How To Write Great Dialogue For A Screenplay

By Debra Hildebrand

One of the most difficult parts of writing a great screenplay is creating captivating dialogue. The primary reason is because dialogue is not real-life speech. It might sound like it when you hear it on the screen, but if you really focus on what the characters are saying you’ll realize screenplay dialogue is much more focused.

With that in mind there are some very key elements to writing the kind of dialogue that can move a story along by creating the right atmosphere and shaping the story without just telling the story.

Dialogue Needs to Convey Emotion, Not Explain it

When you first reflect back on a movie you’ve seen you will likely see the image of the characters on the screen. You may think about the dialogue later on, but you won’t necessarily remember the words. And that is why one of the most important parts of writing dialogue is to remember to keep the lines short.

One of the most difficult parts of screenwriting for new writers is creating dialogue that evokes emotion and moves the story along without over explaining the plot, called forced exposition. Forced exposition is where a character tells the whole story or explains the action, like what some older crime dramas (think “Murder She Wrote”) have the crime buster do at the end of the story. They sum up how the bad guy was caught. It’s not particularly interesting writing. So instead focus on writing short, crisp dialogue that cuts to the chase and delivers the right amount of information.

However, writing good dialogue is not just about keeping it short. It’s also about communicating the ordinary in a unique way. You do this through subtext. It’s the meaning hidden behind the words. It’s like when a friend rolls her eyes and says, “Yeah. Great.” You know she’s really thinking that you just suggested something really stupid.

One of the best examples of subtext comes from a great book by David Trottier called “The Screenwriter’s Bible.” In it he refers to a scene from the classic movie, “Double Indemnity.” In the movie Fred McMurray is an insurance salesman who uses an automobile metaphor to express his interest in Barbara Stanwick. She says, “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff. Fifty-five miles per hour.” He asks how fast he was going. She replies, “About ninety.” To which he says, “Suppose you get down off your motorcycle and give me a ticket.” She responds, “Suppose I let you off with a warning.” Now that’s some hot and steamy subtext.

Two Ways to Improve Screenplay Dialogue

Writing interesting, meaningful dialogue is not an easy task. However, you can help yourself out with these two methods.

First, after you have written your dialogue, rewrite it. Look at the words and see if you can alter them to make them more interesting or eliminate any words to make the language more concise. Instead of stating the obvious, “Shoot her so I can shoot you,” try something clever, “Go ahead. Make my day.”

The second tip is to read your dialogue out loud. Listen for how it sounds. Does it flow off your tongue naturally or does it sound awkward? Does it move the scene along and reveal something about one of the characters or could it be eliminated and not affect the story at all?

The whole idea is that screenplay dialogue should be as creative as the story idea and should enhance not detract from the action. Master concise, interesting dialogue filled with subtext and you’ll be writing great dialogue for your screenplay in no time.

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