between the lines.” The subtext of what a character says is often more important than what they say literally. And a character’s action or silence in a scene can signify much more than what they say with words. As Billy Wilder famously said of Lubitsch: “Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.” This is true with plot as well as with dialogue. Let the audience have an “aha!” moment when reading (or watching) your characters’ dialogue.
Here are some ways to improve your screenplay’s dialogue.
1. Every Character Needs Their Own Voice
Seldom should two characters have the same cadence and word choice. Their dialogue needs to be suited to their personalities.
It’s best to leave things like dialects up to the actors because it can become distracting to readers. Remember, you want your screenplay to read as flawlessly as possible. Instead, try and squeeze in some regional words used by the locals of your setting.
2. Make Each Line Matter
The main way that dialogue in screenwriting differs from how we speak in real life is that there is no time for filler statements or superfluous monologues.
Every element of your script needs to be moving toward the climax as a cohesive unit. Dialogue included. Remain on topic, and always ask yourself whether a particular line of dialogue needs to be said.
Your dialogue should reflect the theme and tone of your screenplay while advancing the plot. Don’t waste time explaining things that your characters can show through action. Go through early drafts of your script and cut out any filler.
3. Action Speaks Louder Than Words
Your characters don’t always need to announce what they intend to do or how they feel. You’re likely to lose momentum that way. Don’t stop the narrative so that a character can plan out the rest of the movie. If they’re sad, show them listening to love ballads and crying.
If a line of dialogue can be shown through action instead of being stated, the writing becomes more engrossing to a reader.
4. Don’t Say Anything at All
Silence can be louder than words. Sometimes what is left unsaid rings out louder than a shout and creates a deeper sense of understanding between the audience and your characters.
Misunderstanding based on miscommunication can create a lot of conflict in your script.
A great example of this is the Black Mirror episode The Entire History of You.
The main character replays his memories, picking up on subtle hints that lead him to believe his wife is having an affair. Through minor mannerisms and silent gestures, he’s able to piece together the truth behind his paranoia.
5. Subtlety and Elusiveness
Keeping certain information from either the reader or characters helps keep the action intriguing. It also shifts the power dynamics of the relationship. Don’t show all of your cards right away. Up the stakes by raising the bet and keep your hand close to your chest.
You can utilize the hidden information based on the genre you’re writing for. For instance, when an audience knows a killer is lurking somewhere in the shadows but the character is unaware, you can create a real sense of dread and fear.
If there is a big reveal at the end of your script, include some instances of foreshadowing in the dialogue throughout the screenplay that point toward the reveal without giving anything away.
6. Build Up Suspense
Expository dialogue can lose the reader/viewer’s attention if it doesn’t lead them to some sort of payoff.
A great example of this is the basement scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.
When American troops posing as German soldiers are cornered into a small room with only one way out by actual German soldiers, there is an impending doom that cannot be ignored — regardless of how long the conversation becomes.
Readers and viewers know something is going to happen — so suspending that explosive moment for as long as possible while increasing the tension can have a dramatic effect.
As a jovial drinking game is played, little bits of information are revealed through the dialogue, until a seemingly mundane hand gesture increases the tension to a simmering point and leaves the audience on the edge of their seat waiting for the ball to drop.
7. Interruptions and Ellipses
A great way to capture the emotion of your character is to interrupt their speech with a double dash (–) at the point of interruption, or an ellipses (…) if the dialogue is interrupted by action. Be careful of overusing the ellipses. This is a common mistake made by aspiring writers.
Another way you can use an interruption to your advantage is to interrupt long stretches of action with a reactionary line of dialogue. This helps create a little white space. If your character shoots a basketball and misses, will they be silent with their reaction?
8. Dual Dialogue
Dual dialogue is another way to make your dialogue more realistic. If two characters are in a heated argument, they’re not going to wait for the other to finish their sentence.
Characters shouldn’t just wait for the other to finish their line — they’re engaging in a conversation. They should listen, ignore, interrupt, talk over, and react to what is being said to them.
Writer and director Greta Gerwig managed to flawlessly pull off dual dialogue in Little Women by making uses of slashes (/) to signify the interruption point.
Gerwig has stated that her dialogue forms a rhythm, so having specific points where the characters interrupt each other allows the story to remain on beat.
You can create dual dialogue in Final Draft by highlighting two characters’ dialogue and pressing command + D.
9. Avoid Clichés
If it’s been said before, say it differently or don’t say it at all.
It is often said that dialogue is the element of your screenplay that can really make the difference between a great script and one that isn’t quite there yet. With a little refinement and rewriting, your dialogue could help your screenplay catch the eyes and minds of the right people.
If you’d like to do more research on ways to improve your dialogue, seek out and read your favorite screenplays in the genre you wish to make your brand. Take notes.
How are the lines delivered? What are the commonalities and differences between scripts? How does each line of dialogue capture each character’s personality?