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February 21, 2020

3 Tips to Writing Good Dialogue

When the latest blockbuster is out, people line up to ​see​ it. On an evening at home, we might invite friends over to ​watch​ a movie. We use those words, but half of what we do is ​hear​ movies and television. And one of the main things we hear is the things the characters say: dialogue.

Good dialogue can make or break your script. Where every other part of your script is translated into visuals, the dialogue is the part that the audience hears.

There’s no one way to write good dialogue. Everyone has their tricks, and many writers probably couldn’t articulate how they write it, but they “know it when they see it,” or should we say “hear it.”

In case you want something a little more than that, here are three tips to keep in mind when writing dialogue:

  1. Dialogue is Action
  2. Dialogue is Point-Of-View
  3. Dialogue is Optional

Keeping these top of mind when you’re writing dialogue can help you identify weak spots in what your characters are saying.

Dialogue Is Action

It’s important to remember that when characters speak, they’re doing so for a reason. (And that reason isn’t so the audience can hear it.) The reason needs to come from them. They’re saying these words, right now, because they hope it will do something. There is something they want, and they’re using these words to get it.

Each line is an action, so don’t let a character take too many actions without seeing or hearing other character’s reactions.

Some novice writers put multiple lines of dialogue together moving between all these actions at once, and then do the same for their action blocks. Split them up, because dialogue ​is​ action. Have a look at this example:

                              MIKE
           Sally, I love you. Ever since I met you in
           the park on our first date, I fell in love
           with you. And I want to spend the rest of my
           life with you.


Sally's eyes go wide and start to tear up.
Mike gets down on one knee and produces a small box. Opens it.
A sparkling ring inside.

In this example, Mike says a lot before Sally can respond. Now, unless not listening to others is part of Mike’s character, he can stop at “I love you.” His ​action​ is “telling Sally he loves her.” He’s completed it, and he needs to see Sally’s ​reaction​ before he says the next thing.

What if as soon as he starts saying “I love you” her eyes go wide in fear? She doesn’t feel the same way. He probably wouldn’t continue.

Even changing nothing about the scene, but letting the actions and reactions bounce back and forth from each other, has a positive effect.

                             MIKE
            Sally, I love you.


Sally’s eyes go wide.

                             MIKE
            Ever since I met you in the park on our
            first date, I fell in love with you.


Sally starts to tear up. Mike gets down one knee.


                             MIKE
            And I want to spend the rest of my life
            with you.


Mike produces a small box. Opens it. A sparkling ring inside.

Dialogue Is Point-Of-View

Sometimes it seems like you can’t write anything good for your character to say. The lines you’re writing and rewriting, and rewriting just aren’t interesting. This might not be a problem with your ability to write dialogue. It could actually indicate a problem in your character.

Dialogue is the way a character expresses their point-of-view about the world. If the lines aren’t coming, perhaps it’s because the character’s point-of-view just isn’t interesting enough or specific enough.

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Look at the way the character sees the world. How often have you seen that point-of-view in real life? If you’ve seen it before, you’ve probably heard it before. A strong point-of-view can go a long way in hiding exposition.

Let’s say Donna and Billy were high school crushes that went their own way after graduation but meet up over winter break back in their hometown.

                           DONNA
              I just finished my first semester. I’m
              home for a week for Christmas, then I go
              back to school.

                           BILLY
              At Pearson-Brown right?

                           DONNA
              Yeah.

Billy and Donna are pretty bland right now, so let’s see what happens if Donna’s point-of-view is that “college is a great springboard to the rest of your life” and Billy’s point-of-view is that “college is useless, you need to find your own way.”

                            DONNA
              This week can’t go by fast enough, I
              already learned so much and it’s only
              been one semester!

                            BILLY
              At the idiot factory?

                            DONNA
              No. At Pearson-Brown.

Even with relatively generic point-of-views, you can see how the dialogue starts to pop a bit because the characters are expressing the way they see the world. And they’re reacting to each other’s points-of-view.

It changes the dynamics of the scene. Now Donna provides the expository line of “Pearson-Brown” it’s in response to Billy’s line and motivated by her refutation of his “idiot factory” jab.

Dialogue is the verbal way characters express themselves, so if you’re struggling, it’s often worth going to the source and seeing if the problem is right there in point-of-view.

Dialogue Is Optional

Dialogue sometimes feels overwritten, because it is. No need to put a line where there shouldn’t be one.

Remember that dialogue is action, so if a character has already taken that action within the action block, there might not be a need to repeat it verbally. Conversely, sometimes the character has already said it, and they are unnecessarily repeating themselves. And sometimes, it just isn’t needed to explain the scene. In all those instances, cut those lines out.

Let’s look at an example that may be a bit overwritten in its dialogue.
Tony sits alone in the dugout, tapping his baseball bat against the ground. Eddie walks up.

                           EDDIE
              Tough game little brother.

Eddie sits down next to him.

                           TONY
              I struck out.

Tony hits the bat against the dirt hard. Eddie gently takes
the bat from him.


                           EDDIE
              Yeah, you struck out, but you struck
              out swinging.


Tony stares at the dirt. Eddie just sits there next to him.

                           EDDIE
              I’m really proud of you.


Tony looks up to Eddie.


                           TONY
              Really?


Eddie smiles at Tony, tussles his hair.


                           EDDIE
              Yeah. Come on, I’ll get you some ice cream.

Let’s rewrite that scene with less dialogue.

Tony sits alone in the dugout, tapping his baseball bat
against the ground.

Eddie walks up. Tony hits the bat against the dirt hard.
Eddie gently takes the bat from him.


                           EDDIE
              Yeah you struck out, but you struck out
              swinging.


Tony stares at the dirt. Eddie just sits there next to him.


                           EDDIE
              And you know what that deserves?


Tony finally looks up.
Eddie smiles at Tony, tussles his hair.


                           EDDIE
              Ice cream.

So a few new lines, but mostly just taking stuff out. Tony doesn’t have any lines at all, and his sadness plays a little bit better.

One of the best examples of not using dialogue is on Ocean’s Eleven, between George Clooney and Brad Pitt.

Danny and Rusty are at a bar.

                           DANNY
               Ten oughta do it, don’t you think?


Rusty stares away in silence.

                           DANNY
               You think we need one more?


Rusty remains silent. He hasn’t moved a bit.

                           DANNY
               You think we need one more.


Rusty still silent.

                           DANNY
               All right, we’ll get one more.


Rusty blinks.

What would that scene have been like if Rusty had lines?

(Additionally, what if all of Danny’s lines were in one block of dialogue? See how he waits for Rusty’s (non)-reactions!)

No need to put lines where silence will do. Sometimes the best way to write sharp dialogue, is not to.

So when you’re writing, or more likely rewriting, and you’re doing a “dialogue pass” these are some things you can keep in mind that’ll hopefully illuminate some problems, and start pointing towards solutions.

3 Tips to Writing Good Dialogue
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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