Screenwriting 101: Writing dialogue

If you want to skip the anecdote and get straight to the tips feel free to scroll down!

I still remember in my first year of college when I gave my first ever completed screenplay to my film lecturer. He read it and gave me a lot of great feedback, all of which was very constructive considering looking back on it the script was awful. One thing he said which has always stuck with me was that I ‘handled dialogue really well, something a lot of writers struggle with’. I’ve always found my scripts are very dialogue-heavy, and I know in the industry that’s generally frowned upon. But it’s something I can’t seem to help. In my every day life I always talk a lot, in my work for university I always have lots to say and whether it’s a Facebook message, an essay or a presentation I can never seem to get my word count down. It’s just that I manage to use a lot of words to say things that others could say in a single sentence. (Just look at my blog posts to see examples!)  Don’t get me wrong, it can be bad to make films which rely entirely on dialogue, and yes, dialogue can be omitted entirely from film – and multiple genres and movements have shown how that can 100% work and be very effective – but dialogue is still a great tool of storytelling and, in my opinion, very important when writing a screenplay.

Although I’ve worked on my technique to strengthen my non-dialogue screenwriting, I still use a lot of dialogue and enjoy writing it and hearing the characters in my head (they normally talk for themselves rather than say what I’ve written!) When reading other people’s work I’ve often felt or had them tell me they think their dialogue is wooden or stilted, and I know that’s something I struggled with when I first began writing, even if dialogue was the easiest part for me. Unrealistic dialogue can ruin an amazing story or film, so I’ve put together a few of the things I find help when trying to write dialogue:

Remember not everyone is super articulate and well-spoken.
Although it’s a lot of fun writing a character who always knows the right comeback, and has all the inspirational quote-able moments of the film, we’re not all like that. In fact, most of us aren’t. I know I spend far too much time going over what I should have said, or what I would say if so-and-so happened, but when it comes to it I’m an inarticulate mess if put on the spot. The majority of people don’t say everything perfectly first time, so don’t make all your characters’ dialogue perfect. Similarly, a lot of people say words wrong, or stutter or mess-up their sentences when emotional – and as a writer, it’s your job to make it clear that that’s happening to the character (if they’re that kind of person). Although an actor may often put in their own inflections etc. you can still help or influence the performance by how you write their dialogue.

Slang, colloquialisms, filler words and contractions matter. 
This is probably my most important and repeated tip that I give to everyone. Write as you speak, not as you read. In every day life, we all use slang and have our own idioms, and almost everyone commonly uses contractions rather than saying the full phrase. It’s how our language has developed and it’s an obvious marker for when someone’s just repeating words, rather than speaking them. These are real people you’re writing, so make them talk like real people. Base them off your own language, off your friends and family, your colleagues, the shop-owner down the road. Everyone speaks slightly differently, and the more you notice the more ways of writing varied – but always realistic – characters you’ll have. By choosing who does and doesn’t speak ‘properly’ can influence how the audience views that character, whether it be nervous or suspicious or posh or anything. These are snap judgements we all subconsciously make based on people’s speech, you’ve just got to be aware of it. Finally, filler words. Oh my gosh, filler words. So realistic, and so important. ‘Like’, ‘um’, ‘yeah’, ‘so’ – the most useful words a screenwriter will ever use. Using fillers in your dialogue can again change the whole way a person is presented and how genuine they seem.

Read your dialogue out loud as you write it.
One of my biggest helps when writing dialogue is to speak it out loud. It’s something I’ve always done without even realising, right back to when I was writing novels. Not only does speaking your dialogue aloud help you to familiarise yourself with the characters, but it helps when picturing their differences in things like accents and inflections. It may sound silly to ‘act out’ pieces of dialogue, but it truly helps. Often just saying one sentence will make you realise a word needs changing, or the word order is totally unnatural, or actually that joke is really not funny. Taking a break then coming back to your dialogue fresh and reading it out loud really helps in my experience. It also means you’ll sometimes just speak another character’s lines straight after, even if you haven’t written it yet, and it can help the dialogue flow more realistically.

Sometimes silence speaks more than words.
Learn the difference between a pause and a beat. Many screenwriters don’t differentiate between a ‘pause’ and a ‘beat’ when used in dialogue, and many actors don’t either, but it can be really helpful to be able to use both correctly. A lot of people argue whether they’re interchangeable, and often they are, but the general consensus is that a beat is just for a short moment (normally less than two seconds) and a pause is used to show a bigger hesitation in the speaking. Of course, these are only used if the character’s still speaking – if they’re finished or are doing something between lines then that’s all written in the action. Using silence or pauses to emphasise or change the direction of a scene can be really helpful when writing, as often in real life people do pause or suddenly change topic or re-word what they just said. Realistic dialogue is hesitant and imperfect.

Big, inspirational speeches are fun to write, but be realistic.
We all want to be able to write a Whedon-esque speech, let’s be honest. But most of us aren’t lucky enough to have the scene opportunity to do so, and more often than not, a big speech will just come across as clichéd and out of place. Especially if it’s coming from your stoic, silent-but-deep, hero type protagonist. If you’re writing a dramatic love story or a post-apocalyptic battle epic, then go ahead and write your twenty-liner speech. Just be careful, cause it’s a very tempting trap I know only too well. Also, please, please don’t do multiple speeches in one film. Just don’t.

Think about how multiple characters’ dialogue interacts with each other.
The way in which characters interact is obviously important, and no less so in regards to their dialogue. Interruptions in particular are a good example – when around our friends most of us tend to finish other people’s sentences or stories, or interrupt suddenly with a similar anecdote or a joke, it just happens. Not every sentence you write has to be completed. Although yeah it’s important to only have dialogue in that actually matters, I’m not a big believer in the whole ‘if it makes sense without that line, get rid of it’ thing. That applies to scenes (if a scene doesn’t contribute to the story in some way, cut it) and I agree with that, but in terms of dialogue often the lack of relevance actually is relevant. Random babbling or messing around between characters can show friendship or nervousness, and writing a line just to interrupt it isn’t a waste of dialogue. Think about how people’s talking habits change depending on who they’re with, and write accordingly.

Have subtext and exposition in the dialogue.
Dialogue is a key technique in exposition. A good, long panning shot of wedding photos and an expensive TV and a telephone call saying “Yes we just moved in yesterday, the children love it, no Nick’s at work at the bank” is a fantastic way of doing exposition (*sarcasm*) don’t get me wrong, but there are other ways too. Dialogue can be a great way of showing relationships, past experiences, familiarity, emotions and many other things. Nicknames, for instance, show characters are familiar with each other, and depending on the name, show their relationship. Inside jokes and abbreviations (which don’t necessarily need to be explained to the audience) do the same. Subtext is another important element of dialogue – whether it be a character having a certain motive all along, or just showing the way a person sees the world or those around them – subtext can be incorporated into the forefront of the dialogue to help convey meanings.

Learn how to use “–” and “…” correctly!
When a character interrupts another character, or their dialogue stops abruptly (they get hit by a car or something) then you use a double dash. If the character trails off – whether because they don’t know what to say, or they get distracted, whatever – then you use ellipses. These two things may not seem important but they help show the reader/actor how to end that beat of dialogue, and the end is equally important as the rest!

I hope some of that helped! If you’d like to know my more general advice on screenwriting you can read that here, or if you’re struggling with how to develop/plan/write a character, check out these tips. If you have a specific question or topic you’d like me to talk about next time, then feel free to leave a comment or message me. Once again, please be aware I do not proclaim to be the best screenwriter, nor the most knowledgeable. I’ve just had a lot of practice and done a lot of research.

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