Dialogue Writing Tips

This website is not a screenplay WRITING website. This is a screenplay FORMATTING website. Therefore, I am not going to go into tons of detail on how to write outstanding Dialogue. Someday I may change up the website and open it up to other areas of screenplay writing. But for now, it is all about formatting.

But let me say this: Great writers write great Dialogue. You can tell when an amateur writer has what it takes to be a professional screenwriter just be reading a few Dialogue exchanges. And writing great Dialogue is not always something that can be easily taught. Often you either got it, or you don't.

I'll gloss over some of the more important aspects of writing compelling dialog and tell you, in general, what to avoid. But I'll just be hitting the highlights and won't delve too much into the subject.

For a better discussion of Dialogue Do's and Don't's, here are some books to read:

  • Story by Robert McKee, Chapter 15, which deals with Exposition.
  • Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs, Chapter 13
  • Writing Movies, compiled by the Gotham Writers' Workshop and edited by Alexander Steele, Chapter 6

"Show, Don't Tell":

Go to enough writing seminars or read enough books on screenwriting, and you'll hear the phrase, "Show, don't tell" over and over again.

What is means is this: Movies are a visual medium, not an aural medium. Don't have your characters talk about things, have them DO things. Rather than forcing an audience to listen to the spoken word, show it visually on screen.

Look at this piece of Dialogue:

What a bunch of useless, boring jabber!

This would look better as action:

From there the movie would SHOW the pair walking along the dirt road, spotting a house, urging the owner to let them use the phone, etc.

Avoid Small Talk and Pleasantries:

In real life, when we first get together with someone we know, we engage in a bit of small talk and check on each other's well-being before we get down to the purpose of the meeting.

Something like this:

Avoid this useless banter and get down to business.

I know, I know. That's how people talk in real life. A movie IS NOT real life.

Avoid "Talking Heads":

In the screenwriting world, Talking Heads is not a new age 80's band.

The term Talking Heads refers to a scene made up exclusively of Dialogue between characters, usually two characters. Talking Heads is easy to spot with just a quick flip through a screenplay. It'll be pages filled with Character Headers and Dialogue blocks.

Nothing else.

Endless Dialogue between two characters is BORING. The camera simply moves from framing one character's face to the next. Nothing else happens on screen other than watching lips move.

You may be thinking, "But I see scenes all the time in movies in which much of the scene is simply two people talking."

That may be, but look at little closer next time. Odds are SOMETHING else is happening. Maybe the two are carrying on a conversation while knocking balls around on a golf course. Maybe a husband or wife converse while preparing dinner. Maybe a man and a woman talk about their situation while being pursued by a gaggle of police cars.

Nine times out of ten, even in scenes that are Dialogue heavy, the writer has made it so that something else is going on in the scene other than the conversation. The whole point of this action, as small as it may seem sometimes, is to distract the audience from the conversation. It offers entertainment to the audience while the conversation unfolds.

Pulling off a Dialogue heavy scene well is a talent only the most gifted writers enjoy.

Keep Dialogue In Character:

Recently I read a screenplay which included as a main character a bad ass mercenary. He was a tough, bruising character. But in one Dialogue block the writer had this character say something that sounding like it should have come from a scientist rather than this cold-blooded killer. It was completely different from the way I was used to the character talking, and completely OUT of character.

So I marked through the Dialogue and wrote as a note: "He wouldn't talk like this."

The writer changed the Dialogue in the re-write.

I know is sounds like stereotyping, but certain people talk certain ways. Maybe sometimes you can play around with convention for the sake of the story, but for the most part, make sure your character speaks within his or her likely mental range.

Look at this example:

Not exactly what you'd expect from a hardened criminal, useless throwing the audience off is the intention.

Avoid "On the Nose" Dialogue:

If you've written enough screenplays and sent them to enough screenplay analysts for coverages, there is a good chance you've seen a vague and generalized comment like, "The dialogue is too 'on the nose.'"

Well, what the hell is that supposed to mean?

"On the nose" is a general way of saying the characters in a screenplay are telling one another exactly what they want, totally devoid of deception or subtext.

What's wrong with that?

Well, in real life, we may tell each other what we want to increase our chances of getting it, but not so in the movies. Characters in films are supposed to be more interesting, more subtle, saying one thing, but meaning something else. With everything they say, there should be levels of understanding that will only be revealed as the story unfolds. Many times, the characters won't even know what they want until the climax, where they'll risk everything to get it.

Avoid Long Monologues:

I was burned once or twice with this when I first started writing. When you want a character to say or explain something, it is easy to just write it as Dialogue, letting him say everything until he is finished talking.

But on screen, this is BORING. Break up the Dialogue with on screen action, interruptions, have characters finish each others sentences, unveil the Dialogue through an argument, anything to break up the monotony.

Avoid Clichés:

Another easy way to spot an amateur writer is through the lazy use of clichés. Most clichés have been heard time and time again (which is why they are clichés) and is a terrible use of Dialogue.

Here are some examples:

Don't do this. Show off your writing skills rather than leaning on phrases that have been overdone.

Avoid Fillers:

Fillers come in a few varieties.

Sometimes fillers are useless questions the audience can feel coming, like these:

BORING!

Other times a filler is a single word like "so" or "well," often found at the front of a piece of Dialogue.

Get rid of them!

Other times fillers are the casual use of a character's name to whom the speaker is speaking.

Look at this conversation:

Odds are Jessica remembers her own name without Alex's constantly reminded her, and vice-versa.

Whatever the fillers, learn to recognize them during the rewriting phase, and eradicate them from the screenplay.

Avoid Exposition:

Someone could probably write a book on avoiding exposition. I'll try to be brief.

Don't have characters tell one another what they already know for the benefit of the audience. It comes across as completely unnatural.

Here's an example:

Apparently the fact that Harvey got sick in a similar situation is going to play into the story line somehow. Find a better way to get the information to the audience without TELLING them.

Don't be redundant by having characters say things the audience has already seen.

This example is a small one, and probably not the best, but I think you'll get my drift:

Terrible Dialogue. Once something has already been played out on screen, it need not be mentioned again.

Here is a better whay to write the same scene:

Don't have a character tell another character something from his or her past as a means of divulging that information to the audience.

Again, show, don't tell. So if something from someones past needs to be revealed, a writer can show it through flashbacks, hint at it without really saying it through brief dialogue passages, create a teaser scene at the beginning of the film that shows the past of a character, or even let objects in the scene (photos, books, memorabilia, etc.) hint at a person's childhood.

Of course, along this same lines, a character also shouldn't talk about what he or she plans to do later in the movie. Instead, create some mystery, or even a little misdirection, and later let the characters' actions unfold on screen.

"People Don't Talk Like That!":

How many times have you watched a movie, listened to a piece of Dialogue that is the direct opposite of what you'd expect the person to say, and then said to yourself (or even yelled at the screen), "People don't talk like that in real life!"

Of course they don't. This is a movie. This is NOT real life.

Characters portrayed in movies are supposed to be exceptions to the rule. They are supposed to be more than ordinary. Beyond normal. They are extraordinary individuals placed in extraordinary circumstances, and we get to see how they handle it.

I once read a screenplay by a guy trying to write a true story from an episode in his life. Nothing wrong with that. But the Dialogue was REALLY flat in spite of a decent story line. I asked him why. He said, "I wanted to write the actual Dialogue just as it was in real life, since this is a true story."

His screenplay doesn't stand a chance.

So stop worrying about writing Dialogue that fits the way the average person speaks as he or she moves through life. If people want to see that, they'll grab a park bench rather than a theater seat. Instead create dynamic characters and have them speak dynamically.