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by Script Reader Pro in How to Write Dialogue
February 18, 2018 92 comments
how to write dialogue between two characters

How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters by Comparing It to Tennis

[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 a little-mentioned theory hack (involving tennis) 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

The #1 Problem When Writing 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 script 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.

Stick to 3 Lines or Less (In General)

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.

How to Write Dialogue by Reframing It as a Game of Tennis 

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. 

Emulate the Back and Forth Nature of Real Conversations 

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.”

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Dialogue Examples 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 Riley wins the “game” with the line “Did you murder Megan Hipwell?”

how to write dialogue between two characters

how to write dialogue between two characters

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.

Remember: Writing Dialogue Is Not Always About Battles 

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 a game of tennis.

Sometimes dialogue can be very low key, friendly, and only reveal character or backstory.

The Exceptions to the Rule

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 kinds 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.

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To 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 the dialogue between two characters stays engaging and pushes the story forward?

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Liked This Post? Read More on How to Write Dialogue Between Two Characters…

Script Dialogue: If Your Characters Are Just Talking You’re Doing It Wrong

On the Nose Dialogue Examples and How to Stop It Killing Your Script

How to Write a Screenplay: The Secret to Elevating It Above the Ordinary

[© Photo credits: FlickrUnsplash]

92 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 4000 words here: https://www.scriptreaderpro.com/story-analysis/ If it’s longer, please contact us.

  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.

    2. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, that’s a good one.

  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!

    2. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for the shoutout, Stewart!

  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. 😀

    2. Script Reader Pro says:

      Good point 🙂

  17. Whitney says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Whitney, glad they helped!

  18. MariahM says:

    This is something I need to improve in my writing.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Mariah!

  19. Paula Speck says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Paula – more on how to write dialogue coming soon.

  20. Woddy says:

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

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thank you, Woddy!

  21. Johanna says:

    This could save people a lot of pain in editing.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      That’s the aim – thanks Johanna 🙂

  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.

  24. Carl Engleman says:

    This is a great “hack” as you guys call it. Thank you from Pasadena, California.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Appreciate it, Carl!

  25. joan says:

    I like that a tennis games.

  26. Vijay SR says:

    I want to sell my movie. Can you help.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Unfortunately not, Vijay. We’re not a production company.

  27. W Clark says:

    This is just okay.. I can take some tips about dialogue but need a proper strategy to make it work throughout the whole script.

  28. Zoe says:

    I just been red pilled on how to write dialogue.:)

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great!

  29. Liane Meyer says:

    I’m wanting to learn screenwriing and become a professional screenwriter and writer in general some day. I recently subscribed to your newsletter and it’s already helped me so much – this article is awesome and insightful. I might get your book as well. Thank you! 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for signing up Liane and your very kind words. Cheers!

  30. Jiffy bag says:

    Didn’t like the movie. Can you write an example of dialogue between two characters like tennis using a different movie example?

  31. Carolyn Palmer says:

    I was wondering whether anyone here knows the deadline for the Austin Film Festival 2019?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, you can find that here.

  32. Tony Coombes says:

    Hi guys, I really enjoyed this post. Dialogue is probably my weakest part of my writing so this helped a lot. Thank you.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad to hear it, thanks, Tony!

  33. Johanna Lindstrom says:

    Thank you again ScriptReaderPro! I love the content you put out there. You always seem to find a new angle that makes everything seem so much easier. Love from Sweden!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot, Johanna!

  34. Vick says:

    Where can I find the script to Girl on a train?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You can find it in our list of the 50 best screenplays to read.

  35. Fabinho says:

    Not all dialogue between two characters is a showdown between them. Sometimes its a casual relaxed thing or sometimes its a moment of tension. There’s not a one size fit all formula to writing dialogue.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Couldn’t agree more, Fabinho. That’s exactly what we say at the end of the post. 🙂

  36. Reed says:

    I have been writing for 7 years and this is the clearest explanation I’ve seen on how to write dialogue between two characters. Good job guys.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks for your comment, Reed. Really appreciate it 🙂

  37. Edward Powell says:

    I don’t know if I totally go along with this. Writing dialogue should be a spontanoeus thing as one character spars with another. Not so rigid as you write here. Don’t mean this in a bad way tho. Just saying.

  38. Mr Ed says:

    Can I write dialogue between two characters like this in a novel? Does this work for my book?

  39. Erik says:

    Love the tennis game analagy. 🙂

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Erik!

  40. Bette says:

    Hi guys! Just wanted to say this has opened my eyes on how to write dialogue so much. So thank you!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Bette!

  41. chris g. says:

    Can you recommend any good books on how to write dialogue?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, we have one here 🙂

  42. DJ says:

    I’ve been looking for advice on how to write dialogue like this for ages.An absolute blinder of a post. Thanks a lot Script Reader pro!!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, DJ!

  43. Martin DeFriese says:

    Have you got the script to Girl on the Train?

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Yes, you can download it here: 50 of the Best Screenplays to Read.

  44. Steph says:

    Good way of thinking about dialogue, thank u.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Steph.

  45. Dean says:

    This post is DEEP. Hadn’t thought about dialogue in a movie this way.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Great to hear, Dean!

  46. Sandy Williams says:

    Greetings from Vancouver!
    I’ve gotten so much out of this post and others on this site.
    Thank you for helping me with my screenwriting script reader pro
    I will definitely check out your services when I have the money.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Glad you liked it, Sandy. Stay warm!

  47. Arash says:

    Learning how to write dialogue in a movie is more than silly gimmicks like this. It should come from your heart from you soul . the characters need to tell their own story in their own words, let them speak , they have the voice not u the writer

  48. Arlyne says:

    Interesting analysis I have not seen on writing dialogue between two characters.. . Thank you .

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Arlyne.

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