Dialogue: The Do, the Don’t and the Out Loud


There are lots of ways for dialogue to be less effective than it should be.  Let’s examine a few:

Show, Don’t Tell

Characters in a scene are trying to resolve a problem.  If you’ve done your job well, the audience is right there trying to solve the problem with the characters.  Rather than spoon-feed your audience the answers, make them work for it.  If you want the audience to think you’re character is smart, funny or sympathetic, don’t have someone tell him or her that she is those things.  Show us!  Have them say smart, funny or sympathetic things.  And do the same with the results.  Rather than have a character tell another how helpful they’ve been, show it in their response, a smile, a caress, something other than the obvious words.

Let Your Characters Talk

Over the course of your movie, the characters will take on voices of their own, and your audience will form their own opinions and relationships to your character.  It is essential that your characters speak and sound like themselves.  That means, they need to say things that are true to who they are – even if you the writer don’t like what they have to say.  If you’ve written a bigot or racist, they had better have some pretty harsh things to say or no one will believe your characters.  If you’re writing about a sexist pig, they’d going to have some serious opinions about women.  Whatever kinds of characters you’ve put into your story, if they’re going to speak they need to sound authentic.

A common fear as a writer is to worry that you will be judged by your reader for what you have your characters say.  This is never the case.  An audience never assigns the intentions and ideologies of a character to the writer – unless those reprehensible ideas are the ones that triumph in the end.  As long as the theme of your movie doesn’t support the unpleasant ideas expressed in your film, you won’t be held accountable.  On the other hand, if you soften the impolitic speech of a character because of your own squeamishness, the audience will recognize your voice – the writer – behind the character, find the character inauthentic and no longer be engaged in your story.

Listen Up!

Like real people, characters usually don’t listen to what’s been said.  They are listening to what they think they’ve heard, which is a combination of what’s been said by someone and what is going on in the listener’s brain.  Characters ignore, misinterpret, project and hear what they want.  It’s important to think about what’s being said as much as how it is being heard.

At the same time, your characters can’t jump ahead of the other characters to formulate a conclusion – especially when it is one that you, the writer, want to be uttered.  You see this all the time in cop shows on TV.  Characters will make suppositions and statement as facts which drive the plot in a specific direction.  In TV, where plot is pressed for time, this has to be done on occasion.  In films, when your characters get ahead of your audience, the audience loses interest in the story.  The only time this works is when the conclusions are based on empirical data that has been presented to the audience but because it wasn’t the focal point of a scene so they might have missed it.

Don’t Pad the Work

Dialogue must be efficient.  Every word matters.  Filler lines, unnecessary speeches and even naked exposition serve no purpose and will only serve to throw your audience out of your script.

Meaningless words like: “Well…” “Um,” “Er;” questions like “What?” “Why?” “What did you say?” or “What do you mean?” should be avoided.  So should any line where the character outright states the subtext of the line.”

Another mistake is long speeches.  When needed speeches are important, but film is a visual medium that moves at a fast pace.  Speeches take a long time to read.  Even worse, they are often about ideas not emotions.  And dialogue is about expressing the emotional truth of a moment.  Sure, intellectual ideas can be intertwined but never at the price of emotional honesty.

Be Specific

If someone tells you that your characters are not clearly defined, their points of views are not understood or their wants are not clear, you have not done your homework.  It will show in your dialogue.  If you know who your characters are and what they want, so will your audience.

Read It Out Loud

Dialogue is meant to be spoken aloud.  After you’ve written it, read it.  Out loud.  Even better, have someone else read it so that you can hear it.  They don’t have to be actors.  Get a handful of people together, promise them snacks and drinks, and ask them to read your dialogue aloud for you.  While they read it, listen to what you’re hearing.  If you’re on your own, record yourself reading it so that you can analyze it after.

Are parts more interesting than others?  Does some of it fall flat?  Does the exposition feel like exposition and not people talking?  What else feels unnatural or stilted?   You want to be as harsh as you can with your work here.  The goal is not to celebrate what you’ve accomplished but to make it better.  Like all writing, to do that you must be brutally honest with yourself about what works, what doesn’t and what can be improved.

How About You…?

What are some of your techniques for checking your dialogue?  What are you rules for creating meaningful and memorable dialogue that can translate into repeatable moments?


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