How to write great dialogue in a screenplay

Writing dialogue can be tricky at the best of times. But when you are writing a screenplay, it’s vital you get the right mix of realism, exposition and character development. So what can you do to ensure the dialogue you write hits the mark?

1. Be realistic with being real

While it’s essential that your dialogue is convincing, it’s also important to understand that dialogue doesn’t necessarily have to reflect real life. If you write your dialogue to reflect the way people actually talk, your audience could be in store for some tedious scenes. That’s because dialogue in real life often contains padding, small talk, and a lot of unnecessary words and mumbles.

On the other hand, your screenwriting dialogue should be engaging, tight and compelling. That doesn’t mean that all your characters are suddenly articulate wordsmiths. But you need to ensure that every word they say counts. You still need to write it in a realistic way – but not necessarily in a way that is an accurate depiction of real life.

2. Know your characters

As with any story, whether you are writing a novel or a screenplay, the story is only going to work if you know your characters intimately. That means you know what they had for breakfast, what’s on their bedside table, what they would wear – and you would also know how they would react in if their parent died, if they lost their job, if they won the lottery. You need to understand how they would respond verbally in any given situation.

Would they grunt with disinterest? Would they respond with a long pompous discourse? Would they be incoherent or eloquent? Or something in between? Dialogue is only believable if you can convince the audience that your character would utter those words.

3. Show, don’t tell

Yes I know we bang on about this one a lot, especially when we’re talking about writing fiction. But the same rules apply for writing screenplays, particularly when it comes to dialogue.

Remember that film is a visual medium, so wherever you can, you need to show, don’t tell. There’s no point getting a character to say “I’m sad” when she can just look sad. The audience will be able to figure out that she is sad.

Similarly, your character doesn’t need to talk about the rolling green hills in front of the mansion because a simple scene-setting shot from the point of view of the character can do just that in a few seconds.

4. Hide exposition

Dialogue is often used for exposition. Some screenwriters warn against doing this too much but it can sometimes be unavoidable. Exposition is the way a writer provides background information to a story. Like a seminal moment in someone’s childhood which the audience needs to know about so that they can understand the rest of the story.

This is often explained through dialogue. But that can be laborious and unnatural if a character needs to convey a lot of background information. It can be useful for the character to do this while they are busy with another activity. Or you might create a scene where another character is asking questions (like a psychologist asking someone about their childhood) so that the background information can be revealed in a natural way.

5. Make every word count

There is no room for padding in a screenplay. You might love certain words or phrases or one-liners but unless they have a higher purpose, then this is where you need to kill your darlings. Quickly. Every word of dialogue needs to have a purpose and needs to support the story in moving it forward.


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