A major issue most beginning screenwriters encounter revolves around writing dialogue. Too many beginners hope to write memorable lines and funny quips that viewers can quote to their friends or that will stick in the mind of producers.
These writers miss the entire point of a character's words: to move that character closer to his or her goal. Any words serve to block or detour characters from accomplishing the goals they set out to accomplish interfere with telling the story.
Here are some tips to help your characters sound both believable and memorable.
#6: Avoid “Movie Dialogue”
The reason that so many scripts have such bad dialogue is that the writers attempt to copy films that they've already seen. Instead of developing their own dialogue based on their understanding of the characters, they revert to familiar formulas. Writers in highly-structured genres such as period pieces, romantic comedies and science fiction must take extra care to see that their dialogue does not sound like so many hundreds of films that have come before.
#5: Short and Sweet
Most books on screenplay format emphasize that dialogue blocks on a script page should be no more than three or four lines. Short lines are easier for actors to remember and to play off each other with more spontaneity, thus allowing them to deliver better performances. Unless you're writing a Shakespearean soliloquy, or have a star who wants a long speech for his Oscar reel (see Braveheart or Any Given Sunday), keep the dialogue as short and to-the-point as possible.
#4: Clear Roles
Each of us plays different roles in our lives. We speak differently to our bosses than we do to our friends. We use different words to our spouses than we do to our children. When a writer considers the relationships between the characters in a scene, the dialogue comes more naturally. The writer should look at if the characters in a scene are equals, superiors or subordinates to each other and frame the dialogue according to these relationships.
#3: Clear Conflict
Each scene must have some form of conflict to move the story forward. The conflict in each scene arises from the different desires and goals of the characters in that scene. The way in which those characters deal with that conflict will also define their dialogue with each other. For instance, Character A wants Character B to calm down, but B wants to rant and rave about the apparent injustice of their current situation. Conflicting desires create compelling dialogue.
#2: Clear Voice
Everyone has a distinct speech pattern based on upbringing, education, geography and a variety of other factors. A writer who develops a deep character history before starting the screenplay can use it to establish the character's speech patterns. Factors like speed, volume, pitch, rhythm and vocabulary can reveal a lot about the character with each word he or she speaks. These qualities also show actors and directors how to portray the character and give them insight into developing the performance.
#1: Clear Message
Rewriting a dialogue-heavy script to have minimal or no dialogue can teach writers that “actions speak louder than words”. The object of a script is to tell a story, not to show how the writer can deliver witty banter. Films told stories for decades before the advent of the “talkies”. A mostly-silent film won the Best Picture Oscar... in 2012! Write the story, then write the dialogue and see how much better both are for the effort.
Note: Many of the tips in this article are inspired by Penny Penniston's wonderful book on dialogue, Talk the Talk: A Dialogue Workshop for Screenwriters. I highly recommend picking it up to improve on your dialogue-writing skills.
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If you'd like help with your dialogue, or any other aspect of your screenplay project, drop us a line at StoryIntoScreenplayBlog [at] gmail [dot] com.