The Art of Writing Good Dialogue in a Screenplay

Dialogue from Casablanca

Dialogue is one of the most vital components of any screenplay, serving as the primary means through which characters communicate. Well-crafted dialogue engages audiences, reveals character, and compliments the forward progression of the story. In this article, Your Screenplay Guy will explore some key elements of writing good dialogue and what to avoid. And if you need extra help, check out Your Screenplay Guy’s affordable coverage.

Hide Exposition in Questions and Conflict

Exposition is a necessary evil. Exposition is essential to convey information to the audience but can easily become overwhelming or tiresome if presented through straightforward statements. Consequently, it is important to bury exposition within questions or conflict. By doing so, the audience remains engaged. A common method of hiding exposition in a question is by using a character to ask the questions that the audience is likely looking to have answered at that moment. Let’s look at an example of hiding exposition in a question.

Direct Exposition:

Character A: "This looks just like one of our previous investigations. The Smith case. This victim shares several traits with Smith and features the same ligature marks.”

Hiding Exposition:

Character A: "Is it just me or does this seem familiar?”
Character B: “I know what you mean.”
Character A: “Look at those ligature marks. Remember the Smith case?”

As you can see, the direct approach is dry and uninteresting. By hiding the exposition in a question, the scene becomes more engaging and feels like an authentic conversation. You can do the same thing by having two characters bickering or in a state of conflict.

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Develop Unique Character Voices

Each character in your screenplay should have a distinctive voice that reflects their personality, background, and motivations. This uniqueness helps the audience differentiate between characters and enhances the believability of the story. As you’ve probably noticed in life, your friends don’t all sound the same. Instead, each of your friends likely speaks with a specific syntax. A good rule of thumb when writing dialogue is to cover the names of each character and see whether or not you can tell who is talking. This will make it clear whether or not your characters have a unique voice or if they all sound the same.

Consider the following factors…

a) Vocabulary and Word Choice: Each character should have a particular way of speaking which is influenced by their education, social status, or occupation. For example, a scientist might use technical jargon, while a street-smart character may employ slang.
b) Sentence Structure and Rhythm: Additionally, characters may have different speech patterns, including the length and complexity of their sentences. Some characters might speak in a more formal manner, while others use colloquial or fragmented language.
c) Tone and Attitude: Characters' voices can be shaped by their emotional states, such as optimism, cynicism, or sarcasm. Their attitudes toward others, and the world, can influence their speech. It can make it more confrontational, supportive, or humorous.

Read Your Dialogue Out Loud

One valuable technique for evaluating the quality of your dialogue is to read it out loud. It might sound simple but it’s incredibly effective. When you’re writing, it's easy to get caught up in the rhythm and flow. Unfortunately, some lines that look great on the page, end up being awkward when spoken. By speaking each line aloud you can identify any unnatural phrases, detect inconsistencies in character voices, and gauge the overall effectiveness of the dialogue. If you can, try to get a group of friends together and do a table read. This is an even better way to see what works and what doesn’t.

Related: Mastering the Inciting Incident - How to Start Your Story

What to Avoid in Dialogue

Now, let’s look at a few things you want to avoid when writing dialogue. These are common mistakes that can diminish the effectiveness of your dialogue or lead to audiences checking out.

a) Excessive Exposition: As mentioned previously, exposition is a necessary evil, but you should avoid lengthy monologues or characters explaining things that are already evident to the audience. Keep your story moving.
b) On-the-Nose Dialogue: Similar to heavy-handed exposition, on-the-nose dialogue is something you want to avoid at all costs. On-the-nose dialogue means there is no subtext to what the characters are saying. Instead, they explicitly state their emotions or intentions. This is boring. Trust the audience's ability to interpret subtext and use dialogue to enhance rather than explain.
c) Lack of Subtext: Don’t serve up the information to your audience on a silver tray. Engage the audience's imagination by layering dialogue with subtext. Characters may say one thing while subtly implying another, creating tension and intrigue. Audiences are smart and they’ll have a better time watching if you treat them as such.
d) Overuse of Filler Words: While natural dialogue includes pauses and fillers, screenplay dialogue is only an illusion of how people talk. Excessive use of fillers or unnecessary pauses can make the dialogue sound weak or uninteresting.

Don’t Rely on Dialogue To Move Your Story Forward

Dialogue does play a significant role in a screenplay, but it should not be the primary means by which you drive your story forward. Dialogue should work in harmony with the plot, complementing and enhancing it rather than serving as the driving force. Let actions, visuals, and the overall structure of the narrative bear the responsibility for advancing the story. Use dialogue as a tool to deepen characterization, convey emotions, and provide context. When dialogue and plot seamlessly intertwine, the result is a powerful synergy that elevates the overall storytelling experience.

Mastering the art of dialogue is crucial for screenwriters. By following the above guidelines, one should be able to avoid the most common mistakes by young writers. And remember, if it doesn’t sound perfect the first time, there is always time to rewrite. Need some extra help? Let Your Screenplay take a look. You can find my affordable coverage services at this link. Prices start as low as $29.99 for Television (Comedy). I look forward to working with you to tell your story.

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