How to Write Good Dialogue for Movies & TV
It takes laying the necessary groundwork
I’m writing this as a supplement to my series of articles on How to Write a TV Pilot. Check those out first!
Generally, when it comes to writing dialogue, I feel like you just need to have an ear for it. Screen dialogue isn’t an accurate portrayal of how people talk in real life — it’s a stylized approximation that is pleasing to an audience. In real life, people stutter, repeat themselves, lose their trains of thought, and are generally not very quick or witty. To portray that accurately on screen would be maddening.
Some helpful exercises if you don’t know where to start
Back in college, my playwriting professor helped us out by assigning us a few dialogue writing exercises early in the term. There are many to be found online that are probably pretty useful as a starting place. He had us eavesdrop on a conversation in the campus dining hall and transcribe it best we could. I ended up just blowing off the assignment and making up a conversation instead of eavesdropping. Not totally sure if he bought my fake conversation as real.
One other exercise he gave us that’s stuck with me is he gave us a handout where there are two characters, 1 and 2, and all that is listed on the page is 1 and 2 alternating with each line with a different number of words for each line. So we had to write a unique dialogue scene based on how many words 1 and 2 used in each line. It looked like this:
1) 2 words
2) 3 words
1) 1 word
2) 5 words
1) 2 words
2) 6 words
I don’t want to give away his whole exercise, but it continued like that, with short dialogues making up most of the page. Then towards the end, there’d be a couple explosions of 20 and 30-word lines of dialogue and back to the short lines to wrap up. These kinds of exercises can be helpful to get you into the mindset of rhythms and flows of conversation and dialogue. I also just find that constraints can help you be creative. What can you do to transform so little into a full scene of dialogue with living, breathing characters?
These types of tasks can be helpful, especially to get you into the mindset of thinking about the way people talk, but what I find is really important about screen dialogue is how it operates as a function of the narrative.
Dialogue serves the narrative
If you have read my series on How to Write a TV Pilot, I say somewhere in there that dialogue should generally do the following, in order of importance:
- Move the story forward
- Reveal something about character
- Be funny (if you’re writing a comedy)
If you can do all three, do that. Any dialogue that doesn’t do any of that, you can most certainly lose. Even if something is funny but not the other two, you can probably lose it. Generally, if you’re writing a script, everything that happens should move things forward and progress the story. Prolonged comedic detours can end up backfiring if you have to stop the story for a while to get into them.
I feel like so far I might have been non-specific about how to write good dialogue, as in what actually goes into it. But it’s almost like identifying what is art and what isn’t. You’ll know it when you see (hear) it.
A big thing you need to keep in mind is that you are writing for a visual medium. So character action and what you see on screen have to be your main tools of telling the story. Dialogue exists to supplement the action. Think of a silent movie. They only slip those cards of dialogue in when they can’t tell the story with just pictures. Functionally, the talkies work the same way.
It all starts with character
Since dialogue is an extension of your character (like everything else about them), the main thing that will improve your dialogue is improving your character. The more clearly defined and fleshed-out your character is, the truer their dialogue will wind up being. The way people talk, their opinions, what they choose to say or not to say all flow out from who they are as people, usually in ways they probably don’t mean for them to. So, as a writer, the more things you know about your character — even if it doesn’t wind up on the page or the screen — the better your dialogue would be.
Think of between a person from New York City and a person from rural Texas. Right away, the differences in their word choices will be apparent. Just generally the way that they sound when they speak. But accents and slang terms are just a small part of it. We can infer a lot of their biases and attitudes just based on where they’re from. What they like and what they don’t like. The kinds of people and experiences that they’ve been exposed to.
Of course you can have a very liberal person from rural Texas, but even that will inform their character in a very specific and unique way! By being a very liberal person from rural Texas, that gives them a very different experience than being a very liberal person from New York City or a conservative person from Texas. With just two facts about this person, liberal from rural Texas, you’ve given them a character background that will inform so much of their identity — and by extension — their dialogue.
Making your character more specific and more defined will make them more real to the audience, but also make them more real to you as you’re writing them. And then you’ll get to a point where you know how they’ll react and what they’ll say in any situation. Sometimes they might surprise you.
Sitcoms operate on this level a lot of the time. Not that these characters are always so full of depth, but television comedy often leans on very strong, clearly-defined types. Sheldon from The Big Bang Theory has a manner of speech and a clear attitude that informs all of his dialogue. I’d bet the character writes himself at this point in the writers room. A Sheldon line is unmistakable and it’s difficult to imagine any other character saying it. I’ve never even seen a full episode of the show and I know exactly what he sounds like and how he talks.
Action and conflict first, then dialogue
So let’s say you’ve got some clearly defined characters. Everything’s going well, but you come to a rough spot and everything being said by whoever is on screen is ringing false. It’s possible that this isn’t a problem with character, but a problem with plotting and conflict.
Think of one of the most notorious sections of bad dialogue in film history: the romance scenes in Star Wars — Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Not that this movie had any good dialogue (and all the characters suck), but the dialogue in these romance scenes especially suffer because there’s just nothing going on. There’s no action going on for the characters to comment on or react to. There’s absolutely no conflict.
In these scenes, you have Jedi Anakin who has escorted Senator Padme to her beautiful home planet to hide out for a while until shit on Coruscant cools off. So, you have two good looking people looking at beautiful vistas. Of course, they really just wanna bang. Which is all well and good, but if this is the scenario we are presented, then they should just be banging immediately. What’s stopping them except for the fact that the movie has to fill fifteen minutes of screen time before they can get to that point in order to make it a love story?
So I guess the conflict is that he’s a Jedi and he’s not allowed to bang? And she’s a Senator so she shouldn’t bang a Jedi? It’s an ethical violation? None of this is real, so none of it matters to the audience at all.There are no stakes in it so all of these obstacles put in the way of the characters being together pretty much amount to gibberish. The dialogue sucks because the situation is ridiculous and makes no sense. Yeah, the characters are flat and wooden and that’s the main problem, but you get lines like “I hate sand” because there’s no fucking conflict or nothing going on at all.
Because there’s no real tension or action in these scenes, they basically had to invent the whole story of the romance completely through the dialogue. Remember a few paragraphs up when I said dialogue should supplement action? This is what I was talking about. If you can convincingly convey a budding flirtation’s complete transformation into two people falling in love 100% through dialogue, congratulations. You don’t need this guide. But I couldn’t do that and neither could George Lucas or his ghost writers. So I feel like most people couldn’t, either.
Think about the romance in The Empire Strikes Back. Way better, right? Obviously, the repartee is vastly superior and the characters actually have personalities, but it also has a lot to do with the situation they’re in. Han and Leia are on the run from the Empire. They’re evading danger at every turn. There’s kind of a love triangle thing going on with Luke. There’s conflict inherent in the way they interact with one another (established in the previous film). The dialogue is successful because of the characterization, yes, but there is also action and conflict as a basis for it.
Anakin and Padme should be in a similar situation. They’re kind of on the run, right? They’re hiding, at least. If you gave them some dudes to chase them and fight, that would be a start. One of the main conflicts between them established in the movie is that Padme still kind of thinks of him as the annoying shitty little kid from the last movie. There you go. You give them more clearly-defined personalities (he’s brash and brave, she’s smart and wants to do good) and you have yourself a love story:
While she and Anakin are fighting bad guys and running away from explosions, Anakin gets to show off what a big strong confident hero he is and she falls in love with him. And he falls for her harder when she meets somebody actually committed to helping all the little people, unlike those stuffy-ass Jedis. I don’t know. Something.
I guarantee you with even with this very vague situation I’ve set up, the dialogue would at least be passable. Nobody in the movie would be talking about the coarseness of sand, I can tell you that much.
To write natural-sounding dialogue, I feel, is a talent more than it is a skill. But by doing the work and setting the right groundwork for yourself, you can help focus your writing and write sharper dialogue. Character and conflict. That’s all it really takes.