Writing smart, compelling dialogue is one of the most challenging parts of screenwriting. But crafting the perfect line can make your film live on in viewers’ minds forever. Below are eight essential rules (and examples!) to help you improve the dialogue in your screenplay or pilot.
1. Enter late, leave early
You don’t need to show every character entering or exiting a location. Come into the scene when it’s already in progress, skipping the “hello” or “goodbye” pleasantries that generally take place at the beginning or end of the conversation. Think about what the true purpose of the scene is and eliminate small talk that isn’t essential to this purpose.
This is not to say that all scenes need to be brief; the lesson is that all film dialogue should be specific and serve a purpose. A loaded “hello” between exes could be compelling, but many greetings are not.
2. Remember what characters DON’T say
People generally don’t say exactly what they’re thinking and feeling. You can imbue your scenes with tension, subtext, and nuance if your characters demur, change topics, and avoid talking about things directly. Let your characters struggle to communicate. They may need to employ multiple tactics to get information out of each other.
In some scenes, the characters don’t need to say a single word. Remember the final scene of The Graduate?
You can also effectively build up to direct, powerful confrontations if previous dialogue is less direct by comparison. For example, take a look at the final sequence of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, in which the characters finally confront their feelings for one another.
3. Use long speeches or monologues sparingly
Many films feature memorable speeches or monologues, but too many of them can slow down your screenplay’s pacing and make its dialogue feel less natural. Remember that people often speak in choppy, incomplete sentences and interrupt one another. Check out this scene between Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep in The Post:
4. Use dialect sparingly
This is a matter of taste, but you don’t need to write all lines of dialogue in dialect that’s specific to a period, location, or culture. Too much phonetic or slang spellings and pronunciations can give your script a tiresome quality and make it feel like you’ver over-directing your actors.
5. Avoid redundancy
Focus on efficiency! Don’t write lines of dialogue that repeat information the reader already knows, either from previous lines or from action and description. Similarly, you can also trim away lines that set up future scenes that don’t require explanation. Sometimes setting up a ticking clock such as “the game is on Friday” can give your script momentum, but a character doesn’t necessarily need to say “Meet me at Joe’s Pub on Friday at 8? The address is 324 Main Street.”
If you cut to a scene of two characters having a drink together, we won’t be confused about how or why they got there. Think about whether your world is one that needs a lot of explanation (like a futuristic sci-fi world on another planet) or one that lets us make assumptions (like a group of friends who hang out at a bar).
6. Stay consistent
Use the same style of film dialogue throughout the script. If your script is meant to be vulgar and R-rated, you don’t want to use tame language for the first half and then drop in a lot of swear words, for example. Similarly, aim for authenticity within your script’s world or period. Would people in this workplace or era speak this way?
7. Make your characters distinct
That said, don’t aim for so much consistency that all your characters sound the same. (And they shouldn’t all sound exactly like you, either!) A character might make a joke that another never would. Let dialogue reveal specific and unique things about each character. See how Jesse Eisenberg and Rooney Mara have different speaking styles in The Social Network.
8. Read your script out loud
You won’t know what your screenplay’s dialogue sounds like until you hear it. Read your script out loud! You may feel silly, but reading aloud will help you hear clunky film dialogue that needs to be rewritten. You can also ask a group of friends or actors to read your script out loud so that you can listen to the script’s rhythms and see how others would interpret your words.
Finally, keep practicing! If writing film dialogue doesn’t come naturally to you, keep studying your favorite films. Ask yourself what’s said as well as what isn’t said. Ask yourself why certain lines are funny or powerful. You can also eavesdrop on people in real life for inspiration!