One of the biggest challenges in writing a great screenplay, even for seasoned writers, is writing strong script dialogue. The truth is that if you write captivating screenplay dialogue, your characters will stand out and put you well on your way to an outstanding script. Try to recall a movie you watched that you thought was terrible? I can almost guarantee that the dialogue was boring.
Your characters should sound real. In life people do not tell you their entire life story the minute you meet. Okay, some do. But not the most interesting ones. Instead you learn about their lives over time from various things we see about them.
We learn about them from the way they speak and their vocabulary. From what other people say about them. From their expression when they mention a certain topic. From the way they handle a situation.
A good movie shows you a story – it does not tell that story in long boring narrative. The dialogue in your script should be short but yet revealing enough to carry the action forward.
The words your characters utter should convey emotion and not just explain things.
This may sound like very hard work — because it is! But luckily there are some many effective techniques to help you make it all happen. Here are three simple tips (not necessarily easy):
1. Avoid writing “on-the-nose” dialogue.
To get dialogue right, a screenwriter must use the silence of a character or subtext which means the characters are not saying everything outright, exactly like they’re thinking. For great dialogue, your character must respond to a situation in a few words that tell more than what a thousand words would have told.
Seek to shorten your dialogue and avoid stating the obvious. For instance instead of having your character say: “So you are the one who killed her?” They might say: “Well, well, well, I would never have guessed.” This reveals much more about the tone and the mindset of both characters and is far more interesting dialogue.
2. Write your first draft quickly without caring about the dialogue.
One great process for writing a screenplay is to get the first draft out of your head by just writing what flows out. Once you’ve done that, then go back to the beginning and slowly re-write it as you go. You will find a few places where the dialogue flows naturally and sounds good.
But most places you will see the essence of what your character’s dialogue needs to be, but your re-writing will need to finesse how they say it and to write it with more subtext.
3. Read your dialogue out loud to test it.
When you read your dialogue out loud like you picture the character saying it, a great deal is revealed – even if you are not an actor! You will start to see why it is much better to make it shorter than to write long sides of dialogue back and forth.
As you read aloud, listen to how it sounds while picturing the circumstances in the scene. If you do it right, you will find that some of the dialogue you thought would be the best sounds awkward. Other parts that you wrote off the top of your head may flow naturally and move the story swiftly along while tastefully revealing the characters.
Great dialogue is invisible in that the characters take over. When they speak they confirm your worst fears, add to the suspense, or surprise you and make you laugh. At the same time you wonder: What will happen next? What will they do next?
Ultimately, let the whole story unfold visually in your mind as you write the screenplay so that you “see it.” This will help you write a great screenplay and nail the dialogue as you go.
When dialogue is written well, what your character says fits for them after you hear it, but the circumstances and authenticity of the characters is such that you cannot predict what they will do next.
If you aren’t sure about how you’re doing with your dialogue, you may want to get a script review and get feedback. This will set you on the right path toward putting on paper the captivating script dialogue that you feel in your heart.