More difficult than writing good dialogue is writing great dialogue rich in subtext. The distinction is subtle, but the latter requires the screenwriter to go one step further and tap into the psyche of the characters they’ve created.
Fortunately, the best dialogue across all mediums — not just film — share more than a few common characteristics that can be learned by aspiring screenwriters. Let’s take a look at what great dialogue typically has going for it.
1. It Moves the Plot Forward Without Giving Things Away
Building to a crucial moment through dialogue can lead to a more satisfying twist or turn of events, particularly if you can avoid advancing the story through direct exposition.
Each word and every line of your dialogue must do at least one of two things; move the plot along or set things up for a big reveal. If it doesn’t, as the screenwriter, you are obliged to cut it.
2. It Reveals Character History and Their Motivations
What your characters say should reflect their innermost thoughts, motivations and personality in a way that creates and reinforces a shared experience between the audience and the characters themselves.
All of your characters should have their own communicative styles, cadence and vocabulary to make it clear to the audience who is speaking at any one time.
Of course, I would be remiss in my duty as writer of this article to neglect to mention that clever casting decisions can make all the difference where characterisation is concerned.
3. It Does Not Explain the Action. Ever.
There is an unwritten rule amongst filmmakers. ‘Show, don’t tell.’
If your dialogue contains information that has already been communicated, either visually or audibly, it is bad and needs reworking. Making such edits will serve to slim down your screenplay and improve pacing as well.
In short, never restate anything unless the subtext or context has changed, allowing the dialogue to take on new meaning.
4. It Aims to be Purposeful and Not Conversational
It’s a common misconception that writing dialogue, in the context of screenwriting, is about writing conversations. The two terms are rarely interchangeable.
Great dialogue is typically hidden within the many interactions the protagonist is forced to go through. Everything they say should put them in a slightly better position to reach their end goal.
This means cutting out everything conversational, such as vagueness and words like ‘um’ and ‘well’ that occur naturally in casual speech.
5. It Minimizes Audience Exposure to Direct Exposition
Building upon the first and second points, characters should never explain what is happening in the story. Information delivered this way comes across as having been included for the audience’s sole benefit.
Instead, divulge any pertinent exposition non-verbally and as non-technically as possible where you can. This could be through character actions, interactions and other visual storytelling elements such as set design, location and costume, etc.
A good tip to keep in mind is to avoid audience hand holding and leave some things open to interpretation.
6. It Remains Appropriate and Non-Technical
Plain bad dialogue will cause the audience to lose their emotional investment in the film and their ability to suspend their disbelief.
It may seem obvious but if you’re writing a comedy, keep your dialogue light and witty. If your screenplay is a thriller, make sure the dialogue is succinct. And if you’re writing a period piece, do your research to ensure it resonates authentically.
Doing Your Due Diligence
Ultimately, writing great dialogue comes down to doing your due diligence.
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