4 Tips to Improve Dialogue in a Screenplay

One of the most important aspects of filmmaking, dialogue serves many functions in a screenplay. Dialogue gives each character a unique voice and personality.

It helps with character development.

It’s often said a picture is worth a thousand words. 

However, silent movies aren’t so popular these days, are they? 

If visuals are so important, then people wouldn’t be talking in films anymore. Dialogue remains a critical part of filmmaking. 

It can make or break a good storyline and serves to more than just advance the plot. Dialogue can set the mood, explain key plot points, aid character development, serve up some drama and entertain the audience through comedic relief.

Bad dialogue makes your characters appear dull and bland. The movie feels cheesy, sometimes even immature, and shows a lack of effort from the writer. 

Dialogue is the meat in the sandwich. It connects scenes, smoothens transitions, and intelligently entertains when well created. How do you write effective and good dialogue? 

Strap in for some amazing tips sure to improve your dialogue in no time!  

4 quick dialogue tips for your next script

Say it out loud

While hurrying through your script, certain conversations may seem okay at first. A second glance however may reveal something is not quite right. That hilarious back and forth may not be as funny as it was when it played out in your head.

Here’s a collection of bad movie dialogues:

A dialogue you thought would paint a character as a tough guy simply makes him look like the biggest jerk. That exchange you thought would be powerful and emotional is simply as flat as can be and doesn’t make any sense. Certain lines are even flat out weird and unnatural. Your mind can be deceiving so bring your ears into the mix too.

If it sounds weird it probably won’t work

Always go over your dialogues, reading out loud each character’s part in the speech, putting yourself in either shoe. Bad dialogue hits you like a bad smell when read out loud. If you can get someone else to help you enact the scene, even better. 

A second pair of ears offers a new perspective that you may be blind to given the understandable bias to your work. It’ll quickly become clear whether the dialogue is good or bad. You’ll know what to add, remove or improve upon. Reading your script out loud also helps you gauge the flow of writing during conversations.

Say what you don’t mean, use subtext

The essence of good dialogue is that it makes the viewer work for it. Don’t lay out everything on the table. Hide a couple of things in the kitchen so the audience can go searching themselves. No one likes to be spoon-fed. It’s insulting. 

Good dialogue shouldn’t outright reveal a massage. It should pass subtext while avoiding on-the-nose exchanges. The latter is boring and cheesy and says a lot about the writer’s efforts in the screenplays. The subtext in dialogue may be in the form of foreshadowing. A conversation that hints at what is to come but without outright spoiling the plot.

Subtextual dialogue doesn’t have to be complicated or reveal some information that could be relevant down the line. It could be as simple as verbal irony

Using verbal irony

Say, for instance, it’s a warm and sunny day outside. 

One character asks another about the weather yet it’s clear for all to see that it is indeed sunny. Instead of the conversation playing out in a yes or no format, the response may be something like, “No, it’s actually raining cats and dogs. Here’s my invisible umbrella!” 

Beyond avoiding straightforward exchanges, subtext also adds humor to dialogue that would have otherwise not been too exciting. 

Spice up dialogue through conflict

If the dialogue in your screenplay isn’t as interesting as you’d hoped, you can liven things up with some conflict. Conversations pitting characters against each other are the most captivating. That’s why crowds stop to watch a couple arguing on the street. People love drama. You should work it naturally into conversations whenever you can. 

You don’t even need to tailor your plot in a new direction. It could be simple scenes with no overall consequence on the story, but serve to show us character personality. For example, a mother arguing to get one of her sons to do the dishes, a character having a heated exchange with a stranger who bumped into him, etc.

A masterclass in dialogue

One successful movie where the plot’s mostly about characters talking to each other and very little else happening is the 1957 classic 12 Angry Men. 

The movie plays out almost exclusively in a courtroom, but the constant lure of conflict in dialogue keeps the audience glued. It goes to show that conflict may also be as simple as characters presenting opposing views in circumstances that favor that narrative.

That said, however, like a newborn kitten, let conflict come out to play sparingly. If people are constantly antagonizing each other, it grows old very quickly.

Dialogue should be in character

When you create certain personalities in a script, you need to stay true to them. A character’s part in any dialogue should be in line with who you’ve painted them to be up to that point in the plot. Their responses should be something that audiences can easily point out who said what even without identification. 

You should also stay true to the distinct sounds you fashioned for them. That may be speaking in question-like sentences and other speech-related quirks like lisping, stuttering, etc. Always keep in mind a character’s confidence, energy levels, and other elements that set him apart. 

Strive to maintain those aspects of their uniqueness every time they talk. That underlying current of personality that defines each speaker should always be felt.

How Friends used dialogue to show character

The popular sitcom Friends is a great example of dialogue consistency to characters. The six costars each have varying traits, and the dialogue is mostly in line with their personalities.

Here’s a collection of best Friends moments:

Chandler Bing is the joker of the group and most of the sarcasm is channeled through him. 

Rachel is emotional and dramatic and a heavy chunk of conflict stems from her. Joey is painted as the not-so-wise friend of the group. When something unintelligent needs to be said, it often comes from him.

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