6 Essential Screenwriting Tips for Writing Better Movie Dialogue
Dialogue is one of the only things in a film that the entire audience will give their attention to at the same time. Bad movie dialogue can wreck your film. Great movie dialogue can win you the Oscar for best Original Screenplay as was the case with Manchester By the Sea.
Using that film as an example, we’re going to examine 6 screenwriting tips to help you write better movie dialogue.
WARNING: SPOILERS (and screenwriting tips) AHEAD!
1. How to write expository dialogue
While there is no manual on how to write dialogue, expository dialogue is where most scripts fall apart.
You need to set up the world as well as your characters within it. Most beginner screenwriters try to avoid exposition as much as possible, but the truth is: you need it.
In a bad script, expository dialogue exists purely for the audience’s sake.
In a great script, Lonergan turns what could have been expository dialogue into expository scenes.
Instead of listing out that Lee (Casey Affleck) hates his job, we see it first hand in a series of quick vignettes.
You need to explain the world your characters are living in, who your characters are, and where they want to end up. Instead of writing dialogue to tell us this information, show it to us in action-based scenes
But if you need to…
2. Use an outsider
In real life, people don’t explain things to each other that they both already know. Yet something about opening up Final Draft and formatting dialogue to the industry standard makes us do crazy things.
A simple way to make your exposition flow naturally is to have your characters explain information to an outsider. It’s a simple dialogue rule.
In the first six pages of Manchester by The Sea, Lonergan uses this strategy by having the building manager chide Lee for cursing at a tenant.
This half page scene gives a name to what Lee’s profession is, how the world perceives him, and where his future would be headed (until his brother Joe passes away).
Take a scene between two characters and throw in a third listener. What could have been a boring back and forth conversation becomes a game of who has the talking stick. There aren’t any dialogue rules, but this tip’s a great one.
“One might think it’s helpful to listen to great actors speaking great words. It’s not. It’s like trying to paint landscapes based on how other artists paint landscapes. In order to paint a great landscape, you need to get your butt out in the cornfield and paint what you see.” — John August, How To Write Dialogue
3. Don’t ask dumb questions
It’s great when a character asks a question.
It’s a natural way to grab the audience’s attention and introduce key plot elements.
However, overdoing it can lead to characters that are always confused and/or dumb.
Lonergan has his characters constantly asking questions throughout the film. So much that he seems to break this dialogue rule.
What separates him from other screenwriters is they’re usually one word. Lonergan works hard to keep questions within his character’s voice.
When writing dialogue, don’t avoid questions so much as avoid overly formal ones. Formatting dialogue is formal, writing it, however, should sound natural. If you only would answer someone in one word, then write it.
4. Hide important information
If you find your script bloated with exposition, one solution is to force your characters to learn something.
As the characters in the film learn information, the audience learns with them, removing the need for expository dialogue.
When Lee finds out his brother has gone into cardiac arrest, Lonergan keeps us in the dark as we watch Lee get a phone call and then start driving, taking off work. The movie dialogue focuses on Lee’s reaction rather than the actual plot of the movie.
Sneaking in information is arguably the hardest part of how to write dialogue. Writing dialogue should take place from your character’s perspectives. Have us see through their words what they seek.
5. Writing dialogue for characters
Bad movie dialogue is usually purely for plot. It’s a common screenwriting tip.
Dialogue should cut to the core of characters, making the plot feel like a character motivated decision, other than some sort of imposed structure.
In Manchester By The Sea, each character’s dialogue reveals who they are and foreshadow where they are going to be at the end of the film.
Take Lee for example.
Hung up on his past and stuck in his rut of a life, Lee only speaks in short sentences. While reflecting character, this pattern of speech makes him stick out from the wide cast of characters.
As Lee opens up to his nephew, his sentences grow longer, as movie dialogue tells a story of its own.
Take a look at the characters in your film and map out their starting points and endpoints. Their dialogue should:
- Establish who they are
- Hint at where they are going or what they will learn.
5. Use subtext often
In good movie dialogue, there is a distinction between what a character says and what a character means. Having characters only say what they feel has two major problems.
First, it’s boring on screen.
Second, it’s unrealistic and ruins the illusion of cinema.
Lonergan uses rich subtext throughout his screenplay, but very noticeably in the first few minutes of the movie.
As Lee fixes the homes of various tenants, we watch as Mrs. Olsen tries to come onto Lee.
We, as the viewer, have to find the true meaning in her “suggestions” of how to fix her shower.
Adding a layer of subtext to your dialogue creates depth and is one the most important keys of how to write dialogue. It’s one of many ways to keep your audience engaged and invested in your story.
When you know what you’re doing.
Writing dialogue needs to be treated like every other part of your story. It needs to build, climax, and resolve itself. It needs to come out of actions and reactions to antagonists.
Manchester by the Sea’s screenplay serves as an Oscar gold standard for making your movie dialogue pop on screen. By following these six dialogue rules, you can take your second draft to the next level.
Now, go write! Just read up on formatting dialogue before you do.
What famous scenes of dialogue stick out in your mind? Let us know in the comments.
Co-founder and Director at Ad Opus
Tyler Michael James is an award winning film and music video director based in Los Angeles. His goal is to make you laugh uncomfortably and question your existence. His production company, Ad Opus, aims to improve the quality and format of modern day commercials. Part of the company’s profits are reinvested into public arts education programs in the United States.