Every screenwriter wants to write quippy, smart dialogue that makes the page sparkle and keeps the actors inspired. But how do you do it? There are dozens, if not hundreds, of lists and guides that provide useful tips for how to write dialogue in a story. In this post, we’ll look at dialogue writing examples, examine a few tried-and-true methods for how to write good dialogue, and provide you with all the best dialogue writing tips.
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How to Write Dialogue Format
1. Study dialogue writing
A good first step is to look to accomplished writers to see how they became skilled at how to write dialogue. But we have to know what we’re looking for. You can start by reading some dialogue examples from different mediums or practice with some dialogue prompts.
Writer-director Quentin Tarantino is as famous for his dialogue as he is for breaking the rules of screenwriting. Sure, to be able to craft dialogue that is so compelling it becomes a set piece unto itself, a la Tarantino, may be a good aesthetic model.
But trying to emulate his more stream-of-consciousness approach to dialogue writing may prove disorienting. Check out our video below and see if you notice anything that stands out about his approach to writing dialogue.
Though Tarantino doesn’t necessarily write according to plotted out script templates, and he probably doesn't adhere to proper dialogue format all the time. His creative choices might be largely unconscious, and his secret weapon in how to write a good dialogue may be his well-developed characters.
He knows who his characters are and what they want, and the characters’ desires shape his dialogue writing.
And as we will see when we look at other screenwriters’ methods, character is everything in how to write dialogue in a script.
As the old adage goes, learning the rules in order to break them can make you a stronger writer – and in this case, we want to look at some of the best writing dialogue rules.
Writing from a structure can help make sure you don’t lose the thread of your story by getting too caught up in crafting clever, flashy dialogue that doesn’t connect to anything.
And, a good structure can provide the perimeters for your writing to flow within, so you don’t have to pause to remember fifteen different rules of how to do dialogue!
How to Write a Good Dialogue
2. Make your character's wants clear
In a post about how to approach how to write dialogue it may seem contradictory to say this, but a good rule for dialogue writing in a scene is to write the dialogue last.
After building out the other elements of your story (your arcs, acts, scenes, and story beats) you will have a better sense of how each scene connects to the larger unfolding of the story and, most importantly, what each character wants in a given scene.
You may not need a “how to write good dialogue format” if you always keep in mind your larger story arc, how each scene drives the story forward, and what character motivations are in every scene.
A good starting place in thinking about how to write dialogue in a script is to remember that in a screenplay, dialogue is not mere conversation. It always serves a larger purpose, which is to move the story forward.
The function of dialogue can be broken down into three purposes: exposition, characterization, or action. If we’re always clear on the larger purpose of a scene and we know each character’s motivations, we know what our dialogue is “doing” in that scene.
When we know what a character wants, we don’t have to worry as much about how to write dialogue because the motivations of the characters drive what they say. See our post on story beats to dig into story beats, which help illuminate what each character wants, and when they want it.
Functions of Dialogue
Exposition (to relay important information to other characters)
Characterization (to flesh out who a character is and what they want)
Action (to make decisions, reveal what they’re going to do)
The famous diner scene from Nora Ephron’s When Harry Met Sally is an excellent example of both exposition and characterization, critical components of how to write dialogue between two characters. Here's a breakdown we did of the iconic When Harry Met Sally screenplay.
The ongoing question of the film, and of Harry and Sally’s relationship, is whether heterosexual women and heterosexual men can really be platonic friends. Every other character in the film and their issues (the friend in an affair with a married man, the friends who are in a happy couple and getting married) all support the driving dilemma of the film: the desire to partner and escape the presumed suffering of dating.
Take a look at the scene:
Underneath this question of whether men and women can be friends is the subtext that they may ultimately end up together after all. The overriding question of the film is, after knowing each other, “how come they haven’t already?” The diner scene teases out the idea of sexual tension in a supposedly platonic friendship, raising the stakes.
Here's a breakdown of subtext.
Remember, though the scene depicts Harry and Sally having a conversation in a diner, the words they are speaking are not mere “conversation” – it is dialogue written to sound like a natural conversation. There is a difference.
Each word in Ephron’s dialogue writing has a purpose. Sally says she is upset about how Harry treats the women he dates and that she’s glad she never dated him (underscoring the ongoing conflict of the film).
Harry defends himself, saying he doesn’t hear any of them complaining (alluding to how he wouldn’t disappoint her, either). When Sally suggests the women he dates might be faking orgasm, Harry doesn’t believe her.
This prompts her to fake an orgasm right there in the diner to make her point (ratcheting up the primary conflict, while also providing some comic relief).
You can read the scene, which we imported into StudioBinder’s screenwriting software, below:
This scene works so well because it serves a crystal clear purpose in driving the story forward.
Great dialogue writing examples always drive the plot from one scene to the next. You may not like plotting out your story beats, thinking about story arcs in a methodological way, or approaching how to write dialogue between two characters systematically at all.
Just remember, most professional screenwriters do, and Writing Dialogue rules might be an instance where it is worth learning the rules in order to break them. Check out more great dinner scenes to inspire how to tackle this awkward but important type of scene!
How to Write Dialogue in a Script
3. Give your dialogue purpose
Finally, we’ve come to our favorite part. The lines. Famed playwright and screenwriter David Mamet says great dialogue boils down to this one concept:
“Nobody says anything unless they want something.”
— David Mamet
This handy motto is one of the best dialogue writing tips, if not the only one you need. This principle encapsulates what many other rules of dialogue writing are getting at. What they want also may not be spoken aloud, which is where writing internal dialogue comes in handy.
The advice to use as few words as possible, to cut the fat, to arrive late and leave early, to write with subtext in mind, to show rather than tell – all of those goals can be met by keeping the focus on what the characters want.
If they don’t want anything, they don’t need to say anything. If you have a clear idea of who your characters are, and what the function of each scene is in the story, then your characters' agendas, conflicts, and obstacles, and their manner of speaking to express themselves, can come forward more naturally.
If you know what your characters want, you may find that you know how to write dialogue in a story very naturally!
And yet, there is a caveat here: Screenwriter Karl Iglesias warns that it can be easy to have the character saying what you, the writer, want, not what they, the character, want.
Below is a playlist from our 4 Endings video series where we look at how "wants and needs" play out in a screenplay.
Because what you, the writer, want them to do is of course to carry some part of the story for you. So another important tool to put in your toolbox of dialogue writing tips is to always zoom in on the character, and stay tuned into what they want at any given point in the story.
Check out the last scene from Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross, a film based on the screenplay, also by Mamet, and a gold standard of excellent movie dialogue.
Mamet’s principle that each character has to show what they want is demonstrated brilliantly in the final scene. At the beginning of the film, everyone at a New York City real estate office learns all but the top two salesmen will be fired in two weeks.
Levene (Jack Lemmon) is a salesman who wants to keep his job and survive. In the final scene, Williamson (Kevin Spacey) accuses Levene of stealing leads from the office. By this final scene, what Levene wants has shifted. Now he wants to convince Williamson of his innocence.
Take a look:
Dialogue Writing Examples
4. Edit and focus the dialogue
Now it’s time to sculpt the general arc of your story into form – and the minimalist principles of how to write dialogue in a story can help bring your vision to life.
You want to cast a harsh light on your text in order to whittle down everything you’ve written. Make sure every last word really needs to be there. You want to yank anything that gets in the way of telling the great story you want to tell. That way, the lines will be focused, compelling, and inspire great actors to want to bring them to life.
Remember: We’re not yanking lines if they’re not sparkly or punchy enough, we’re yanking them if they don’t serve a purpose.
Even the cutest remark can actually be clutter, and even the more mundane lines can play a vital role by elucidating our character’s motives, the conflict they’ve encountered, and where the story is going next. The more dialogue writing examples you read, the more you’ll see how the characters’ motivations are driving not only what is said, but how it is said.
Another approach for how to write great dialogue in a script is to read through every line of the script aloud to make sure it flows naturally.
You could also try putting your hand or a piece of paper of the names of the characters. Can you tell who is saying what?
If each character doesn’t have a discernible way of speaking, revisit your character development and really define who this person is, what they want, and all their quirks and characteristics. Then revamp their lines to make all of that come to the forefront in each line. And when in doubt, revisit dialogue writing examples from your favorite movies and shows to get the juices flowing.
Another tip for how to properly write dialogue is to scan your script for “dialogue dumps.” The best way to avoid “As you know, Bob…” information dumps in your dialogue is to let the characters bat pieces of information back and forth. Check out our video on exposition below:
Let them reveal bits of it over time, scattered throughout a scene like breadcrumbs. Let them argue about it, challenge what each other knows. Do they already know it, or are they wrestling with it?
Assess your dialogue to make sure what you’re trying to accomplish with a line of dialogue couldn’t better be said with an action, an adjustment to scene or setting, a facial expression, or some other nonverbal detail.
The “Good to See Another Brother” scene from Get Out is a great example of keeping the dialogue minimal and letting facial expression, costume, and tone convey the information:
At this point in the story, Chris still thinks he is simply one of the few black people in his white girlfriend’s upper middle class white family and their social circle.
We, the audience, still might think we’re watching a rom com that conveys only a mild awareness of race, somewhere off in the background of the story. But in this scene, race starts moving forward as a central plot point.
Chris approaches Andre, because he wants to feel a sense of connection in an isolating environment. In order to convey layers of social anxiety and racial tension, all that Jordan Peele needs is the line, “It’s good to see another brother around here.”
Throughout the film, Peele exemplifies how spreading information out like bread crumbs can help build tension and curiosity about a scene.
Look at how much room Peele leaves in the script to describe how Andre’s character should convey his response (“soft-spoken,” “no trace of an urban dialect”). This helps load every word in the scene with more weight and purpose. When Andre does speak, his words are few.
He has visibly changed his style and manner of speaking since Chris first saw him, he won’t say much, and has a glazed over expression on his face. All of this raises the stakes: What is going on here?
In order to learn how to write dialogue, one of the most important writing dialogue rules is to stay in touch with where your characters are in the story at all times.
Building your story, your character arcs, and your story beats before writing can help provide a structure that will give your writing a container in which to flow. Developing compelling characters and making sure that every bit of dialogue real estate on the page is devoted to serving a function in your screenplay can help streamline the whole dialogue writing process.
But regardless of which method you use, if anything, just remember the Mamet Motto: “Nobody says anything unless they want something.”
How to Introduce Your Characters
Writing great dialogue is the icing on the cake of a great story. The importance of building out your story and really being clear on where we’re going, who wants what, and what the conflicts and motivations are the foundation beneath all the other writing dialogue rules. But having solid character descriptions is only the first step. You also have to give each one a great entrance. Check out our post to get some tips on how each compelling, amazing character you write can make their grand entrance.