In any work of fiction, dialogue is arguably the most important part to nail; doubly so on-screen where the vast majority of what you’re communicating to your audience comes in the form of spoken lines. In this article we will tell you how to write great dialogue, from formatting to common mistakes and tips.
Writing great dialogue for the screen is about knowing what you want every line to accomplish, and how you can more smoothly transmit your message. You need to read lots of dialogue to get a feel for it, as well as take inspiration from the tips your peers give you. But, most of all, you have to know what your goals and pitfalls are.
Don’t use quote marks at all, unlike you would in a novel, and respect standard formatting margins. For dialogue, that’s 2.5 inches from the left side (1 inch from preset left margin) and 1 inch along the right margin.
Arc Studio Pro makes formatting a breeze, and you can get a detailed guide on how to format your script here. If you mostly know how that works, then just keep in mind that when it comes to dialogue, you need to avoid excessive punctuation and follow the above guidelines.
The best way I’ve ever heard this expressed is simple: ‘be a writer, not a director’.
Your script will be the blueprint for a movie, but it won’t be the finished product. There are incredibly detailed scripts that get sold, but that’s not the norm; and some of them only become incredibly detailed after they sell.
Remember that your job is to tell a story. Look at every single instance where you’re directing the actors by telling them how to emote, move, or speak, and ask yourself: is this vital to telling the story? Or is this my preference, and the actors could do it a different way?
Keep only the vitals, without exception. A cleaner script is more likely to be looked at.
Goal number one seems simple, but is the one we most often miss. Dialogue isn’t just chatter, it has to move the plot forward. If there’s a problem at the beginning of the conversation, it has to be a different problem by the end. If there’s a question, it has to be answered or changed into a different question. Every conversation, no matter how small, should be a step forward.
One of my favorite lines of dialogue is the starting hook of “Pulp Fiction”. Listen to how much that one line tells us and how it kicks off the plot.
Dialogue doesn’t always speak to plot; but when it doesn’t, it’s usually telling us something about the characters. Their personalities should be woven into their character arcs inextricably, so showing those personalities in dialogue is a crucial skill to practice.
We don’t want characters to tell us they’re angry, or excited, or hopeful, or even something as simple as hungry. Not if they can show us, instead. And ‘showing’ doesn’t necessarily mean actions, either; they can show us plenty in dialogue. An angry character will snap at the people they’re talking to; a hungry one will talk about what meal they’d ask for as their last meal; an excited one can’t stop talking about what makes them excited. Try to look at your own behavior and what your conversations sound like when you’re going through specific emotions.
Here’s a great example of Johnny Quidd from “RocknRolla”. It compresses a lot of his state of mind and general personality in one brief scene.
Whether you’re using that piece of dialogue to convey information, move the plot forward, show emotional moments, or reveal character traits, one constant you need to keep in mind is conflict.
Conflict drives your story and challenges your characters; it’s what keeps the viewer engaged and asking ‘what happens next?’. Conflict can be practical, ethical, or just a clash of personalities. It can be the main driving force of the plot, or a minor detail such as who gets to sit by the window. Whatever size or shape it takes, a section of dialogue with no conflict is always going to be less engaging than one with it.
One outstanding example is this scene from “Deadwood”. It’s very static, there’s no reason why it should be as exciting and tense as it is; and yet conflict moves it.
Dialogue has to sound realistic, it’s true. That doesn’t mean it gets to perfectly imitate real life. That’s a mistake most of us make at some point, because we’re used to speaking using a lot of hedging, and we think dialogue should be natural.
However, excessive hedging has the opposite effect: it sounds childish and fake, and it slows the pace. Besides, you should leave the verbal quirks to the actors. Look for how often you use the following and consider cutting the ones that aren’t vital:
Check out this spotless and sharp exchange from “Inglorious Basterds” (with the exception of the French part, which is intentionally less precise; feel free to start at 0:30) as a great example of writers that do not abuse fluff, even in slower scenes.
In real life, we often skip from subject to subject, or debate an idea for hours before reaching a conclusion. We make plans, then go back on our plans, then make the same plans again. We stop mid-sentence and change our minds. Trying to imitate this in a script without an excellent reason will leave your viewers confused, frustrated, and bored.
Often, when we’re not very certain of what our characters sound like or want, they’ll go through a whole loop of thought in dialogue. That’s a great thing in a first draft, but not in a final one. If there’s a section of dialogue you can cut and still get where you’re going, it needs cutting.
Check out this interminable, winding, mind-numbing speech from “The Matrix Reloaded” as proof that viewers will tolerate them; but they won’t like it.
Another common mistake we make is homogenizing all the character voices. Ideally, we should be able to recognize who is speaking without being told. Now, many writers also err on the opposite side: they beef up the dialogue with so many regionalisms, tics, and pops of color that every single character feels like a caricature of themselves. It’s a different homogeneity: everyone is equally ‘loud’.
Both issues have the same effect: they put distance between the viewer and the character. Ideally, you want voices to be distinct, but use a delicate hand in making them so. Don’t always resort to accents and ticks; but take their mood, personality, experiences, and desires into account with every line you write.
Every line in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” could be used as an example of having distinct character voices, but here’s a quick clip of all three main characters in action.
It’s incredible how many people hear this tip, and still don’t even attempt to do it, convinced it won’t work. And yet, if you take one single thing from this article, I want it to be this: print your dialogue out, stand up, move through the room, and read it. Read the line, then say it again without reading it. Act it out to the lamp. Act it out with a friend. It is a game-changer!
Just don’t forget to bring a red pen. You’ll spot issues you never even dreamed of.
Cut a line if you can say it with a gesture. Cut explanations the characters already know. Split exposition into bite-sized chunks. Cut long speeches, cut full sentences into quick bites, cut repetitions. Don’t leave a single line intact.
Cut so much it almost feels like too much, then read it again as though it were the first time. Can you understand the story? Is the character coming through? If the answer is ‘no’, you can always add things back.
Ask for feedback from your friends and fellow writers. I’d even suggest booking a good fiction editor for a look at your script. It’s not about getting the perfect product so much as it is about learning what your strengths and weaknesses are, what you frequently get wrong, and where you can improve. Every time you learn from feedback, your next script will start off a level above your previous one.
If you’re using Arc Studio Pro, there’s no excuse for not getting feedback! It’s easy to request and manage, and it’s going to give you great insight into two major things: whether your dialogue is compelling, and whether your message is clear enough. These are things you, the writer, can easily lose track of without an outside eye.