Perfecting Dialogue

Screenplays look so simple, everyone thinks they could write one.  And everyone probably can.  But not everyone can write a screenplay that stands out from the mountains of scripts piled in production company offices, scripts just begging for a read.  Many elements contribute to turning out that special script including rich characters, unique story, conflict, plot twists, and dialogue. 

Of all the elements mentioned, dialogue is the one most people feel confident they could successfully produce.  After all, we’ve been talking all our lives.  We have years of conversation samples to fall back on.  So you would think screenplay dialogue would be a snap to perfect.  Just listen to the way people speak and write it that way.

Actually, good screenplay dialogue is not easy to write because it has very little in common with real life dialogue.  One of the few similarities real life conversation and script conversation share is the clipped sentence.  In real conversations we often don’t complete thoughts, we interrupt each other, all leading to dialogue that looks more like bullet points on paper than an interchange between two people.  Do your friends give long-winded speeches while conversing?  Probably not.  Characters in scripts shouldn't do it either.  It’s a rule that’s emphasized in screenwriting books and screenwriting classes.  And it’s important because quite often, long monologues pull us out of the story or distract us from the plot.  But there are rare exceptions.

One successful exception includes the film, When Harry Met Sally.  It’s hard to forget the many rants of the opinionated Harry Burns (Billy Crystal) and his last speech, designed to finally open his heart to Sally (Meg Ryan).

“I love that you get cold when it's 71 degrees out. I love that it takes you an hour and a half to order a sandwich. I love that you get a little crinkle above your nose when you're looking at me like I'm nuts. I love that after I spend the day with you, I can still smell your perfume on my clothes. And I love that you are the last person I want to talk to before I go to sleep at night. And it's not because I'm lonely, and it's not because it's New Year's Eve. I came here tonight because when you realize you want to spend the rest of your life with somebody, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible.” 

So why was this an exception?  Nora Ephron was able to include speeches like this in her screenplay for one important reason - her name is Nora Ephron.  When you’re known in the industry and have talent you can pretty much break all the rules you want.

So what about the script Good Will Hunting? Written in 1997 by newbies Matt Damon and Ben Affleck,  the script was teeming with long speeches by several of the actors. Who can ever forget Will’s endless, inventive monologues, or those by Sean, the doctor who recognizes Will’s genius but can’t break through the young man’s hard shell?

“So if I asked you about art, you'd probably give me the skinny on every art book ever written. Michelangelo, you know a lot about him. Life's work, political aspirations, him and the pope, sexual orientations, the whole works, right? But I'll bet you can't tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel. You've never actually stood there and looked up at that beautiful ceiling; seen that. If I ask you about women, you'd probably give me a syllabus about your personal favorites. You may have even been laid a few times. But you can't tell me what it feels like to wake up next to a woman and feel truly happy. You're a tough kid. And I'd ask you about war, you'd probably throw Shakespeare at me, right, "once more unto the breach dear friends." But you've never been near one….”

A screenwriting instructor might say this monologue is repetitive because it makes the same point three times with different language.  But the reason all the speeches work in this film is because they did not pull us out of the story.  Instead they brought us to a deeper emotional understanding of the characters.  The story was rich and the characters were deep and layered, proving that Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were masters at writing brilliant dialogue and stories.  And with their first script, no less.  Good Will Hunting sold and got made because the entire script was genius.  “How do you like them apples?”  (A line from the script.)

Unless you have that exceptional kind of talent or had an Oscar nomination, you should avoid speeches in your script and write the way people sound off the screen.  Real people chitchat, ramble, and say what comes into their minds with little filtering. Great screenplay dialogue is not built on perfect sentences, but rather lean and well crafted narrative, with a particular focus.

Here's how to achieve that kind of screenplay dialogue.

Know Your Characters

What does your character eat for breakfast?  Before some writers begin a script they create biographies for each of the main characters that answer this kind of question.  A writer should know who they are, where they come from, their social and professional standing and their education. You may not even use some of this material in the script, but it will plant a vivid image of the character in your head.  Does he stutter?  Accents, word choices, and slang are all a result of knowing the character.

Give Characters Their Own Personal Sound

Dialogue That Mimics Dance

To do this, it might help to think of dialogue as though it were a dance style. It could be sharp, forceful, and determined like the tango, or languid and sweeping like the waltz. Whatever you decide, make dialogue unique for each character.  When the script is finished, you should be able to know who is speaking without looking at the character’s name.

Show, Don't Tell

Always choose to show something, instead of having a character tell another character about it. Motion pictures should include as much "motion" as possible. Also recognize when to mute your characters. When a character responds to a question with silence, it can communicate volumes.

Include Conflict

People in opposition are much more interesting to listen to than people who are of like minds. Encourage your characters to interrupt and talk over each other.

Move The Story Forward

Use dialogue to move the story forward.  When characters speak, their words should constantly offer new information to the audience.  Don't have them tell us things we've already seen or things we already know.

Use Subtext

Subtext demonstrates a character's underlying thoughts and emotions.  It's a great tool to use when something needs to be revealed and it beats having the character tell us directly. If a wife suspected her husband of cheating on her, when he came home she wouldn't say, "I suspect you're cheating on me". But she might say, "Make your own dinner!"


Strive for consistency in dialogue.  Don't let a character lose his personality by having him use language that doesn't ring true for him.  When writing dialogue for more than one person at once, it might be a challenge to keep track of how each should sound.  Some writers address this issue after the first draft is complete.  If you're working with the hero's dialogue for instance, a great way to hear just that voice loud and clear is to print out and review all the scenes that include dialogue only for the hero. Most current scriptwriting software will allow you this printing option. As you read, ignore the other characters in the scene. Focus only on the hero's dialogue. It will clearly point out any flaws and guarantee that the character remains true to your original idea of who they are.

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