When writing a screenplay, dialogue is the most fun to write. You get to pick whatever you want people to say!
It’s also the most difficult thing to get right. So let’s go through to see some tips and tricks to writing dialogue that will really pop.
If you’re struggling to improve your dialogue skills, here are a few potholes you should be sure to avoid.
Make your audience work
The entire point of a screenplay is to cause your reader to exercise their imagination. You want them to invest in your world, put their own creative skin in the game. But how?
Start by not giving them answers. Yes, you want your reader to understand what is going on in your story. You want to be clear about the subtext and emotions. But let your audience draw their own conclusions.
Rather than allowing your characters to state their reasons and conclusions, let your readers figure out the subtext on their own. In other words, make the reader work for it.
The creative effort your readers exert will get them invested in your characters, their emotional journeys and their wants. Rather than just reading your script, they will experience it.
All art is made in 2 parts — the artist’s meaning and the audience’s interpretation. You don’t need to state the meaning of every little thing. The audience will get your point more often than not and crave the challenge of trying to decipher a puzzle of story.
Don’t pad the work
Avoid meaningless words. “Throat clearers” like “Well…,” “Um” and “Er” mean nothing. Save the dialogue for meaning and subtext. If a character is searching for a reply or doesn’t want to provide an answer, either find a way to imply that through the context and subtext, or simply state it in the stage direction.
Questions like “What?” “Why?” “What did you say?” or “What do you mean?” or “What are you going to do now?” aren’t needed. Either a character is going to state their action decisions or they aren’t. They don’t need to be prompted by an empty question.
Keep it short and simple
Speeches take up a lot of space. They take a long time to read. Even worse, they are usually intellectual arguments which don’t contain emotional truth.
More importantly, speeches tend to lack dramatic intent. Usually, a speech can be summed up with one or two sentences that contain all the dramatic force of the subtext and reasons that a character has for speaking. After that, the greater the number of words, the more diminished the dramatic force of the line.
Don’t mince words. Let your characters be who they are. Let them speak with authenticity. Let them speak their truth. If they are vile and reprehensible, then their thoughts and speech patterns will reflect the same. If that’s who they are, don’t be afraid to portray them as such.
Listen to how your friends, family, coworkers, random people in coffee shops talk. Listen for the archetype beneath people’s voices in your everyday life. The cocky exec. The brooding artist. The confused parent. Great dialogue comes from real people — just don’t copy+paste.
Don’t get ahead of the audience
This goes back to making your reader do the work. When a character arrives at conclusion before the necessary information has been presented, your readers lose their connection to you story. Instead of being dialed into the characters and what they are experiencing, your audience’s mind will step back from the story and try to deduce how a character arrived at their conclusion. It may only be momentary, but in that instance you risk losing the creative momentum that you have built up in your audience’s imagination.
The work starts when the typing stops
You are NEVER done when you hit save. Dialogue isn’t meant to be read on the page. It’s meant to be spoken aloud. That means, once you’ve finished writing, it’s up to you to listen to your dialogue. The easiest method is to read it out loud yourself. If you need to, record it so you can listen to it after.
Some writing programs have a “speech” app or program. Shy away from these. They’re clever, but they are automated. There is no emotional context implied in the reading.
Another method is to round up some friends — actors or not — and ask them to read your work for you. However you do it, the goal is to hear it the way it’s intended: spoken aloud.
You’ll know immediately if it works. The rhythm, flow and ease with which your readers grasp the intent will all give you clues about what needs to be rewritten.
Don’t EVER lie to yourself
This applies to all of screenwriting. Never pretend something works if your instincts tell you it doesn’t. If you so much as suspect there’s a problem, you can bet others will too. When re-reading and listening to your dialogue, be brutally honest. Does it sound believable? Does it advance the plot at every turn? Does it convey the right ideas and emotions without introducing unnecessary information? Is it economical and efficient? Does it have a rhythm and pace? Does it hold your attention?
Removing words is important. Remove words. As many as you can.
(^see what I did there?)
Like all writing, screenwriting is the art of rewriting. Dialogue is one of the most difficult things to get right. It needs to define and reveal character. It needs to provide context and subtext. And it needs to advance the story in a manner that leads the reader to ask the right questions.
The only way to get your dialogue right is to rewrite it until it as good as it can be.