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How to Write Better Film Dialogue

by Celtx

What is good dialogue?

A truism you’ll hear a lot about dialogue, whether in novels, the stage, or the screen, is that the audience does not want it to be ordinary. They don’t want the irregular, rhythmless pace of a normal conversation. Most importantly, they don’t want to hear dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward.

Audiences also want to hear a kind of poetry. Dialogue needs to have rhythm and beauty. It needs to be interesting in itself, beyond its role in advancing the plot.

How do you start dialogue?

Dialogue must always be in service of the story. You should only start writing dialogue once you know exactly what plot points and character development needs to be achieved in the scene.

Remember that film is a visual medium. Try our storyboard templates to help you layout the each scene. When beginning a scene, think about what can be communicated through imagery or action as opposed to words, and write that first. The old adage of “show, don’t tell” should always be at the top of your mind.

Consider this clip from Mad Max: Fury Road. Even without the dialogue, it’s easy to understand the thrust of the scene.

In essence, dialogue should be used only to communicate things that can’t be expressed any other way.

What is realistic dialogue?

“Realistic” dialogue is a tricky term. It does not mean literally realistic. No-one wants a conversation where one character circles back to a previous topic with, “Oh, I forgot to say…” No-one wants several lines between a shopper and a clerk at a grocery store ironing out exactly what a coupon means and when it can be used. Though these are realistic in the sense that they happen often in real life, they are not the “realistic dialogue” that producers demand.

Instead, “realistic dialogue” means dialogue that sounds like how real people want to sound. Everyone wishes they could come up with snappy comebacks and great jokes immediately, instead of twelve hours later in the shower. Unfortunately, the human brain doesn’t work that fast. 

As a screenwriter, you have all the time in the world (well, at least until your deadline). You can use this time to allow your characters to express themselves as cleverly and poetically as real people wish they could.

How do you write realistic dialogue?

You can only write realistic dialogue if your characters have realistic inner lives. Developing believable, fleshed-out characters with their own wants, needs, desires, and motivations is crucial to crafting realistic dialogue (and effective screenwriting in general).

In this blog post, we’ll show you how to develop your characters and ensure that you’re never at a loss for what they would realistically say next.

Equally important is conveying the fact that most people, in most situations, don’t really want to listen to each other. Characters should react to what they want or expect to hear, not what the other person is saying. This is ‘realism’ in drama. Moreover, always consider that what is not said can be just as impactful as what is.

How do you write powerful dialogue?

Your job, as Alfred Hitchcock would say, is to make “real life, with all the dull bits cut out.” Start the scene as close to the most powerful moment as possible, and end it right after that. Then, after you’ve written the scene, cut at least 20% of the dialogue out. Keep only the power.

For an example of a scene where every single line carries power, watch the legendary tavern scene from Inglorious Basterds. Note how, by filling the medium shot with information, from the placement of the characters to the reactions of the background soldiers, Tarantino shows that every line affects the mood of the room.

What are the qualities of good dialogue?

In summary, good dialogue:

  1. Has rhythm and style.
  2. Motivates the plot.
  3. Provides characterization.
  4. Matches the tone of a scene.
  5. Is believable.

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