Dialogue: Tips and Techniques


We’ve spent a lot of time this month talking about narrative.  Let’s take a moment to review the other half of the writing in your script: Dialogue.

Here are some simple tips on how to create good dialogue and some common pitfalls to avoid  while trying to give a believable and distinct voice to your characters.

In their book The Tools of Screenwriting, David Howard and Edward Mabley highlight ten things that dialogue must accomplish:

  1. It must characterize the speaker and perhaps the person addressed.
  2. It must be idiomatic, maintaining the individuality of the speaker, yet still blend into the style of the screenplay as a whole.
  3. It must reflect the speaker’s mood, convey his or her emotion, or provide some window into his or her inner life.
  4. It must often reveal the speaker’s motivation or an attempt to hide his or her motivation.
  5. It must reflect the relationships of the speaker to the other characters.
  6. It must be connective, that is grow out of a preceding speech or action and lead into another.
  7. It must advance action.
  8. It must sometimes carry information or exposition.
  9. Often it must foreshadow what is to come.
  10. It must be clear and comprehensible to the audience.


So, how do we create great dialogue…?

The beginning screenwriter often uses dialogue as a crutch.  Yes, your main characters will almost always have dialogue, but remember that action reveals character. As the writer, you want to SHOW the audience the emotions, tension and needs of a your character.  Having your character TELL the audience what they feel only serves to diminish the impact of those elements.

Five tips to improve your dialogue:

Avoid static dialogue.

Static dialogue is when a scene begins to stall out and go nowhere because the writer doesn’t know what the characters are trying to accomplish.  In a good scene, each character has an objective that s/he is trying to achieve.  Each line the character says is an attempt to realize that objective.  In some subtle way, each line (and objective) needs to be slightly different than the one that came before.  Usually these lines will build off each other into some kind of conscious or unconscious ploy by the character.  When the wants of the character are not clear, the dialogue can lose momentum going over the same objectives and emotional ideas more than once without building in conflict or tension.  When this happens, the scene ceases to move toward its conclusion because the dialogue has become static.

Talk about one thing, mean something else.

Ego-projection and metaphor are great tools for creating interesting dialogue.  When a character can transfer his or her feelings onto something else, when a character can describe something in terms that makes it clear that s/he is talking about something else, dialogue instantly becomes more interesting and compelling for an audience that wants to understand what’s really being said.

Argue about one thing, transfer it to something else.

Misdirection is another great tool.  If a character is mad about something, having that character get upset at another character for anything other than the what was done wrong is a great way to make dialogue interesting.  Just make sure that at the end of the argument, the truth comes out and the character who has been wronged owns the truth about why s/he was angry and what they actually want from the other person.

Characters shouldn’t repeat themselves.

Sure, characters can say the same thing over and over again.  But if a scene is going to move dramatically toward its conclusion, the characters cannot repeat the same emotional subtext.  The emotional states of the characters in a scene should advance and increase as the conflict rises and the scene comes to a head.  Otherwise, the dialogue has become static and the scene dramatically inert.

Dialogue doesn’t have to be funny, action is funny.

We think of jokes being funny in movies, but actually it’s not the line that’s funny – it’s the reaction to the line.  Every joke as a butt.  How the butt of that joke reacts is where the humor truly lies.  A line of dialogue can surprise us and make us laugh.  In order for us to find it funny, we have to know who that line is intended for and how that person is going to feel about it.

What are your techniques for writing good dialogue?  What do you look from the words spoken from a scene?  What are some of your favorite dialogue lines and why?

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