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Writing Screenplay Dialogue: What Makes Dialogue Good?

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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“Can good dialogue be taught?”
“How can I avoid ‘on the nose’ dialogue?”
“How can dialogue possibly be different for every character?”

Dialogue is a sub-topic of screenwriting that tends to elicit a lot of opinions and even more questions. Most would agree good dialogue is a feature of successful screenplays, and being able to write good screenplay dialogue is a skill set that screenwriters need.

The path to “good dialogue” – and maybe even how to define it – is where the questions arise.

Full transparency: I don’t know if you can learn to be David Mamet or Aaron Sorkin or Diablo Cody.  But a couple of things I DO know:

You don’t have to write dialogue like one of those people to be a working screenwriter, and you CAN learn how to improve the dialogue you write.

So that’s what we’re going to tackle in this series. To ease us into the topic and lay some groundwork, today let’s talk about what makes dialogue “good.” This might feel rudimentary, but I think it’s important to know what target we’re aiming for.

What does dialogue need to do in a screenplay? And what are the qualities we notice in good dialogue? Or – maybe more accurately – what are the things we notice when dialogue isn’t working?

The purpose of dialogue

This seems obvious, right? Maybe you’re thinking: dialogue is what characters in a screenplay say to each other, so clearly it’s how they communicate. And, by extension, how the writer communicates with the audience.

This isn’t wrong thinking, but there’s much more to it.

Dialogue doesn’t “tell” the story. Meaning, if the dialogue is doing the heavy lifting to convey what’s going on then the script probably feels boring to the reader. Storytelling is less about “telling” via dialogue, and more about showing via dramatization.

Yes, dialogue conveys information we need to know, but the challenge is doing it in a way that “conveying information to the audience” doesn’t feel like the point of the dialogue.

We hide or embed the information the audience needs to understand and experience the story within the story itself.

(I know I’m not saying anything groundbreaking here, but maybe you’ve never thought of it this way.)

Dialogue is action.

And, like all action in your screenplay, it accomplishes one or more of several things:

  1. It moves the plot. It is action that a character takes in an effort to achieve a goal. When characters have opposing goals, you get conflict. Along the way, a change in information or circumstance might also occur through dialogue.
  2. It reveals character. What a character does and how they do it shows who the character is, and this applies to dialogue as well. Do they fight their way out of a situation or talk their way out? Do they demand to get their way, or flirt and cajole?
  3. It reveals and develops relationships. This is so connected to the first two, but useful to think of on its own as well. Stories are about transformation, and how dialogue between characters evolves over time shows what’s changing between them.
  4. It entertains us. If you read enough scripts, you might notice that sometimes it feels like writers have either aimed for this target exclusively or forgotten it altogether. It might be tricky and I might not address it perfectly, but I think it will be useful to talk more about this topic in our dialogue series.

Now – really good dialogue probably accomplishes several of these things simultaneously. You’re especially unlikely to get away with a ton of dialogue that’s purely for entertainment and doesn’t also serve the story and/or characters. You might have a line here or there that’s just entertaining, but “just entertaining” dialogue actually gets boring pretty quickly.

Qualities of good dialogue

So your dialogue has a function (or several) – and maybe you already knew that. But have you ever thought about the qualities of good dialogue? Perhaps more likely, you’ve noticed the lack of one (or more) of these dialogue qualities in a screenplay you’ve read:

  1. It sounds natural. True, movie dialogue is not real life dialogue. It’s often much more focused, directed, and snappier than the stuff we say in real life. But even when you’re going for something more obviously stylized, dialogue should have the ring of truth – it should sound like a real human being would say it, within the context of your screenplay.
  2. It makes characters distinct from one another. If dialogue is a constant expression of character, it makes sense that each unique character would express themselves uniquely.
  3. It isn’t dense or overwritten. Dialogue should serve the purpose of the scene (another topic we’ll cover in this series), rather than the scene serving as a showcase for dialogue. Another angle on this point is thinking about (and eliminating) redundant dialogue, too.
  4. And, as mentioned above, dialogue should be light on exposition – or at least able to hide that exposition really well.

And that completes our overview – dialogue form and function in a nutshell. Does this all feel too basic and boring? Well, hold onto your hats…

The 7 deadly sins of screenplay dialogue

(How’s that for dramatic?) This list isn’t exhaustive but includes some of the most common dialogue issues I’ve noticed over the years. In no particular order:

  1. On-the-nose
  2. Unearned
  3. Characters all sound the same
  4. Vague to the point of not really saying anything and/or being hard to follow
  5. Verbose / repetitive
  6. Unnatural
  7. Flat / boring

If you think about it, all of these issues can be addressed by paying attention to the form and/or function at the root of it. And I hope you’re excited, because that’s what we’ll be talking about for the next few weeks. Lots of tips and tricks to come.

Your challenge, if you’d like to play along: read one or more screenplays this week, and see if you can identify how the dialogue fulfills the 8 points (form and function). And notice whether the dialogue has any of the “deadly sins” issues listed above as well.

Next week I’ll be back to talk about how to avoid “on the nose” dialogue!

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

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.

Subscribe