Movies are a visual medium first and foremost, which means making on-screen imagery as effective as possible. And if you’re making a narrative feature, you will more than likely be needing dialogue. Movies didn’t start with traditional dialogue tracks, but these days, virtually every movie in existence has it. But what is dialogue, why does it matter, how can you identify it, and how can you make the most of it?

Defining Dialogue

The Definition of Dialogue

Dialogue as written text was developed a very long time ago, becoming a genre by the time Plato had made it his own. These days, dialogue refers to many other things, including conversations among people. But we’re going to keep our focus on cinema when we define dialogue.

DIALOGUE DEFINITION

What is dialogue?

Dialogue is a written or spoken exchange of words between one or more characters. Most narrative stories feature dialogue, which is often easily identifiable by either quotations in literature or dedicated spaces in scripts. Dialogue has various uses, though it is most often for the purposes of advancing the plot. Dialogue also lets the audience learn more about a character, their history, feelings, and viewpoints.

Characteristics of Dialogue:

  • Easily identifiable in a script.
  • Used for advancing the plot, getting insight, or keeping things lively.
  • Can be heard clearly, semi-clearly, or muddled, depending on the context of the film.

Written Dialogue

Dialogue in Screenplays

Good dialogue tends to make or break a script, as the majority of what your reader will be doing is reading said dialogue. And of course, good dialogue on paper has to translate to good dialogue on-screen. You can get an idea of this from YouTuber Now You See It’s video below where he quickly but succinctly covers dialogue in film.

Making dialogue count

So how does dialogue look on paper? Using Taika Waititi’s JoJo Rabbit screenplay as an example, and implementing it into StudioBinder’s screenplay software, we can see how dialogue looks like and how it’s used.

The excerpt below shows off the introduction of a setting, which is extremely common and notable in any script.

Setting Introduction in Dialogue Example  •  Read Full Scene Here

This is a very common and standardized way to present dialogue in your screenplay. As you see, the dialogue is laid out very clearly, so much so that each block has plenty of space. You will also notice that character names are capitalized, which leaves no doubt as to who is speaking and when.

You should also understand what the dialogue is meant to do. Are we advancing the plot in some way? Are we learning more about a character? Or are the characters speaking just for the sake of speaking? As a result, you can make dialogue very subtle, very obvious, or something in-between.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World script is chock-full of dialogue, some of which is made to make clear what is going on in the story. The example below comically lays out what our main plot is all about.

Main Plot Through Dialogue Example  •  Read Full Scene Here

Even though this scene is pretty obvious in its intentions, the use of a beat also drives home the fact that Scott is more interested in Ramona making their relationship official than the reality of having to fight her evil exes. This is the power dialogue often can have, one which can creep up on the audience in unexpected ways.

For something more subtle and grounded, look at the excerpt below, courtesy of Wes Anderson & Owen Wilson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, is a quick set-up with a brief exchange. There are two characters, but only one has dialogue in the moment shown.

Expressing Character Through Dialogue Example  •  Read Ful Scene Here

It may not seem like much, but these two lines say a whole lot about Royal, his character, and how he views himself. Dialogue can be very expressive and informative if you have a character talk a lot, but minimal dialogue can be just as effective.

When writing a screenplay, you will have to decide what sort of dialogue you want. Avoiding too much talking is important, but maybe it’s a character quirk. Not enough dialogue can be frustrating in some movies, while it can be part of the appeal in another. What’s important is that your dialogue choices make sense for the story you want to tell.

Spoken Dialogue

Examples in Film

At the end of the day, no matter who reads your script, most people will watch the movie. At this point, dialogue is supported by performances, editing, and direction.

David Fincher (acclaimed director) and Aaron Sorkin (noted screenwriter) struck gold with The Social Network script; the film is dominated by dialogue (and a Trent Reznor/Atticus Ross musical score) and examines the creation of Facebook and the people involved.

The Lessons From The Screenplay video below breaks down why Sorkin’s script works, and how dialogue is at the center of all that. You can also note how the editing, performances, and Fincher’s directing style blend together to create effective and snappy character interactions that make the moments feel equally real and entertaining.

Sorkin and his famous dialogue style

If anyone (else) is famous for how they can pull off dialogue, it’s writer-director Quentin Tarantino. As is part of Tarantino’s directing style, he loads his movies with dialogue, to the point of excess, depending on how you feel about it. But even though his movies are also known for being extremely violent, it’s the dialogue that is often singled out and praised by nearly all viewers, critics, and fans.

You can take a look at our video below to get an idea of how effective Tarantino’s dialogue is, using suspense and misdirection, as well as top notch character writing, to create a unique and unforgettable opening scene.

Effective dialogue goes a long way  •  Subscribe on YouTube

The right kind of dialogue can go a long way in helping a movie get critical acclaim. While Fincher and Tarantino are notable examples, there’s no shortage of filmmakers who use their dialogue to flesh out their worlds, situations, plots, and characters. Almost anything you watch will have dialogue, and you can easily see how effective it is, what purpose it serves, and how you too can implement techniques into your own projects.

UP NEXT

Screenwriting Tips for Dialogue

Now that you have a basic definition of dialogue down, it’s time to learn how you can best approach writing it yourself. Our guide goes over many tips for writing better dialogue, along with many examples from film scripts and clips.

Up Next: Screenwriting Tips for Dialogue →
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