Screenwriting : Any tips on writing dialogue? by Wolfe Lind

Wolfe Lind

Any tips on writing dialogue?

Been working on writing some screen plays and have two in 2nd draft status. I go over them and try and see if I made any mistakes but sometimes I feel like sometimes my dialogue might be the problem. I posted my scripts to Amazon Studios but you don't get much feedback there from the site or people on the site. So figured I would try to see what tips anyone has for writing dialogue.

Monique Mata

Building off Dan's comments, think about conversations with your friends. How does that sound like? What is the subtext? Another trick is getting a couple of friends to read your dialogue out loud. Dialogue should be an extension of your characters and therefore unique to them, so if I cover up the names in your script, I should still recognize which character is doing the talking. Also, read great screenplays that are dialogue heavy to see how the pros do it :)

Monique Mata

@Dan - I know what subtext is; I should have worded myself more clearly :) What I meant to Wolfe was - when he thinks about crafting dialogue, one trick is to pay attention to how he and his friends/family communicate, how there's a familiarity and a subtext that is natural and inherent.

Shane M Wheeler

I think Dan already covered it, but say it out loud if you don't have a strong internal sense of voice. What looks good on a page may not read as well out loud. Dialog should generally have a good flow. If you read it aloud, watch for where it 'clunks' or slows down. One character can have a strong voice and interesting things to say, but the 'straight man' of the exchange is not allowed to slouch or bog things down (unless it's an entertaining, intentional slouch). Conversations are not one sided. Good dialog is usually revealing, getting us to know the character better or the plot better. While you need some workhorse dialog on occasion, if you're lucky, even the small stuff can say something. ex) Three characters talk to a valet- one is to the point and polite, one rudely shoves keys to hand and talks down to him, one says nothing at all. Know the characters as best you can. Sometimes, less important or alive characters will just be spewing necessary dialog ("What?" "Hello." etc.), but when two or more important characters meet in a story, if you know the characters well, the conversation should flow easily. A level of internal acting can help with this, rather than forcing the point of a conversation, arriving there naturally by knowing the intentions and emotional states of the characters involved.

Wolfe Lind

Thanks everyone for the tips. I have tried to use the text to speech function on final draft but the cadence seems off in a lot of the dialogue. I do try and sit and envision the conversation in my mind as I review it though. Hence why sometimes I end up revamping a scene over and over. :)

Kimberly Bird

When I'm writing dialogue, after I've written it, I'll go back and read it out loud. When you read out loud, you pick up on repeat words, and places where you stumble over it because the dialogue is too confused.

Kate Callaghan

There are so many things to advise that the space is not long enough, and it would require reading the screenplay. However, you might consider making every character sound different. Remember to consider regionalisms, social status etc. In other words when the Queen of England asks for directions to the bathroom she should sound different than the New York construction worker or the young child. (Just examples no bias). Remember to consider age and location in the way your characters speak. Not all conversation is the spoken word. In fact, silence can often speak louder than words. I always taught my students to think of the way in which your body physically reacts to a situation and repeat in the length of sentences etc. A fearful character will not speak in long, melodious sentences...under normal circumstances. Hope this helps a little.

Jonathan Kramer

Look for a free Kindle books by Michael Rogan (aka Script Bully)..he makes some GREAT points about writing dialog..I think the most important thing is that the language used is different from one character to the other in order to establish their differences. We also need to read it aloud and BE inside the mind of the character asking "What would he/she say in response to this situation?"

Alex Moran

Hey Wolfe, I think one trick is to always think about condensing. It's how we talk in real life and it also helps with the economy of your screenplay. Example: 'Let us go to the shop' to 'Let's go the shop'

Marc Sigoloff

When I started writing screenplays I had difficulty with dialogue. None of the screenwriting books I read were helpful. Then I just started listening to people and how they talk. People think they listen, but they don't really concentrate. It transformed my dialogue.

Steven T. Boltz

From Stephen King's "On Writing". I use these in class all the time. 1) Listen to how people talk to each other. 2) Dialogue is not exactly like real speech, but it should read like real speech. 3) Cut words and phrases that don't serve the conversation's purpose. 4) Don't try to provide too much information at once through dialogue. 5) Break up dialogue with action. 6) Don't try too hard to vary your tag lines when writing dialogue. 7) Avoid stereotypes, especially when it comes to dialect. 8) Don't overuse profanity and slang when writing dialogue. 9) Read widely, noting both good and bad dialogue. 10) Punctuate Dialogue Correctly

Alisa Vernon

It may also help to develop a treatment or background story about your characters before they ever appear onstage or film. It helps to know how a character's life has been so you can develop the type of dialect he/she has with others.

Dennis Fleming

I think the background info has to be in your head. The characters' backstory, especially with each other, has to be there for me. I'm writing scenes with people who have a history 12 years back. They're forced to talk with each other. She's a sheriff's deputy and he's a serial killer. They were high school sweethearts. He left town. She gave birth to a child he never knew he had. I wrote out an outline of their meeting, interactions, everything, so it's in their heads as well as mine.

Doug Nelson

You’ve received a bundle of truly fine feedback from fellow 32’ers in here so far – take it! I’ll add that it’s important to hear how real people speak. Eavesdrop whenever you can get away with it – do a young couple of lovers speak differently than the old married couple? Try writing for different characters – a valley girl, a drill sergeant, a stevedore… You’ll soon realize that not only do they speak differently but they each include a non verbal component in their speech. I've been a dialog coach long ago and if you send me ONE page of your script - I'll provide some advice.

Rickardo Beckles-Burrowes

It always helps me to create a full back story for my characters. that way, I have a sense of their history, what drives and motivates them to say the things they do or act in the way they are within any given conflict. Making those characters speak in a way which fits them and is believable. Along with it reading well. I find it helps to read the dialogue out aloud, to see if it flows, makes sense and communicates what's needed per the story. Finally, I like to think about the real people or real situations which have helped inspire the story and characters I am writing / developing to see what synergies make sense to imbue the screenplay overall.

Wolfe Lind

Yes Doug, got a lot of great ideas and feedback. Now I am getting ready to go back and use some of the notes I wrote down to evaluate two of the completed scripts and the other notes on building background for characters for 3 of the others I want to do(I have ADHD so doing it this way is normal for me.). :)

Tim John

Yes, good advice from several people. Subtext is key to each scene, though not ever line or it can sound over-worked. Really important to read it out loud and make sure it sounds authentic not on-the-nose or expositional. Think of the relationships between people, e.g. people who are close often finish each other's sentences

Chanel Ashley

You have received some excellent advice - two aspects are important to acquire, REEL, not REAL dialogue, and subtext - not as simple as it sounds - I suggest when you complete your script, dilute, dilute, dilute - some of the best things I have been taught are "economy of words" and "show, not tell."

Marysia Trembecka

I would get actors to read the script and then sit back and watch where the thoughts/sub text are expressed by their looks, body movements (towards/away each other and how their physicality expresses emotions eg do they look away, hands shake or clutch, do they pick up their mobile and look at FB as a diversion tactic etc. Then you can see how much dialogue you can cut as the actors will be able to express what is going on thru physical actions. I have done a lot of cold reads for screenwriters and they always come away realising how much power a good actor can give to their words and in seeing the character brought to life allows them to then dream and edit further ;-) Try initially a sit down read and then get them on their feet, ideally directed by someone else so you can watch and take notes. Ask local actors to you if they wouldn't mind workshopping the text for a small fee or lunch etc. Most actors are happy to help an early reading as long as it is a defined time space and a character they could conceiveably play. Hope this helps

Michael Mili

I agree with Marysia, I would get actors to read the script and make sure to record it as well. You'll beat that dialogue like steel into a sword. What you'll have in the end will be real and deep. Best of Luck.

Marysia Trembecka

Actually your question inspired me to write a blog post on it, so came up wit some other ideas as well ;-) So thanks!! Another example of creatives inspiring each other.

Adrienne Conway

My tip is, go into a scene as late as possible and leave as early as possible. Sit on the bus, the tube, listen how people talk, how they don't finish their sentences. Write all the dialogue you need to express what the character wants to say and then -edit away. the less the better. As expressed before, Leave the actors room.

Alexandra Cohler

I agree -- there's nothing better than hearing it aloud.

Aaron W. Miller

I teach script writing and have always found that students can quickly identify poor dialogue but struggle to write it. It's either too academic or too slangy. The best dialogue is that which sounds natural but carries literary overtones. This is easier said than done. A few suggestions: Avoid call and response type of dialogue. When your characters speak to one another, they do not need to acknowledge what was just said. For example: [1] Hi. [2] Hello. [1] That's a nice hat. [2] This thing? It's old. It would be better this way: [1] Hi. [2] Oh. Eddie. [1] That's a nice hat. [2] I need a drink. Second suggestion is to employ 'drop words'. This technique removes the fodder and filler that often appears in dialogue. For example: [1] Did someone take your dog? [2] Yes, just yesterday. [1] What sort of dog was it? [2] It was a golden retriever named Elusius. Might be better this way [1] Someone take your dog? [2] Yesterday. [1] What kind? [2] Was a retriever, name of Elusius. I also suggest you record your dialogue and then listen back to it while following your script. Works best if you have different folks read for different characters. Hope this helps, good writing to you!

Vanessa Bailey

Set up an actor's Table Read. Actors are trained to spot a lack of "truth" in dialogue. I've just taken part in one of these with several Writers whoi sat in while actors read through their script. They found it invaluable. Actors will soon tell you if the dialogue feels clumsy or over-written and you'll get a real sense of the bits where the dialogue needs cutting or room to breathe. I also write (my first short film is now in post for a January release - and while it's definitely not a perfect screenplay as an actor it helped a lot to know how actors and directors would approach the script. I co-write with another actor/wroter and we spent alot of time reading it out loud and cutting stuff! Hope this helps :D

Daniel Johnson

Read Billy Wilder and I.A.L Diamond's 'The Apartment' screenplay 10 times.

Justin Kuhn

What Vanessa said.

Vanessa Bailey

... without the rampant typos! cringe

Anthony Crociata

This is a great exercise created by David Milch. Used mainly for creating characters and polishing those dialogue skills. Take 2 hours (It seems long, but flies by if you get into it) and start a conversation. It doesn't matter how the conversation starts because the characters will eventually take over and your dialogue will start to shine. I try to do this at least 3 time a week and have come up with some great characters and ideas for story.

Allan Turner

I don't know what the area is like where you live but here in Winnipeg we have a film group and they do what's called a cold read series. Excellent opportunity for local writers and actors to get together. We table read through scripts and the writers get the chance to hear their work read out loud. I have found it very useful to hear the dialogue I wrote spoken but someone besides myself. I can hear if things seem to flow properly or sound fake. If you don't have such a group in your area then perhaps organizing your own table read with people you know would be useful to you. They don't have to be wonderful actors as long as they can read and you get to hear it. good luck.

Doug Nelson

That’s an excellent idea – so good in fact that I’m going to steal it and try locally –thanx.

Allan Turner

I find it a great experience good luck with it hope you enjoy it as well.

Vanessa Bailey

This is a fantastic internationally-attended resource for screenwriters with amazing speakers - and here's their blog article on Table Reads. They did their first one this year using experienced actors and award-winning, mainstream dorectors and the learning that happened in the half an hour we had was huge. Really recommend this conference wholeheartedly Hope you find it useful :D

Tim John

Fantastic initiative. Well done.

Marysia Trembecka

Yep I was one of the actors who did the readings for LSF, and having different directors was great - some re-edited a lot, others did not.

Vanessa Bailey

Yes, I was also one of the actors - not one of the writers! It was fascinating. the approaches were so different. Most of my directors did cut lots, though :)

Tim John

I'm always aware of that quote from a Hollywood director who referred to a screenplay as "120 pages of suggestions"!

Vanessa Bailey

Yes - once you hand it over to the director, it's not yours any more! \O/ It's a framework, basically. :D

Chanel Ashley

Great quote, Tom, which director made, it?

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