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How To Write Great Script Dialogue

The Ultimate Screenplay Dialogue Audit To Ensure Your Characters Are Never “Just Talking”

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September 27, 2018 17 comments
script dialogue

How To Write Great Script Dialogue 

When it comes to how to write great dialogue in a script, most advice tends to be quite vague. For example, you’ll often hear how “script dialogue should…”

  • “Propel the story forward”
  • “Reveal character and theme”
  • “Build conflict and drama”
  • “Sound different for each character”
  • “Entertain with witty, quotable lines”
  • “Never run longer than three lines”
  • “Never be on-the-nose”

The first problem here is that while much of this advice is true, it doesn’t really get to the heart of the problem behind 90 percent of bad screenplay dialogue. Or how to fix it. It tells writers to do something specific, like add more conflict or subtext, without looking at the bigger picture that’s causing the lack of conflict or subtext.

Similarly, when writers are told to build conflict, push the story forward and reveal character through dialogue, this encourages the act of writing more dialogue—which is the heart of the problem: letting characters coast through easy-going conversations.

The Biggest Problem With Script Dialogue: “Shooting The Breeze”

script dialogue

Many screenwriters fall in love with writing dialogue—letting their characters loose to just talk and talk and talk because, well, they have a lot to say. In reality, the skill in writing great dialogue is knowing when and how to shut characters up.

As you’ve probably heard before, every line of dialogue in a screenplay should be in there for a reason. If not it can be cut. However, this advice can be a tricky thing to adhere to because writers often approach script dialogue as characters “just talking.” But it isn’t…

Rather, a script’s dialogue should nearly always put the characters under some kind of pressure. A character’s words should be either hard to say or hard to hear. What we often see in spec screenplays, however, is the opposite: words that are easy to say and easy to hear.

When characters are continually left to “shoot the breeze” like this—chat in a friendly manner with no real purpose or conflict—the reader loses interest. Often not only in the scene, but in the whole script.

It’s okay to have characters begin a scene by talking in a relaxed, friendly manner, engage in small-talk, order food, etc. But if they continue to talk like this for the entire scene—as in the dialogue examples coming up—then you have a conversation that’s “just talking” rather than pushing the story forward.

A script dialogue audit

Rather than just being told what your script’s dialogue should or shouldn’t do, we’ve come up with an exercise that should help you see the problem more clearly in your own screenplay. And the way to do this is to first see dialogue examples of it in another writer’s.

The exercise is divided into three parts:

  • Read three examples from spec of “shooting the breeze” dialogue
  • Discover the kind of fundamental questions you should ask yourself about the dialogue in a scene (which you’ll find after each dialogue example)
  • Read your own script and apply the same questions to every conversation

Doing this will hopefully enable you to better identify the problem of chatty script dialogue in your own work and then give you the tools to either rework the scene or cut it altogether.

So let’s jump on in.

Spec Script Dialogue Example #1

script dialogue script dialogue

Now ask yourself the following five questions about the above script dialogue example:

  • Is this a hard conversation for one or both of these characters to have?
  • Does it put one or both of the characters under pressure?
  • Does the conversation involve conflict as one character tries to “win a battle”?
  • Were you engaged and excited while reading this screenplay dialogue?
  • Has a fundamental shift in the story occurred by the end of the scene?

The answer to these questions is no. Neither Paster Ed or Ray are feeling particularly uncomfortable during this script dialogue. Despite addressing difficult subject matter, the tone is friendly and relaxed.

Neither Paster Ed or Ray are attempting to outwit the other in a “verbal battle”—back them into a corner, trick or intimidate, etc. We have a post here on how to write dialogue between two characters that shows how to inject conflict into a conversation by equating it to a game of tennis.

Note also how both Pastor Ed and Ray’s dialogue also regularly strays over the recommended three lines maximum quota. Read screenplays and watch films paying particular attention to how much each character actually says all at once. You’ll find it’s really not much at all.

script dialogue

How to apply this to your own script dialogue

Go through your own script and make a note of every scene containing dialogue that’s easy-going instead of emotionally charged.

Start with the obvious scenes that should involve verbal conflict but don’t, like the one above between a troubled young man and a pastor. Find these scenes by asking yourself similar questions to the ones above.

If you were in these characters’ shoes, how nervous would you be? How much of a struggle would the conversation be? How bad (or good) would it make you feel? If you’d feel okay then the script dialogue probably needs rewriting to include much more conflict and a “verbal battle” of some kind.

Spec Script Dialogue Example #2

script dialogue script dialogue script dialogue

Now ask yourself these three questions about the script dialogue example above:

  • Is this an important conversation that deserves to be in the script?
  • Does this script dialogue interest, amuse or shock you in some way?
  • Does it feel like a natural conversation between two real people?

Again the answer to these questions is no as it’s another example of characters “shooting the breeze.” Abby and Monica don’t discuss anything particularly important to the story and nothing surprising is revealed at the end to push it forward.

Overall, they spend most of the conversation complaining about the job market, rather than actually putting the other under any kind of real pressure with their dialogue.

Note also the frequent use of questions. Abby asks Monica five questions in the scene:

  • “Any luck finding anything?”
  • “What happened?”
  • “What about the other one?”
  • “Isn’t the state unemployment rate 11%?”
  • “By the way, where’s your friend, Chloe?”

In addition, Monica asks Abby “How is it in the conglomerate drug store chain?”

This Q&A-style of script dialogue is very common in specs and is another symptom of letting characters “just talking” rather than forcing them to use their words as weapons. When characters are continually asking each other questions it feels unnatural and “on-the-nose” because this isn’t how people talk in real life.

As in the scene above, it’s hard to really imagine Abby and Monica as real flesh-and-blood people because they’re talking in such a direct, obvious way—asking each other questions for the benefit of the audience rather than themselves.

This also makes the script dialogue very uninteresting to read as it feels like the writer is force-feeding us information. There’s no intrigue or surprise here as characters invariably end up answering these sort of questions exactly as we’d expect them to.

How to apply this to your own script dialogue

Start by going through each scene in your screenplay and noting how many questions are being asked. If the characters are engaged in a Q&A session, there’s a strong likelihood they’re just amiably chatting and their dialogue is purely for the audience’s benefit.

Seek out banal questions and answers and rework every conversation so the characters are making life difficult for themselves, hiding something, revealing something or engaging in an escalating war of words.

We understand that this can be hard to do as on the one hand screenplay dialogue needs to feel casual and “real,” just like how people talk in real life. On the other hand, dialogue isn’t how people talk in real life at all.

It’s a heightened reality in which characters hardly ever stumble over their words or go off-track, are much wittier than usual and always know just the right thing to say at just the right time.

When it comes to dialogue in a script, every word is selected for a reason, because they want to conceal something, find something out, kiss the other person or hurt them and so on.

The trick, then, is in making script dialogue feel like real life, but with every single conversation earning its place in the script. And the best indicator is: if the discussion isn’t making the characters uncomfortable or revealing something, it probably needs cutting.

script dialogue

Spec Script Dialogue Example #3

script dialogue script dialogue script dialogue

Here are the final set of three questions to ask yourself about this script dialogue example:

  • Is this a conversation you’ve never heard in a movie before?
  • Does each character have a distinct personality?
  • Does this conversation reveal anything new about these characters?

As you can see the answer again to these questions is no. This dialogue feels uninspiring and generic because yet again these guys are just “shooting the breeze.” The conversation never escalates into anything approaching conflict and as a consequence there’s no real reason for it to be in the script.

Note as well how there’s nothing particularly fresh or surprising about it. We feel like we’ve heard this kind of script dialogue a million times before and this is another major symptom of just letting characters chat without defining why they’re talking.

In real life people have these kind of inconsequential conversations all the time, but they don’t belong in a screenplay in which dialogue should be a heightened reality as previously discussed.

Finally, there’s nothing to differentiate these characters from each other. Kalvin kind of has his own voice, but you could swap out Jay’s name for Dutch’s and Wally’s name for Jay’s and nothing much would change.

How to apply this to your own script dialogue

Go through your script highlighting one character’s dialogue at a time. Do they all sound the same? If so, it probably means you don’t know the characters as well as you could. But once you know them better, they’ll also begin to develop an individuality to the way they talk, what’s known as a “voice.”

Creating a “voice” with a character’s dialogue can definitely be tricky but it’s ultimately what makes them interesting: the way you show us who they are by how they talk and what they choose to talk about.

In Sex and the City, for example, we have four women who are all roughly the same age, live in the same city, come from similar backgrounds and all have good jobs, and yet each character’s dialogue has a “voice” because each one has a different worldview, attitude and outlook on life. And this comes out in what they choose to talk about and how they react to things.

Once you know your characters a little better in this way, then their dialogue will naturally begin to sound different because you will be able to write it according to their individual personalities.

How To Write Great Script Dialogue: Conclusion

script dialogue

Writing easy-going “shooting the breeze” script dialogue like in the examples in this post is an easy trap to fall into. While there are no obvious glaring dialogue mistakes in these scenes and they’re competently written, this is actually half the problem.

It’s because this kind of genial, laid-back dialogue is so easy to write that it feels normal and safe and ends up becoming a default position for the whole script. The trouble is, happy-go-lucky conversations are not particularly interesting to read and definitely not exciting to watch up on screen.

Another good way to eliminate screenplay dialogue that’s just “shooing the breeze” is to always remember that your characters’ speech should serve the needs of the scene, not the other way around.

In other words, script dialogue should not the be-all-and-end-all of a scene. It should be the last thing added to it—layered on top of the reason why the scene’s in the script in the first place—with stakes attached that relate back to the protagonist’s central dilemma.

The main purpose of a scene should be to push the story forward, from one beat to another. Therefore, the primary cause of bad script dialogue writing isn’t necessarily bad dialogue. It’s often a bad scene. Great script dialogue depends on your characters being in an already great scene.

So if you want to know how to write good dialogue between your characters, the first step may be to take a look at your scenes and ramp up the stakes and conflict within them until there’s something emotionally interesting happening in each one—regardless of the dialogue.

If you can’t find a reason why, say, Abby and Monica’s conversation during a yoga class should be uncomfortable, difficult or revealing in some way, then it probably means the scene itself isn’t uncomfortable, difficult or revealing and can be cut.

Be ruthless when it comes to editing script dialogue. If your characters are having too easy a time of it during a conversation, it probably means you’re not putting them under enough duress in the script as a whole.

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What techniques do you use to seek out bad dialogue writing? What do you think of our suggestions to weed out and edit script dialogue? We’d love to know in the comments section below.

script dialogue

More posts on how to write good dialogue…

best script dialogue examplesHOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE BETWEEN TWO CHARACTERS: THE ULTIMATE THEORY HACK

 

best script dialogue examplesHOW TO WRITE COMEDY SCRIPTS WITH LOL DIALOGUE

 

best script dialogue examplesHOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY FOR A MOVIE: A PRACTICAL STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE

 

best script dialogue examplesTHE SIMPLE TRICK TO MAKE YOUR DIALOGUE SOUND LIKE REAL MOVIE DIALOGUE

 

best script dialogue examplesHOW TO WRITE A PHONE CONVERSATION IN A SCREENPLAY

 

best script dialogue examplesON THE NOSE DIALOGUE: THE VERY BEST WAY TO ELIMINATE IT

 

best script dialogue examplesGET THE BOOK “Master Screenplay Dialogue: The Ultimate Practical Guide On How To Write Dialogue Like The Pros”

 

17 Comments
  1. Neil says:

    I’m working on a spec script. I have a few non-essential characters with dialogue. I introduce them with all caps and a brief description. Do I use initial caps for their character names when I describe their action?
    Examples: 1. The Waitress brings food to the table.
    2. The Musician puts his guitar back in its case.

    1. SRP says:

      The general rule is use ALL CAPs when first introducing a character than then lower case every time after that. Also if these characters have more than a couple of lines of dialogue it’s probably best to give them a name.

  2. Tim G says:

    Spot on with this. Thank you script reader pro.

  3. Chelsea says:

    Hello would you mind letting me know how to write dialogue using subtext?

  4. Lawrence says:

    Thanx for spending the time to share this dialogue tips.

  5. Lucan says:

    That is really interesting, it’ll help my dialogue for sure.

  6. Uri Gallar says:

    Nice. Sure this will help my screenplay writing.

  7. George Anim Obiri says:

    really learnt a lot as writer and director.. Great time on this site

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, George.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      You’re welcome, Robert.

  8. Imoniche Ifijen says:

    Really helpful! Thanks!

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Imoniche!

  9. Ollieshareese says:

    Thank you for the advice. I appreciate your support. Great over all info.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks a lot for the feedback, appreciate it!

  10. Bubba says:

    Interesting and helpful. Keep the ideas coming, thanx.

    1. Script Reader Pro says:

      Thanks, Bubba!

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