Dialogue is one of the most important elements to any film, but many writers struggle to write lines that sound authentic and intentional. Writing dialogue well is one the biggest challenges writers face in developing their scripts.
Learning how to write dialogue well takes practice and a good grasp of some key principles. Above all, you want your dialogue to help you tell your story well, and that means the dialogue needs to aid in moving the story forward.
1. Story Dialogue is Intentional
When two or more people get together in real life, there’s usually a flow to the conversations that occur between them. They’ll move seamlessly from one topic to another. You may talk about your grandmother who just had surgery before moving on to the score in last night’s football game.
There’s no end goal for the conversation. It’s just talking.
That doesn’t work in film. In real life, conversation is just an everyday part of interacting with other people. Some people are good at it while others are not, but in only the most weighty of moments in our lives do we really weigh our words carefully when we’re talking to someone.
In film, a conversation between two characters can shape the whole future of how the rest of the story will go. When you’re learning how to write dialogue in fiction, the first thing you need to realize is that any moment of dialogue in a story has to be intentional. You’re putting it into the story for a reason, and if it doesn’t somehow aid in carrying the story forward, you cut it. It doesn’t fit.
You won’t have characters moving from one topic to another. A conversation that occurs will move the story forward instead of backward. And movement is vital. A conversation that leaves your characters in the same spot they were before is a waste of time and should be either rewritten or taken out completely.
You also want to leave out interactions that are unnecessary. For example, if you write that Bill answered the phone, and then write that he said, “Hello,” the “Hello” is unnecessary. You’ve already told us he answered the phone. And you certainly don’t want to include the return greeting from the other person. Get to the core of the conversation and skip the extraneous.
2. Story Dialogue Feels Realistic
When you’re learning how to write dialogue, you might start to listen in on people’s conversations, which is good. But if you start copying everything you hear into your story dialogue, you’re going to end up with a lot of stuff that just doesn’t belong on the page.
People say a lot of nonsense words when they speak. Take the line of dialogue below for example.
“So, you, um, want to order a pizza?” Kevin said.
Just because people speak like that in real life doesn’t mean your characters should do it in your script.
Story dialogue is realistic, but it’s not real. Take out the unnecessary words people tend to use in real life.
“Wanna grab dinner?” Kevin said.
That’s more realistic for your story.
3. Story Dialogue is Layered with Subtext
In film, it’s not so much about what is said as it is about what is meant. People sometimes say one thing but intend something else. This is called subtext, and if you want to write script dialogue well, you need to learn how to write dialogue that has clear subtext.
Subtext is the underlying meaning beneath the words a character speaks.
“I took Andrea shopping for some new shoes,” Joe said.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Megan said.
“She needed new shoes.”
“I was just waiting until I got paid. I could’ve handled getting her the shoes.”
“I know,” Joe said, moving to the other side of the counter. “I just thought I could help.”
Megan reached into her purse on the counter and pulled out a checkbook and a pen. “Okay. How much do I owe you?”
“I don’t want your money.” Joe snatched the checkbook out of her hands and placed it back in her purse.
Megan sighed. “I could’ve gotten the shoes.”
It’s just a simple exchange about shoes, right? No, it’s much more than that. The words themselves, if they’re treated as just words, are about Joe buying shoes and Megan trying to pay him back for the shoes. But underneath the words, can’t you just feel the tension? The resentment that Megan feels at having to acknowledge to her ex-husband that she couldn’t afford shoes for her daughter?
If you want to learn how to write dialogue that feels authentic and brings the reader into the story, you need to master the art of subtext. Dialogue in film is layered with it, which helps to drive the story forward.
4. Story Dialogue is Tailored to the Character
Recognize the following line of dialogue?
“When nine hundred years old you reach, look as good, you will not.”
It’s from Yoda in Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Yoda speaks in a very specific way, and while I don’t recommend writing characters that sound like Yoda, his speaking illustrates an important point about dialogue.
Characters speak a certain way that makes them distinct.
You should know your characters so well that you know exactly what they would say in a given situation and how they would say it. Does your character have an accent? Is there a certain word that your character mispronounces every single time? Is your character a young child? An elderly person?
These are the details you need to think about as you learn how to write dialogue that’s unique to each of your characters. You want a reader to be able to recognize who is speaking in your story based upon the words they say and how they say them.
Write Better Dialogue
Poor dialogue often keeps a good script from being great, but with practice and a solid grasp of the principles above, you can write dialogue that will make people want to read your script and invest in the characters of your story.