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How To Write Dialogue Between Two Characters: The Ultimate Theory Hack

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February 18, 2018 40 comments
SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING

[The following post on how to write dialogue between two characters is an excerpt from our screenwriting book: Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros.]

Learning how to write dialogue between two characters is one of the key skills you’ll need to master writing dialogue overall. But often aspiring screenwriters find it hard to see the woods from the trees and recognize when they’re making rookie mistakes when it comes to conversations between two characters.

By the end of this post you’ll be able to:

  • Recognize the #1 mistake when it comes to dialogue between two characters in your own writing
  • Tackle this problem head-on using our little-mentioned theory hack on how to write dialogue between two characters
  • Learn our dialogue examples and apply the techniques to your own work
  • Know how to move forward and amplify your dialogue even more in future

How To Write Dialogue Between Two Characters: The #1 Problem

how to write dialogue
You’ve probably heard that if your film dialogue isn’t revealing character or pushing the story forward, it can be cut. While this may be easy to understand intellectually, it can often be hard to implement in a script when you’re deep in the story and want to let the characters talk as much as they want.

How do you know how to write good dialogue when you think what you’re writing is good already? 

In other words, it can be hard to tell the difference between effective dialogue that deserves to be in a script and general chit-chat that doesn’t. The latter often results in dialogue between two characters that runs long, with characters making speeches or just sitting around shooting the breeze, and this means you’re overwriting it.

When dialogue stretches to four or five lines or more, or is just a friendly conflict-free conversation, it might not seem like a problem when you’re writing it, but it really drags on screen. The key, therefore, to learning how to write dialogue for two characters that really shines, is knowing how to frame the conversation and what to cut.

While the advice to “cut any dialogue that doesn’t reveal character or move the story forward” is true, we think it’s easier to achieve this if you approach it from the perspective of characters engaged in a battle.

Dialogue Writing Theory Hack

writing a scene
Here’s a great theory hack on how to write dialogue between two characters. Use this sample dialogue and exercise to really help tighten up your script’s conversations.

The best moments of dialogue often come between two characters who are at odds with each other—when they’re using their words like weapons. Or in the case of this analogy—tennis racquets.

A great way to edit a conversation and also inject some conflict and stakes into it, is to think of it as a game of tennis. 

Particularly in confrontational scenes, there should be a sense in the characters’ dialogue that they’re struggling to make the other realize something important. That they’re taking it in turns playing defensive or attacking shots while trying to get the upper hand over the other. And that their words are putting each other under tremendous pressure and causing a great deal of stress.

Rather than thinking of dialogue writing in casual conversational terms, try to think of it as a tennis game between the characters—each one hitting the ball across the net with a line that tops the last, until finally one hits the “winner.”

Dialogue Examples Between Two Characters

how to write dialogue between two characters

Here’s a dialogue example between two characters from the film The Girl On The Train. This is the scene in which the protagonist, Rachel, is confronted by Detective Riley over whether or not she killed her neighbor.

Note how the dialogue resembles a battle between these two characters, until finally Riley wins the “game” with the line, “Did you murder Megan Hipwell?”

INT. POLICE BATHROOM – MOMENTS LATER

Riley opens the door of a police station bathroom and signals Rachel inside.

Riley crosses to the sink and looks into the mirror above it for a long beat. Uneasy, Rachel walks towards Riley.

RILEY
You wanted to file a statement? I’m
listening. [SERVE]

RACHEL
Scott Hipwell just assaulted me.
[DEFENSIVE RETURN]

RILEY
You mean your new boyfriend Scott
Hipwell? [ATTACKING SHOT]

RACHEL
No. We were just friends.
[DEFENSIVE RETURN]

RILEY
But that’s what you wanted, isn’t
it? I mean, you got him to stay overnight
at your apartment, right?
[ATTACKING SHOT]

RACHEL
No. You need… You need the
context. [DEFENSIVE RETURN]

Riley turns from the mirror and approaches.

RILEY
I know the context. But what I’m
trying to determine is when your obsession
with Mr. Hipwell began.
Was it before or after his pregnant
wife was murdered? I mean, you were
neighbors at one point?
[ATTACKING SHOT]

RACHEL
I met him after… [DEFENSIVE RETURN]

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RILEY
After being questioned by me, you
befriend another even more obvious
suspect than yourself, and then you
manage to get him to incriminate
himself all the while hoping he’ll
fuck you. [ATTACKING SHOT]

RACHEL
I came here trying to help you. He
just assaulted me in my own house!
[ATTACKING SHOT]

RILEY
You were seen in the area that
night. There are several hours that
you say you can’t account for.
[ATTACKING SHOT]

This is news to Rachel. Her resolve begins to unsettle.

RACHEL
It was Scott. Scott Hipwell killed
his wife. [DEFENSIVE RETURN]

RILEY
No. He didn’t. Surveillance footage
from a sports bar accounts for Mr.
Hipwell’s whereabouts that night.
[ATTACKING SHOT]

She moves in, quietly insistent.

RILEY
You’re lying. You’re lying.
[ATTACKING SHOT]

Rachel is terrified. Riley puts a comforting hand on her arm.

RILEY
Tell me what happened. It’s okay.
Tell me. [ATTACKING SHOT]

RACHEL
I don’t know… [DEFENSIVE RETURN]

Riley leans in close to Rachel’s face. She’s calm.

RILEY
Did you murder Megan Hipwell?
[WINNING SHOT]

A moment. Rachel realizes she doesn’t know the answer. She flees in a panic.

See how there’s no room for waffle here? Every single line is included for a reason because it’s either an attacking shot or defensive return over the net.

But Not Every Scene Is A Battle 

how to write dialogue between two characters
Of course, you shouldn’t apply this hack on how to write dialogue between two characters to every conversation in your script. Not all film dialogue is a full-on confrontation that moves the plot forward, comparable to game of tennis. Sometimes dialogue can be very low key, friendly, and only reveal character or backstory.

Take a look at these dialogue examples: the scene in The Way, Way Back in which the teenage protagonist, Duncan, has his first proper conversation with the girl next door, Susanna. Or the one in Wild  in which Cheryl meets another female hiker on the trail and all they do is chat about their lives. Or the one in The Skeleton Twins in which Maggie and Milo sit on the floor talking about high school.

While the tennis game analogy might not fit these kind of scenes, if the balance of conversations in your script resemble conflict-free exchanges rather than battles in which they’re both vying to get the upper hand, then you probably have a lack of conflict in the story overall.

In this case, reframing the dialogue as a game of tennis—with each character playing defensive or attacking shots—can really help add some pressure, conflict and stakes. In turn, this will help stop characters chatting for the sake of it, as you’ll be forced to focus the dialogue only on what’s important.

###

how to write dialogueTo learn more about how to write dialogue between two characters and get your dialogue writing up where it needs to be—i.e. with the pros—check out our latest book, “Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros.”

Let us know what you think of our method on how to write good dialogue in the comments below. Have you tried thinking of dialogue as a battle between the characters? What are some techniques you use yourself to make sure dialogue between two characters stays engaging and pushes the story forward?

More posts on how to write good dialogue…

script dialogue writing5 WAYS TO IMPROVE YOUR SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING ABILITY RIGHT NOW

 
 

SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING HOW TO WRITE COMEDY SCRIPTS WITH LOL DIALOGUE

 
 
 

SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY FOR A MOVIE: A PRACTICAL STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE

 
 

SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING THE SIMPLE TRICK TO MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE SOUND LIKE REAL MOVIE DIALOGUE

 
 

script dialogue writingHOW TO WRITE A PHONE CONVERSATION IN A SCREENPLAY

 
 
 

SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING ON THE NOSE DIALOGUE: THE VERY BEST WAY TO ELIMINATE IT

 
 

SCRIPT DIALOGUE WRITING GET THE BOOK “Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros”

 
 
 

40 Comments
  1. Edward Weems says:

    So much of what must be taught about writing can be said with few words. This lesson was short, illustrative and sweet, bringing clarity to points of doubt.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the feedback, Edward. Much appreciated 🙂

  2. Rod L. Wilson says:

    This article or mini lesson has opened my eyes and answered several dialogue questions that I needed answers to. I’m so glad that I stubbled upon your Google talk! I’m enjoying learning from you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Rod. Glad you found it helpful.

  3. Ernest says:

    Where is the much talked about subtext in the scene between Riley and Rachel?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      The scene’s an example of framing dialogue as a game of tennis, not subtext per se.

  4. Mbi Vanessa says:

    Thanks.it was a great one and an eye opener.i am thankful

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad we could help!

  5. Wanda says:

    This was short, easy to get. I’m always trying to add conflict but never thought in terms of a tennis match. Good point. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      No problem, Wanda 🙂

  6. Adebajo 'Femi A says:

    this a nice topic and am impressed and it has taken me a step forward.
    thanks

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it. Cheers

  7. Mya says:

    I have quickly learned what works and what doesn’t fit my script. Thanks!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for reaching out, Mya!

  8. Tatiana says:

    I am impressed with this great topic, and also very glad that I got your
    book “Master screenplay Dialogue” , I would recommend it to anyone who struggles with dialogues, in addition the book gives some tips with the format.
    It`s so compact and into the point, just what I needed.
    Really appreciated you guys,

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks Tatiana for the review!

  9. Pamela Perry says:

    It’s helpful to read all concepts of writing good dialogue. Making this visual is a great forget-me-not trick! thanks

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad this helped – thanks for the comment, Pamela.

  10. shadrach winstead says:

    how are you doing today, my name shadrach and i am happy to see how to script reader do things , i want to know if i can send you a treatment.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Hi, yes you can send a treatment up to 3000 words here: https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/story-analysis/ If it’s longer, please contact us at hello [at] scriptreaderpro [dot] com

  11. Nkongho Agbor Mcbriand says:

    I’m now much in a better position to succeed in writing a play . thanks a lot for the highlight

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome!

  12. Jose says:

    We all know ‘good’ dialog isn’t good enough. Focus on ‘great’ dialog coupled with a great story.

  13. Prince says:

    Wow! this is just so great. i think i can do something sensible now

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad it helped!

  14. Paul Lauber says:

    Here’s a tip: Cast your characters before you write.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the great tip, Paul. Good for everyone with a established network of industry contacts.

  15. Stewart Westwood says:

    Wow, wonderful and just what I needed to read as I’m about to start a rewrite. Thanks a million.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad we could help!

  16. John Truth says:

    I understand now why people have co-writers because trying to dialogue different characters can drive one person crazy

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Absolutely, John. 😀

  17. Whitney says:

    Love your examples! They really helped me to get me head around writing better dialogue.

  18. MariahM says:

    This is something I need to improve in my writing.

  19. Paula Speck says:

    As always, I enjoyed your blog post. It’s so easy to apply and learn from. Keep them coming.

  20. Woddy says:

    Thanks, Script Reader Pro! What a great post! Love your blog so much!!

  21. Johanna says:

    This could save people a lot of pain in editing.

  22. William says:

    Pretty cool, I’m excited to be carried along in this revolutionary train

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Sounds good, William!

  23. Archibald Buxton says:

    great its been useful to me

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, thanks for the feedback, Archibald.

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