Human communication is weird — we “hmm,” “mm,” and “like” our way through conversations. We pause, we misdirect, we ramble tangentially. The majority of the time, we don’t even speak in person. We text, we message, we post on social media, and we speak on the growing-more-rare phone. As screenwriters, we have to be able to represent human communication in ways that feel realistic, cool, and inspirational. It’s not easy and can be pretty daunting, so here are some tips that are sure to come in handy when you’re sweating your dialogue!
- Screenplay Dialogue Tip 1: Realistic can be misleading
Everyone praises and strives for “realistic dialogue,” but is that even a thing? In real life, we’re never quite as witty or on point as a script requires. In real situations, people don’t always have a zinger or a killer last word to depart on. People notice and describe dialogue as “realistic” when the dialogue rings true to the moment, and when something about it feels honest. In “Juno,” the strange teen-speak is far from how real teens talk, but it works in the world of the story. Don’t get caught up on making something feel realistic, but instead consider if it feels honest and sincere in the world of the story you’re telling.
- Screenplay Dialogue Tip 2: Too on the nose?
Rarely do people say what’s on their mind or spill their guts entirely. Try to avoid dialogue that gives everything away. Often, we need our characters to give exposition important to the story, but as a writer, it’s our job to make that expositional dialogue not sound like expositional dialogue. This is where we get to be creative and use things like nuance and subtext to get what we need to be heard across in a section of dialogue without being too heavy-handed.
- Screenplay Dialogue Tip 3: Less is Best
More often than not, less dialogue is better. Dialogue should be purposeful, and fluff should be cut. Use action and imagery in place of dialogue where possible. Often, using action in place of dialogue will be more impactful than if your character were to talk about what’s going on.
- Screenplay Dialogue Tip 4: Don’t make it too easy
This is a big thing for me. I have to always remind myself to up the stakes, up the tension, and, most of all, up the conflict. Don’t make your dialogue easy for your characters. Find the natural places where conflict might arise in your dialogue. Maybe other characters want to give your main character a hard time about something, or perhaps someone refuses to talk about what your main character wants to talk about and avoids it by bringing up other things. In real life, a lot of conversations lean towards the bland and blah, but in a script that should be avoided. Injecting tension and conflict into your dialogue can be an excellent way to keep things moving and feeling urgent.
- Screenplay Dialogue Tip 5: Distinctive Voices
We’ve all heard it before. Your characters should have distinctive voices; they all shouldn’t sound the same. We’ve heard it before for a reason. It’s good advice! If I get feedback suggesting that my characters sound too similar, I like to do an editing pass for “voices.” I’ll start with my main character and focus on how they sound in my head, sometimes jotting down notes on important aspects of how they talk. Then I’ll go through their lines adjusting accordingly, repeating the process for each character.
Don’t let dialogue stress you out! Hopefully, these tips will help when you find yourself struggling with your dialogue. Good luck and happy writing!