Writing Dialogue — Screenwriting

Screenwriters and fiction ghostwriters understand that exceptional dialogue will make or break their screenplay, and is often the indicator that separates an experienced writer from an amateur. Effect dialogue is probably the most difficult aspect of writing or ghostwriting a screenplay. In fiction, dialogue is a key component because it is what keeps the story moving along. Ineffective dialogue will distract from your plot and cause your entire screenplay to fail.

What is the essence of dialogue?

The main essence of dialogue is to advance the plot of your screenplay. Any sections of dialogue that have nothing to do with the story as a whole are needless. In order to write effective dialogue, you must include:

• A distinctive tone and mood

• An explanation of the characters’ history/past

• The inner motivation of each main character

• A deliberate and intimate connection

• A purposeful pace in order to advance the plot

• A realistic and believable conflict of some kind

• Key factors and points that remind the reader of what is going on within the story

• Foreshadowing of some kind

If the dialogue in your screenplay does not include two or more of these key factors, then delete the text. Needless conversation is as annoying in a fictitious screenplay as it is in real life.

How do some writers misuse dialogue?

Quite easily, actually. Some aspiring screenwriters and ghostwriters misuse dialogue by creating conversations that would never take place in real life. And if any aspect of your screenplay is unrealistic, the reader won’t be invested in the story and will most likely stop reading. Always, always, always ask yourself — “Is this something I would say?” If not, then get rid of the conversation. Your screenplay may be fiction, but it must realistic. In fact, it must be far more logical and organized than reality.

Dialogue should be realistic

Even though this point has already been emphasized, it is important enough to be mentioned again. The dialogue in a screenplay resembles conversations that take place in everyday life, yet it is steadfast and heavy with meaning. The skill of writing good dialogue in screenplays can be mastered over time. Those who can write it well know how to condense a “real” conversation into an impromptu colloquy that is filled with many distinctive undertones. Some things to remember:

• Real conversations are colloquial. Most people don’t talk with perfect grammar. Interruptions, slang and awkward pauses in conversation are commonplace. Therefore, you should include them in your dialogue as such.

• When screenwriting, take some time to observe conversations in everyday life. Listen and then write down exactly what you hear. This will give you a good indication of what “realistic” dialogue should look and sound like.

• When writing fiction, make sure you are writing dialogue in a quick and spontaneous matter. When you are editing your manuscript, you can go back and determine if each section of dialogue advances the story or holds it up. When reading screenplays or watching movies, forced dialogue is easy to spot; delete it and start fresh.

Dialogue should be full of emotion

The dialogue of any good screenplay or movie is brought to life though the subtle emotion and overall conflict displayed by the characters who are speaking the words. If at any time, the words in your dialogue sound forced — you must reassess the aspects of the conversation. Reread the setting, scene and determine where you are in the plot. Use the characters to bring the setting, scene and plot to life through their words. Expound on the masked emotion of each character and build from it. When you do this, your characters will have more substance and the screenplay itself will have more validity.

Characters should sound like real people

Just as you encounter different people with varied voices and tones throughout your day, the characters in your screenplay should each have a distinctive voice and tone whenever they carry on a conversation. You can use language as a tool to reveal a character’s personality and personal history. Most people also tend to use the same words and phrases repeatedly. They talk with a certain accent and have different vocabularies. Read any screenplay of a successful movie or show and take a look at each main character talks. You will see distinctive differences without having to have it spelled out for you. This is yet another way to make your dialogue realistic.

Use dialogue sparingly

Unless you are writing a screenplay that is completely driven by conversation, use section of dialogue sparingly. Break them up so that the conversation never stalls. Interject actions and aspects of the setting, like “Jim reached for a packet of sugar for his coffee.” Then have Jim speak after the action. This boosts the level of conversation and advances the story in a subtle way. By breaking up the conversation, you are also making it easy for the reader to follow along. Pages and pages of needless dialogue can cause the reader to become confused and disoriented within the book.

Who is speaking?

Tagging your character with “he said/she said” can often be a puzzling task. Too many tags can clutter a conversation, yet how do you indicate to the reader who is speaking? When you are writing dialogue, you will be able to discern when and where to include tags. At some points, you can let the conversation flow without them. When there are more than two people speaking at a time, however, tags are a must. Always use the correct tag with the emotion of the sentence. For example, you would not tag a sentence like “I don’t feel so good” with “Jane said happily.” When writing a screenplay, it’s extremely important to connect the emotion with the spoken words in all situations.

How do I know if the dialogue is good?

Simple — read it aloud. You can easily tell whether or not your dialogue is good by reading it out loud to yourself. Does it sound realistic? Does it flow? Does it suit the personality of the character who is speaking? Does it help to advance the screenplay’s plot? If you have answered “no” to any of these questions, then go back and reexamine what you wrote. You can also purchase books on how to write successful dialogue to help you as you go along.