How To Write Great Dialogue

Written by Ali Laventhol

Dialogue is such an important part of the script writing process. You may have the coolest premise with a rock-solid structure that lays out the story of a fascinating character in a compelling world, BUT… if your scene work isn’t up to scratch, your script will not succeed.

And one of the keys to great scene work is, of course, dialogue.

So what actually makes dialogue great?

keep it natural

It needs to sound like it’s coming out of a person’s mouth and not a writer’s keyboard. That means less formal language, maybe drop the first word and use sentence fragments and interruptions—there are scores of useful techniques.

But perhaps the most important technique is to read your scenes out loud. Let your brain hear it spoken rather than reading it silently off the page. It really helps in terms of writing natural speech patterns and authentic rhythms.

unique voices

People don’t all speak the same way. And that goes for your characters too. They might use different slang or colloquialisms. They may sound different depending on their ages or where they’re from. One character might be long winded while another might stick to one-word answers. Do you have a sarcastic character? Who is more straightforward? Whose default setting is to deflect or ask a million questions or sugar coat things?

Remember, your dialogue is a critical piece of your character development, so take advantage of this very effective tool.

Succession: Tom and Shiv

subtext

Now ask yourself whether there’s a layer to your scene work that is unspoken.

Wait a minute—unspoken? I thought we were talking about dialogue? Well, we are. Subtext refers to the unspoken or underlying meaning of a line of dialogue, whole scene or story.

If your characters are saying exactly what they mean, that’s a red flag. It’s referred to as “on the nose” dialogue. Because in real life people hardly ever do this. If a character is angry, it’s much more realistic to see them take an angry action, while swearing that they’re fine.

So, when you sit down to write a scene, ask yourself what’s really going on for each character under the surface? What are they really thinking or feeling that they can’t or won’t say? Does their body language convey the truth while their words say what they think someone else wants to hear? Is there a secret they wish they could reveal, but can’t? Are they embarrassed or afraid to say what they think? Are they trying to communicate something indirectly?

Subtext can help create more realistic and professional dialogue while preventing your characters from sounding generic, predictable and boring.

cut cut cut

Make sure you cut all extraneous dialogue. Trim exposition, cut cute lines that don’t move the story forward and see if there are places where you can show instead of tell.

Remember your script is the blueprint for a living, breathing set of scenes that will come to life in a visual medium. If your script is full of talking heads, try to add action and subtract dialogue to get your story across. Readers and audiences will thank you for it!

If you want to know more about writing great dialogue, then check out Script Anatomy’s classes and workshops. We go deep on this stuff, it’s so important!


Ali Laventhol

Ali Laventhol has been Tawnya‘s writing partner for over a decade, most recently as the Co-Executive Producer for My Life With The Walter Boys (Netflix), and Bel-Air (Peacock), as well as several Lifetime movies. She is a long time Script Anatomy instructor.

 

 

 

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