Learning how to write dialogue is not easy. You’ve written a pretty good script, but you know it could be GREAT. Could writing better dialogue in your screenplay be that missing piece? Want screenwriting tips that teach you how to write dialogue in a script with writing examples from movies and TV to go with each category?
Movie dialogue preface
You want to know how to write dialogue, but many of the screenwriting tips you get are too broad, less specific, and feel a bit hollow.
Learning how to write a screenplay starts with writing action lines, transitions, and compelling characters before writing dialogue. If your goal is to learn how to write a screenplay, the first screenwriting tip is to create a writing workflow that ends with writing dialogue.
If you follow these steps in order, your scripts will show producers you know how to write great dialogue, and you'll be 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. You can look at it two ways. They either think you should lace in elements from your own experiences into your characters and plot, which is the kind route. Or that you won't do your research.
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 do some heavy research on a specific topic, and then use what you learned to entertain others. A lack of research will sap the willing suspension of disbelief.
Want to write about Lawyers? Astronauts? Tech Companies? Figure out as much as you can before you begin to write your screenplay, and definitely before you begin writing dialogue.
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. But…fifteen pages of good dialogue isn’t worth one page of decent action.
The best modern example of this 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. Pay attention to the use of dialogue in the scene below:
We see everything we need to see, and the vast majority of dialogue in the film is there to enhance the actions taking place on screen.
The filmmakers didn't default to writing dialogue heavy scenes.
This is one of the reasons why dialogue that accompanies stunt sequences very rarely seems extraneous — especially as a form of punctuation for the scene. That's because the action is the main course, and the dialogue is the dessert. Ever heard of a one liner?
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.
HOW TO WRITE DIALOGUE
3. Use an outsider for exposition
One of the best tips for learning how to write dialogue is to use an outsider. By using an outsider to introduce information, you create a feeling of legitimacy, as though the information you hope to convey is common knowledge. Here's a dialogue example:
Instead having your character say...“I avoid conflict.”
Have another character say...“I know you like Joe... but he really isn’t the conflict resolution type.”
Here is an example of an outsider introducing info in The Big Lebowski: in this case, Brandt has the pleasure of giving The Dude a tour of Lebowski's office. Pay attention to the moment they discuss the photo of Lebowski with Nancy Reagan.
In the film, you really can't see the photo of Lebowski very well, so the dialogue helps to sell both the joke, but also the information on Lebowski's disability. You're not sure how to feel, sort of like The Dude.
Check out this scene in The Big Lebowski script below:
This is just one of writing devices the Coen Brothers use. They might just be two of the best working screenwriters today and dialogue is their bread and butter. Let's dive deeper into their writing in the video below:
The Coen Brothers not only know how to write a screenplay, but they also know how to write dialogue that enhances their scenes.
You could go through every Coen Brother film and find great dialogue examples that follow just about every screenwriting tip in this post.
HOW TO WRITE MOVIE SCRIPT DIALOGUE
4. Write between the lines
Often the best dialogue occurs when a character avoids the truth. This doesn't mean they have to lie, or deceive, but they can't be on the nose.
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 the dialogue in Breaking Bad:
How many times did Walter White say the opposite of what he was actually thinking? How about the passive aggressive sister-in-law Marie?
When the viewer has prior knowledge of something, it can be especially interesting or even funny to see someone lie or misrepresent their true feelings. You know why? Because we get to be in on the joke.
You're not just learning how to write dialogue, but rather how to create scene with layers that can your dialogue can exploit. The focus of this next scene from Westworld 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 'between the lines' dialogue because these shows have to write dozens of episodes rather than a single 100 page script.
HOW TO WRITE Movie DIALOGUE
5. Develop a complete character
When learning how to write dialogue in your screenplay, you need to ask yourself how people operate in their daily lives based on mood.
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.
Check out how Tarantino writes dialogue in the scene below:
Actions speak louder than words, and your characters need to show us their true nature with deeds. They use dialogue to distract the viewer.
It's more 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 because it makes your job that much easier. You don't need to learn how to write dialogue for interesting characters because the motivation of each line will organically flow into your scripts.
Read the strudel scene from Inglourious Basterds to see how Tarantino uses this scene to construct Landa's character with layers.
Your characters may reveal tiny portions of the truth, or have a moment of stress that boil up and overcome them — all of that works. Ever heard of the term "one note"? Now imagine a song that is literally one note.
DIALOGUE WRITING TIPS
6. Give characters a unique voice
We all have different speech patterns, catch phrases, and our own unique tempo when we speak, and you should implement this into your dialogue as well.
A common screenwriting tip for this 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.
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 DIALOGUE IN A SCRIPT
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 this Birdman movie should win an Oscar or something:
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 need to convey to your viewer, it doesn't mean you have to show your cards right away.
Make the viewer work for it. Lead the viewer with little breadcrumbs. See an example of writing breadcrumb dialogue in the scene below:
This scene gives 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. Very clever. How’s that working out for you?
How To Write Conversations
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 arbitration, like Wedding Crashers, we don’t need to start the scene with the clerk unlocking the meeting room door. Setting up the chairs. Filling up the water glasses.
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?
When 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 some super boring situation there is a pretty good chance the accompanying dialogue won’t be much better.
See how this idea plays out in the scene below:
The reason I named this section “show the interesting stuff” is because I’ve often watched films and shows that will have this big moment happen… and then cut away to later that night!
Why? I was so darn caught up in this well crafted and 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 DIALOGUE WRITING
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 — one is a struggling professional screenwriter, and the other is a fresh screenwriter who seems to be inspired at every turn.
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.
Charlie wouldn’t want someone to do that to him, and this makes the dialogue writing process so much simpler, logical, and interesting.
Want to know how to write better dialogue? Build logical conflict. Check out the scene below to see what I mean:
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.
If you're wondering how to write a movie script, don't manufacture conflict. Viewers are far too sophisticated for that, and it will constantly get in the way of you writing better dialogue in your screenplays.
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, and baked into the cake of your character traits, plot, and logical competition.
HOW TO WRITE 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.
Why? 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 DIALOGUE IN A STORY
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.”
Here is the scene for your reference:
Now… why is this so GREAT?
There are two reasons:
- This character never comes back, yet he has some fun dialogue, a 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 that he's a cop.
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. 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?
These are writers well known for writing better dialogue than many of their peers, and while one could argue that the overall style often cuts against the rule of “unique voices” they are definitely not boring screenwriters. Take a look at a dialogue example below:
If you want to know how to write better dialogue in your screenplays...don't be basic.
SCREENPLAY WRITING TIPS
14. Tell us more through narration
Narration and internal V.O. is actually something I rather enjoy, but often the narration is a weak play-by-play of the events taking place. Narration isn’t supposed to be 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.
Here's an example of dialogue as narration in the scene below:
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 enjoy, but I think a lot of people would agree that the narration is overdone. Unless narration makes the scene significantly better, you probably don’t need it in your scene.
HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY
15. Make your actors happy
When writing dialogue in a story, it will help to think about the actors. Actors love good story 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 study dialogue examples, or find writers who already know how to write dialogue and take those scenes and run lines until they feel good about their performances. When you give your actors fun lines, they will be happy.
Now, does this mean you should sacrifice story over style? Of course not. If you're going to get a good performance, chances are it makes the story better. Tell me the scene below doesn't have some great movie dialogue:
You will be able to tell that you took advantage of screenplay tips and dialogue rules by the actor's face when they read your script.
They picture themselves on screen delivering that great line…
Even if they are portraying a coward, a good actor will spot good dialogue in a script because it gives them something with which to work. This is also a great way to sell your screenplay, because often times exciting the right actor with a good role is the quickest way to have your script produced.
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 it… but it have to work really well.
This speech in the scene below is a great example of good dialogue:
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 generally 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. Watch the scene below to see how your character can alter speech patterns:
Coordinate your tonal shifts, changes in speaking pattern, and general adjustments to demeanor for the really 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!” Whoa… that is quite a shift…so big in fact that it might change the entire story.
HOW TO WRITE A SCREENPLAY
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.
Let's watch how the dialogue from the earlier scene set up this moment:
Call backs and foreshadowing go hand in hand, but I don't like foreshadowing. I do like call backs, because they are really logical, show you have a point to the events in your story, and can really please an active viewer.
These were all call backs set up by dialogue (and some action) that seemed innocuous at the time, but came back at significant moments. This is an example of good dialogue, and how to write a screenplay in general because the dialogue seems natural and informed the story.
HOW TO WRITE A MOVIE SCRIPT
19. Relationships alter speech
If you're learning how to write a screenplay, you will benefit greatly from understanding how our relationships influence our 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 dialogue.
Authority, compassion, respect, disgust — all of this comes from the relationship dynamic we have with one another, and this will help you write better dialogue. Take a look at the dialogue example below:
You can break this dialogue 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”
Very few books have as much insight into how to write a screenplay than Sydney Lumet's Making Movies. Lumet films are a master class on how to write better dialogue, and his book has some of the best screenwriting tips around.
One of these is Rubber Ducky dialogue. Lumet 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.”
Check out a humorous take on this in the example below:
This was their screenwriting term for when a character explains their personality based completely around a traumatic situation in their past.
Lumet believes that the behavior should reveal psychology.
DIALOGUE RULES FOR WRITING
21. Does it bring you joy?
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 finally take on the system. Writing a good script will make you happy. If a line of dialogue doesn’t bring you joy…Indiana...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.
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