Write Stronger Scenes With Dialogue as Action


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As Seen On
by Naomi Write + Co. in dialogue, screenwriting

Last week we talked about dialogue as action, and how thinking of it that way can help you add conflict, urgency, and interest to a scene.

When does dialogue become an action? When it has a real purpose behind it (for the character), and is intended to achieve some objective or effect. That kind of dialogue is much more likely to engage your audience, because we’re naturally interested in people who want something badly and go after it.

But many writers don’t think of dialogue this way. Instead they use dialogue to convey information they think the audience needs to know. That often results in scenes without real, meaningful conflict, or sometimes scenes that don’t seem to have a point in the screenplay.

We definitely want to avoid that. So this week I’m sharing plenty of examples to help make this concept concrete.

The Watchers

The first example is from The Watchers – written by Ishana Night Shyamalan, based on The Watchers by A.M. Shine.

This is a good example to start with because it’s pretty simple and easy to see what’s happening.

For context:

The Watchers follows Mina, a 28-year old artist who gets stranded in an expansive, untouched forest in western Ireland. When Mina finds shelter, she unknowingly becomes trapped alongside three strangers that are watched and stalked by mysterious creatures each night.”

So there are really two parts included here: the short scene on page 45, and then the longer scene from page 45 – 47.

Part 1: establishing the character dynamic

The point of the first part is to establish the current dynamic between Mina and Daniel. Basically, it primes the conflict in the next part.

The dialogue I want to point out in the first part is Daniel’s last line: “Fine.” If you think about it, this is an action. It’s Daniel’s way of letting Mina know that he isn’t thrilled with this turn of events, and it’s a warning not to get in his way on this hunting mission. Daniel can’t refuse Mina joining him – Madeline, the de facto leader of the group, has already ordered it so – but this action is intended to keep Mina in line.

Part 2: Mina wants Daniel’s help

For the next part, the overall point of the scene is to get Daniel and Mina working together to carry out Mina’s plan.

Mina’s driving the scene, and her objective is to get Daniel to agree to help her.

Daniel doesn’t know this, so he starts the scene by teaching Mina what he thinks she’s there to learn: how to hunt. Once Mina starts pursuing her objective, Daniel resists. His dialogue is action that stops her from achieving her goal. Conflict!

Mina’s lines of dialogue are intended to break down Daniel’s loyalty to Madeline and her rules. Daniel will have to break Madeline’s rules in order to go along with Mina’s plan, so she needs to soften him up.

Mina uses a couple different strategies. First she’s flattering, then – when that doesn’t work – she’s forthcoming with information and appeals to reason.

And then she makes her ask, and we don’t need to see his response because we hard cut to the next scene, where the plan is in motion. (A beautiful example of starting scenes in motion!)

How the scene makes the most of characters and motivations

This is a pretty plot-focused scene (that’s the main point of it), but through their actions and behaviors there’s also a shift in the relationship between Mina and Daniel, and important qualities about each of them are revealed.

It’s also worth noting that the information that Mina gives Daniel near the bottom of page 46 is redundant since we actually saw this play out a few pages earlier. In a lesser script it could feel redundant and boring to tell us something we’ve already seen. But here, because it’s rooted in the character’s goals and we understand the purpose behind the dialogue, it’s dramatic and compelling.

Jungle Cruise

For our next example, pages 14 – 21 of Jungle Cruise, draft dated 1/20/17, current revisions by J.D. Payne and Patrick McKay.

The point of this section of the script is for protagonists Lily and Frank to meet. The story is about their “road trip” up the Amazon, and we need them to meet and join forces before they can embark on that adventure.

Lily’s objective here is to hire Frank, a river boat captain, to help her navigate the Amazon to reach the Tree of Life. But there are plenty of ups and downs in her pursuit of that scene goal – it’s not a linear path! – which makes for a fun and entertaining scene.

Part 1: the heroes meet (and establish character dynamic)

Note how Lily’s, “—Doctor Lily Houghton” line has a purpose – it’s an action intended to make sure she gets the respect she wants and believes she deserves.

Because Frank doesn’t need her at this point and barely tolerates most people – especially tourists – his response is abrasive, unwelcoming.


In this first part, they’re done with each other pretty quickly. But they need to get together! What now?

On page 16 we see Frank battle a jaguar, which impresses Lily. Maybe she does want his help. Lily’s line, “We’ve found him. That’s the man to take us up The Devil’s Throat,” sends us into the next part…

Part 2: Lily wants Frank’s help

Here, Lily is determined to hire Frank. And Frank is determined to refuse. Conflict!

(MacGregor is in the scene too, but he’s just carrying out Lily’s wishes, and providing some contrast and comedic relief, so we’ll set him aside for now.)

Frank’s dialogue is meant to discourage Lily and MacGregor from seeking out their intended destination.

For Lily’s part, she pursues her objective first by challenging Frank’s bravery – an action meant to push Frank toward agreeing to the job. When that doesn’t work, Lily levels with Frank and treats him as an equal (talking like “adults.”)

Worth noting – her dialogue tells us how smart, capable, and determined she is, which is only effective because the script has already shown us Lily is all of these things, so her dialogue here rings true. When a character just tells us about themselves or another character but we haven’t seen any action to back it up, the dialogue loses credibility.

Lily then tries to enlist Frank’s help by explaining what finding the tree can do for humanity. Much of this is information we need in order to understand what’s happening in the plot.

It’s exposition… but it’s not dry or boring

And perhaps you notice similarities to the first example? A good way to make exposition more interesting is to motivate it. In both examples, the characters offer information as a way to get what they want. That dialogue is action with a purpose!

But even if there are some parallels in the underlying mechanics of the scenes (one character wants help from the other), it’s interesting to see how their strategies are different. The ways the characters go about trying to achieve their scene objectives, and the ways the other characters oppose them, are specific to each character and show us who they are.

In this scene Frank is unmoved. He refuses to help. Lily is ready to move on, even calling Frank selfish as a parting shot. But then he sees the talisman necklace in her suitcase and – unbeknownst to Lily – Frank has his own agenda involving that piece. So his action – accepting her deal – is intended to get him closer to that end.

This interaction does several other important things, as well. It develops the relationship between Frank and Lily. It hints that there’s something else going on with Frank (a mysterious backstory that will be exposed later). And it develops the Lily character by revealing her desire to be respected and taken seriously but her refusal to let a lack of that stop her, and it begins to fill out the deeper reasons behind her external actions.

Will Trent pilot

And for our final example(s) today, a look at procedural dialogue, which can be especially challenging since it’s often all about getting exposition out.

These are scenes from the Will Trent pilot episode, written by Liz Heldens & Daniel T. Thomsen, based on the Will Trent book series by Karin Slaughter.

“The series follows Special Agent Will Trent of the Georgia Bureau of Investigations. As a child, Trent was abandoned and was forced to endure a harsh coming-of-age in Atlanta’s overwhelmed foster care system.”

Example 1: establishing Will’s character

Too many procedural scenes are just information exchanges – boring! But when character motivations inform the dialogue, suddenly a scene is more compelling.

For context, main character Will Trent is great at his job – the very best at reading a crime scene.

In this scene (starting near the bottom of page 9), we meet supporting character Leo Donnelly, an older detective who “has an answer for everything.” His objective is to close the case and be done with it, and his dialogue is action toward achieving that goal.

But Will knows something’s not right with this case before anyone else does, so he pushes back on Donnelly’s answers. Will’s dialogue is action that pokes holes and refuses to accept the easy-but-wrong answer. He won’t close the case until they get it right – conflict! – even if it causes friction with Donnelly or any other cop.

This is a nice example because you can see how conflicting character motivations can give the scene some zing – even when the point of it is really to get information out and move along the investigation.

Example 2: the relationship between Will and Faith

The point of this scene is to move the plot (investigation) forward, but also to develop the relationship between two key characters, Will and Faith. (They become partners in the pilot episode and then work together going forward in the series.)

Will is a loner and not used to playing nicely with others, but he and Faith have been assigned to work together on this case. They have the same goal – to solve the case – but different ideas about getting it done.

When Faith offers to “handle Paul Campano,” it’s an action intended to steer their approach.

Will is instantly defensive (one of his defining characteristics), but Faith doesn’t back down – she challenges his interpersonal skills directly. He’s not the most pleasant co-worker, but more than that – she calls out his behavior because it’s stopping her from achieving her goal.

So Faith is trying to elicit some change from Will, and he’s resisting her efforts. Opposing actions! Conflict!

On a character level, Will is also realizing that the way Faith and others see him isn’t the way he wants to be seen. His defensiveness and self-preservation strategies are creating interpersonal conflict in his life. So in this scene (and in the series), his partnership with Faith helps Will grow and let go of some of his old baggage.

Meaningful dialogue is more entertaining

If you struggle to write dialogue, or if you’ve received notes that your script’s dialogue is bland, or scenes fall flat or feel pointless…

Think about where the conflict is coming from.

You already know that conflict is the lifeblood of your screenplay. And conflict requires forces in opposition. That is, forces with opposing goals, taking action to achieve those goals.

And dialogue is a type of action that characters can take. But a lot of writers either overlook this function, or mistake characters arguing as the kind of conflict we’re talking about, but it’s not. Surface conflict will only sustain a scene for so long.

We need meaningful conflict. Conflict that’s informed by something deeper or more important to the characters.

Turning dialogue into action with purpose will get more conflict into your screenplay’s scenes – and make the dialogue more compelling.


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.