You’ve written a pretty good script, but you know it could be GREAT. Could better dialogue be that missing piece?
Want screenwriting tips that will help you write better dialogue?
How about examples from movies and television to go with each category?
We’ve got you covered.
HOW TO WRITE MOVIE DIALOGUE
Movie dialogue preface
Movie and television dialogue often suffers from diminishing returns.
That's because people listen to podcasts and news...
But they watch TV and movies.
Understanding how to write a good screenplay depends on your ability to write action lines, transitions, and compelling dialogue.
When I wrote this guide — I kept the screenwriter in mind.
When analyzing how to write a screenplay, it doesn't begin with your dialogue...
More often than not it should end with writing dialogue.
If you follow these steps in order, your scripts will have much stronger dialogue, and you will become a better screenwriter.
So let's begin with our screenwriting tips for writing better dialogue.
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE
1. Gather useful research
Ever hear someone say, “Write what you know.”?
Me too — it’s safe advice, but they always leave the second part out...
“Write what you know… because you’re probably too lazy to do any research which means your story will be inauthentic.”
Funny… you’re doing your research right now.
If you want to write a detective thriller:
- Reach out to retired detectives.
- Watch great detective films and documentaries.
- Read biographies on detectives and FBI agents.
People love to learn from films, so teach yourself something that you didn’t know before, and then use it to entertain others.
You know who else will love it?
The people who work in those professions.
A lack of research will sap the willing suspension of disbelief…
Especially for the type of person you hope to portray… often in a good light.
Want to write about Lawyers?
Want to write about Astronauts?
Want to write about Tech Companies?
Figure out as much as you can about them before you write your script.
WRITING DIALOGUE FOR FILM
2. Show... don’t tell
As far as cinema and television goes — action lines reign supreme.
Writing dialogue feels nice...
It flows pretty naturally and takes up a lot of real estate on the page.
Fifteen pages of good dialogue isn’t worth one page of decent action.
The best modern example I can think of is Mad Max: Fury Road.
I’m a big Tom Hardy fan, and while I was surprised to see him basically grunt his way through the entire film, I thought it was perfect.
We saw everything we needed to see, and the vast majority of dialogue in the film was there to enhance the actions taking place on screen.
This is also one of the reasons why dialogue during stunt sequences very rarely seems extraneous — especially as a form of punctuation.
Ever heard of a one liner?
Watch the video below on car chase sequences:
Mad Max: Fury Road happened to be centered around spectacle…
But even if your film is an edgy character piece or a zany romantic comedy, you’ll always capture an audience with more action and less talk.
Our next screenwriting tip for better dialogue...
GREAT DIALOGUE FOR YOUR SCREENPLAY
3. Use an outsider for explanation
I don't love when people reference expository dialogue.
In my humble opinion...
There is no such thing as “expository dialogue”.
However, there is “explanatory dialogue”.
Exposition is good — because it’s the act of exposing something.
You reveal or show information...
If a character says, “I avoid conflict.” they haven’t so much exposed this character trait, but rather explained it.
If we see that same character run away from a fight, we have now been exposed to this character trait through their actions — show don’t tell.
Now, if you need to explain something about a character (which is perfectly acceptable in small doses) the best way is to use an outsider.
“I know you like Joe... but he really isn’t the conflict resolution type.”
Below is an example of outsider dialogue from The Big Lebowski.
In the film, we can't really see the photo of Lebowski very well, so the dialogue really sells both the joke, but also the information.
You're not sure how to feel, sort of like The Dude.
Check the script for this scene below:
This is just one of writing devices the Coen Brother's use.
To see more, check out the video below:
By using an outsider, you create the feeling that this information is common knowledge, and thus gives the line more legitimacy.
The Coens not only know how to write a screenplay, but they also know how to write really great dialogue that enhances their screenplays.
Feel the power of better dialogue surging through your veins?
You're one step close to learning how to write a great screenplay.
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE
4. Write between the lines
The best subtext is visual, but often the best dialogue occurs when a character says everything other than the direct truth.
This is especially true when your character is in a compromising situation, which should be quite often since that often makes for a great scene.
Think about Breaking Bad.
How many times did Walter White say the opposite of what he was actually thinking or feeling? How about the passive aggressive sister-in-law Marie?
When the viewer has prior knowledge, it can be especially interesting or even funny to see someone lie or misrepresent their true feelings…
We get to be in on the joke.
The focus scene in the video below is a great example of "writing between the lines" because Ford wishes he could just say "don't get in my way" but he can't just come out and say it - at least not until the end of the scene.
A lot of television benefits from subtextual dialogue because the shows have to write dozens of episodes rather than a single 100 page script.
Let's look at some more screenwriting tips for better dialogue.
WRITING DIALOGUE FOR MOVIES AND TELEVISION
5. Build a complete character
I doubt you are a one dimensional human being.
You’ve been kind, and you’ve been a jerk — maybe even on the same day.
Your characters should be just as complex, but it’s important not to have huge shifts in their attitude in a short amount of time.
Your hero can be a grouch like John Creasy in Man On Fire.Your villain can be polite like Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds.
Actions speak louder than words, and your characters should show us their true nature, while they use dialogue to distract the viewer.
There is more to this than simply writing dialogue that is diametrically opposed to the nature of your character, because there is nuance to everything.
Building a complete character is one of the most important screenwriting tips for writing better dialogue.
Check out the script for this scene below:
Your character may reveal portions of the truth, or have a moment of stress overcome them - all of that works.
Ever heard of the term "one note"?
Now imagine a song that is literally one note.
Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?
DIALOGUE WRITING TIPS
6. Give characters a unique voice
We all have different speech patterns, catch phrases, and tempo when we speak, and you should build this in your dialogue as well.
A common tip is to cover up the character name and see if you can identify each character purely based on the dialogue.
This is one of the reasons character archetypes are useful, because they force you to think in terms of personality and motivation with each moment.
What would a leader say versus a caregiver?
Think about combining a unique voice with a complex character.
If we see the caregiver act one way for most of the film, and then see a moment where they change — you can cement it with some dialogue that shows a willingness to change their speech patterns.
This was basically the entire plot of King’s Speech.
I jest (of course), but the point still stands, and it’s especially true in ensemble pieces or films with teams and squads.Think about Saving Private Ryan.
Does Upham speak like Jackson?
What about Wade and Reiben?
They are all connected by the war, their squad, their humanity…
But each of them stand out because they have their own unique voice.
Maybe the path to better dialogue is simply different voices.
HOW TO WRITE GOOD DIALOGUE
7. Avoid redundancy, and definitely don’t say the same thing twice...
There is a great scene in Birdman where Riggan and Mike rehearse, and Mike rips apart a scene and begins to take over as the director.
Mike: “Hey, can I make a suggestion, do you mind?”
Riggan: “Yeah, yeah sure, no not at all.”
Mike: “Okay, just stay with me.... you've got four lines after that, that all say the same thing. "I didn't even know the man, I only heard his name mentioned in passing, I wouldn't know, you'd have to know the particulars..." The point is, you don't know the guy, we f - king get it. Make it work with one line:
"I didn't even know the man."
This was one of my favorite moments in the film.
Mike explains this screenwriting tip perfectly.
We get it…. make it work with one line.
Whoever made Birdman movie should win an Oscar or something.
This is also true for action, so if we see a character pass away in a hospital we don’t need the next scene to be someone coming out into the lobby and telling the rest of the family… especially not when a sad look will work.
A film or show is a train on the tracks.
We don’t reverse unless there is new information to be had, so once you’ve said or shown something… move on.
We get it… make it work with one line.
SCREENWRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
8. Stretch important information
Just because you have important information that you want your viewer to know, it doesn't mean you have to show your cards right away.
Make them work for it.
Lead the viewer with little breadcrumbs.
Like this scene from Fight Club:
This scene give you little hints about the relationship between these two characters, while also giving you some back story.
When you go back and watch Fight Club, you will see these moments laced all throughout the script - and they work really well on their own.
Check out the script for this scene below:
If you go back and piece all of those lines together, you can see someone dipping into anarchy and madness… but when you give information to the viewer in single servings you can stretch the effectiveness of your ultimate point.
Fight Club might have some of the best single serving dialogue in a film…
How’s that working out for you?
WRITING BETTER DIALOGUE
9. Show us the interesting stuff
There is an old screenwriting tip of “arrive late, leave early.”
What this basically means is skip the pleasantries.
If you have a scene with two divorcees in the middle of arbitration, like Wedding Crashers, we don’t need to start the scene with the clerk unlocking the meeting room door. Setting up the chairs.
We don’t need to see people enter the room.
We don’t need to see them leave at the end.
What we do need to see is the middle portion… the fight.
But how does this relate to dialogue?
On the path to leaning how to write a screenplay you will quickly learn this:
Your dialogue is an extension of your scenes.
If your scene is trudging through a boring situation there is a pretty good chance the accompanying dialogue won’t be much better.
The reason I named this section “show the interesting stuff” is because I’ve also often seen films that will have a big moment happen…
And then cut away to later that night!
I was caught up in this well crafted stressful moment.
Stay on the moments right after a murder happens.
Stay right after the guy misses the game winning field goal.
You will automatically write better dialogue when it accompanies a truly interesting moment in your script.
SCREENWRITING RULES FOR DIALOGUE
10. Logical conflict is good
People will say “conflict is good in scripts” but I respectfully disagree.
Logical conflict is good in scripts, in fact it is baked into the cake.
Conflict is also different than arguing.
Take the film Adaptation.
Charlie and Donald are very rarely arguing, but there is a sense of conflict between them — one is a struggling professional screenwriter, and the other is a fresh screenwriter who seems to be inspired at every turn.
It doesn’t matter what they say to one another, we know Charlie doesn’t want to hear his brother’s excitement, but he also loves his brother and doesn’t want to take the wind out of his sails…
He wouldn’t want someone to do that to him.
That is true conflict… inner conflict and external at the same time, and it all makes perfect sense to anyone with a life.
And every moment in your script doesn’t need conflict.
Writers will hear that conflict is good and then inject every scene in their script with some form of conflict, but this more often than not translates to a bunch of people screaming at one another.
This is manufactured conflict instead of natural conflict.
Viewers are far too sophisticated for that.
The word that comes to mind is “contrived”.
You want to write a good script, which really means setting up strong cinematic devices that never let the viewer down, enhancing those devices with your dialogue, and setting up meaningful transitions.
If you’re soaring over your script like a hawk, looking for scenes that you can scoop up and inject with some conflict… you may be in trouble.
Conflict in your script should be natural, apparent, baked into the cake of your character traits, plot, and logical competition.
HOW TO WRITE GREAT FILM DIALOGUE
11. Interrupt other conversations
Have you ever had a moment where you were telling a secret, and then someone walks up and interrupts your conversation?
It’s a compromising situation, and this works as a really great way to stretch important information, write between the lines, and add logical conflict…
But it also just makes for an entertaining scene.
Even if “the interruptor” immediately asks for a private conversation, you’ve now set up a perfect moment of conflict for your characters.
Because now we get to physically see our character make decisions.
How will they handle this delicate political situation?
Whatever the answer — it will say oodles about your characters.
HOW TO WRITE MOVIE DIALOGUE
12. Take advantage of every role
You should never have a throw away character with throw away lines.
If you do, it is pretty self explanatory what to do with them…
Throw them away.
One of the great first lines in a film is in Die Hard:
Businessman: “You wanna know the secret to surviving air travel? After you get where you're going, take off your shoes and your socks then walk around on the rug barefoot and make fists with your toes.”
John McClane: “Fists with your toes?”
Businessman: “I know, I know, it sounds crazy. Trust me, I've been doing it for nine years. Yes sir, better than a shower and a hot cup of coffee.”
Now… why is this so GREAT?
There are two reasons:
- This character never comes back, yet he has a distinct point of view and even a piece of helpful advice that most people would be interested to try the next time they got on an airplane.
- This interaction leads to a great piece of conflict in the film, because it is the impetus for John McClane to take off his shoes. When the terrorists burst into the party, he is forced to run away... shoeless.
The businessman also sees John’s pistol, which gives John the go ahead to tell us he is a cop… the filmmakers show first, we see the outsider’s reaction, and now John has a logical reason to fill us in on his profession.
We'll come back to this example later... I promise.
SCREENWRITING TIPS AND TECHNIQUES
13. Don’t be a basic bard
People enjoy movies because they take us out of our comfort zone, because they show us a world we wish to visit, but not live inside for too long.
You don’t show a character peeling potatoes for two hours, so why would you write the dialogue equivalent of that in your scripts?
You don’t have to be controversial, or crude, just don’t be dull.
Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Alexander Payne, Guy Ritchie...
These are writers well known for their style of dialogue, and while one could argue that the overall style often cuts against the rule of “unique voices for each character” they are definitely not boring screenwriters.
If you’re stuck on a line of dialogue, think outside of the box.
Don't be basic.
What's our next screenwriting tip for better dialogue?
SCREENPLAY WRITING TIPS
14. Tell us more through narration
Narration and internal VO is actually something I rather enjoy...
But often the narration is a weak play-by-play of the events taking place.
Narration isn’t the crutch you lean on for support…
It’s the running shoes that give you that extra traction.
Take Henry Hill in Goodfellas...
You might get a quick description of the events with a bunch of extra points that give the viewer a richer understanding of the scenes.
Henry Hill: “If you're part of a crew, nobody ever tells you that they're going to kill you, doesn't happen that way. There weren't any arguments or curses like in the movies. See, your murderers come with smiles, they come as your friends, the people who've cared for you all of your life. And they always seem to come at a time that you're at your weakest and most in need of their help.”
Arrested Development is a show that I rather enjoy, but I think a lot of people would agree that the narration is overdone.
Unless you make the scene significantly better with your narration, you probably don’t need it there in the first place.
HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY
15. Make your actors happy
Actors love good dialogue for a number of reasons, but the main one is that auditions very rarely have actors carrying out actions...
Instead, they are in a small room reading dialogue.
This is also how actors rehearse with one another. They take scenes with dialogue and run lines until they feel good about their performances.
When you give your actors fun lines, they will be happy.
You will be able to tell by their face when they look at the script.
They picture themselves on screen delivering that great line…
And good actors will know that not every good line is there to make them personally look cool… sometimes it is them portraying a total coward.
This is also a great way to sell your script, because often times exciting the right actor with a good role is the quickest way to have it made.
HOW TO WRITE A SCRIPT
16. Make your speeches count
This goes hand in hand with the last tip, but it still needs to be said.
There will be moments where you want a character to give a big speech, and they should totally do them… but they have to work really well.
You can often reserve them for the beginning of your scene or the end of your scene, as well as the beginning and end of your entire movie.
Speeches should also often be reserved for the most important characters in your story — I’d say at least the top three.
BEST SCREENWRITING TIPS
17. Stay consistent until you shouldn’t
Consistency with your dialogue basically means you shouldn’t have a character that is tonally bi-polar… unless that is the point of the character.
But if you have a good natured character who suddenly begins to tease people left and right… you may be confusing the viewer.
Now… what about this “until you shouldn’t”?
Well, you know that good characters go through change.
Coordinate your tonal shifts, change in speaking patterns, and general adjustments to demeanor for big moments in your script.
Think of act breaks and beat points.
All is lost?
Maybe have your polite housewife tell her loving husband, “I hate who I see in the mirror and it is because of this marriage!”.
Woah… that is quite a shift…
So big in fact that it might change the entire story.
WRITING A GREAT MOVIE
18. Foreshadowing & Call Backs
Earlier I said I’d bring back the Die Hard example, and I wasn’t joking.
That’s because it’s a great example of a call back… just like this example.
Sink me…If I am not mistaken… I’d say ‘twas by design.
Call backs and foreshadowing go hand in hand, and this is because the best call backs are actually just a version of foreshadowing.
Recently I saw the Jordan Peele film Us.
Not a perfect film to be sure, but there were some really great call backs that had been set up by the dialogue.
The flare gun…
The boat engine…
Hands across America.
These were all call backs set up by dialogue (and some action) that seemed innocuous at the time, but came back at significant moments.
My personal favorite is Rolo Tomasi in L.A. Confidential…
Go watch the film — I won’t spoil it.
Back to the Future did this a lot as well.
They are like little easter eggs you can hide around your script.
Call backs are also really great for comedy.
Just ask Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David.
HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE SCRIPT
19. Relationships alter speech
When I speak to my mother on the phone, I speak one way.
When I speak with my friends on the phone, I speak a different way.
I would assume this is the case for most everyone, but it should definitely be the case for your characters when writing your dialogue.
Authority, compassion, respect, disgust — all of this comes from the relationship dynamic we have with one another.
You can break this rule to great effect as well.
When everyone speaks to the king one way, but our hero speaks to him differently… it says something very profound about the character.
HOW TO WRITE BETTER
20. Sydney Lumet’s “Rubber duckies”
Rubber ducky dialogue comes from a section in Sidney Lumet’s filmmaking book, Making Movies where he explains how he and Paddy Chayefsky called it the Rubber Ducky school of drama.
Lumet — “Someone once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer.”
This was their term for when a character explains their personality traits based completely around a traumatic situation in their past.
Lumet believes that the character’s behavior should reveal their psychology.
Even a flash back would work better.
DIALOGUE RULES FOR WRITING
21. Does it bring you joy?
If you’ve watched Tidying Up with Marie Kondo you probably know two things:
- How to fold.
- Does it bring me joy?
This idea did not begin with Marie Kondo, but is rather a classic method for eliminating worldly possessions that you really don’t need.
Go through your script and find anything that doesn’t make you smile.
It doesn't matter if you've written a gore filled horror film or a prestige movie about starving puppies who decide to take on the system...
Writing a good script will make you happy.
If a line of dialogue doesn’t bring you joy…
Let it go.
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE IN A STORY
22. Read your script out loud
This is the last step in your screenwriting audit.
You want to actually read your script aloud so that you can hear the lines of dialogue, the rhythm, the intentions, and the length of each line.
I’ve written countless lines of dialogue that I thought were really great…
Until I read them aloud.
Often, the answer presents itself.
Sometimes it's a simple contraction...
Other times it’s as complicated as a complete rewrite.
Write your script with our FREE Screenwriting Software
StudioBinder's screenwriting feature is the total package:
First off... it’s completely FREE.
Create as many scripts as you like.
Write an unlimited amount — no page limit.
Our feature guides you through the writing process, and teaches you the industry standard format that has been used by professionals for decades.