MARCH 2013: Writing Dialogue
Dialogue can be very tricky to write. When it’s done well, dialogue is memorable, powerful, comical, and quotable. When it’s done poorly, it is painful to watch and it will slow down the story’s momentum.
Following these tips can help ensure the dialogue in your screenplay has meaning and enhances the story.
Write with Purpose. There is a big difference between conversation and dialogue—dialogue has purpose and conversation does not. An exchange of dialogue between characters should serve a purpose, whether it is revealing character, moving the story forward, or establishing conflict, to name a few. Any filler that is more conversational than meaningful can be cut.
Avoid Expository Dialogue. We know that it is always better to show than to tell. If there is information you need to get across to the audience, try to find ways to show it through action rather than a character explaining it through dialogue. Actions are louder than words.
Be Minimalistic. Screenwriting instructors often challenge beginners to write a short script that contains no dialogue. They do this to demonstrate that stories can be told just as effectively without it. So use dialogue sparingly. Dialogue should not be the vehicle for storytelling; it should be the power steering that helps guide the story along.
Avoid Repeating What We Already Know. Often times in a story, a character may need to bring another character up to speed and tell them what happened in a previous scene. However, it is not necessary to show the character explaining what happened when the audience already saw it play out on screen. You can show the character beginning the recap: “You won’t believe what just happened!”—then cut to the other character’s reaction. No need for the audience to experience a scene twice.
Give Characters Unique Voices. Make your characters sound different from each other, whether it is their speech pattern, word choice, sentence structure, rhythm, or regional dialect. Consider how different Alvy in Annie Hall sounds from, say, Yoda or Forrest Gump. Giving each character a unique voice will make your dialogue much more interesting.
Avoid Writing on the Nose. To “write on the nose” is to make your character say exactly what they are thinking or feeling. In order words, it means bringing any subtext to the surface, which is not where subtext belongs. Scenes will be much richer and more engaging if the characters are not so blatant about their emotional responses.