Dialogue is one of the most important elements in a screenplay, for countless reasons. While great dialogue will not automatically make your script golden, weak dialogue will definitely pull down your script. It will not be an understatement to say that dialogue is the fastest and most overt indicator of a writer’s voice and craft.
When we recall our favourite movie, one of the first things we think of is the moments we love, especially the dialogues. Who can forget the iconic Kitne aadmi the from Sholay or Ja Simran ja, jile aapni zindagi from Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge! There are some dialogues that we love and some we hate, which is why you have get it right. Want to know more about how to write fabulous dialogues, read on!
Listen to what’s around you
Listen to people very carefully, what they are saying and what they are not saying with equal interest. The world is full of dialogues, if you can hear them. We tend to think of dialogue as back and forth between speakers. But when you listen, you realize that people talk over each other constantly and rarely finish a thought completely.
Dialogue reveals what characters hide, what people try to conceal. Since you are writing the character, you become the characters you are writing. You hear it in your head as you write it. The best thing you can do is sit with your actors, do a dry run and make adjustments according to the requirements of the character or the actor.
Flow of your dialogue
Figure out the flow, the how, the when, the why and it will be words in the right order. Movie conversations mostly involve exchange of information (“the fingerprints match”). Figure out how the characters would tell each other the information. Well written dialogue subtly gives the facts, while badly written dialogue tends to give information in every direction.
Write the draft
You might come up with some punch lines the first time, but for the rest of the dialogues, it is best to write the first draft of a scene, without any punctuation. Next step is to write the final version, when you have the blueprint for the scene. Read each line aloud, over and over again, fine tuning it as you go, with better words.
Characters listening or speaking?
Once you have the scene finished, read the lines again to make sure the characters are not just speaking because they have to. Sometimes, they might just need to listen and sometimes just nod or express without dialogue. Write these finer nuances in it too to highlight the key dialogues.
Similar to writing a story, many a times, the best way to improve dialogue is to cut it. After the draft is complete, let it be for a couple of days; then revisit it and if a piece of information is not important, cut it out. Develop the cut instinct. There might be instances where there is a scene with 10 lines of dialogue, and you cut it to five lines, then the five liner becomes two lines, and yet again the two lines might end up with zero lines.
Tight screen dialogue
Screen dialogue is different from real-life dialogue, which is often uninteresting for an outsider, and contains small talk. Whereas screen dialogue is tight, interesting and engaging while being realistic and authentic. So, keep your dialogue interesting, engaging and tight. If you want your screenplay to click, keep your dialogue interesting, engaging and tight, which comes with effort and a good amount of rewriting.
Include conflict where needed
Include as much drama and conflict as possible as it keeps audiences engaged and makes them wonder what’s going to happen next.
Read every line out loud, and ask yourself whether that line is realistic for that character at that time. See if it could be made any tighter. Make sure every character has a distinct voice, since most scripts have multiple characters. Every scene exists for a reason, so be sure that what you’re doing is writing out the scenes that are integral to telling your story.
Effective dialogue is not an exact reproduction of real-life speech but rather a condensed form that cuts out verbiage while retaining the flavor of authentic, natural speech. Good dialogue imitates the natural rhythms of everyday speech; it contains nuances, overtones and original turns of phrase that bring out the individual personalities of characters.
- Do you need dialogue in every scene?
- Do characters have to use words to respond to a question?
- Do characters have to have something to say in response to every comment or situation?
The answer is No!
So what is the Purpose of Dialogue?
- To reveal character
- To move the story forward
Sometimes only dialogue can expose the real motivations and secrets of a character in all their complexity. It’s especially effective when it exposes the character in an entirely new way from what we as an audience expect. We use dialogue to establish relationships.
- Dialogue reflects feelings and attitudes.
- There may be subtext. What is really being said?
- Direct dialogue drives people apart: “You’re always late!” Indirect dialogue draws people together: “I know you had to help your sister before you could come.”
- Conflict in dialogue can reveal information.
- Dialogue should move the story forward & serve the plot.
The mood of the story
- The type of dialogue must be appropriate for the genre of that specific film. Set the tone and style of the story right away. This is especially important in comedy, so that we know that it’s all right to laugh.
- Good dialogue has a beat, a rhythm, and a melody. It’s affected by time, place, the weather, and so much more. It’s intangible like mist, and it depends on your characters and who they are, their relationships, the situation, and the genre.
- Sometimes you might to set up the story in the first few words of dialogue.
- From the start, keep in mind your final end point, and build the dialogue toward the climax.
- Write less than you think you need. See and hear it as you write. Act it out in character.
- See who is dominating the scene, shifting dominance and apex.
Every word should have a purpose
Chinatown: Jake Gittes is relaying an off – color joke to his male employees. The joke is not important, what is important is Mrs. Mulwray is listening without Jake’s knowledge. The dialogue purpose is to cause an awkward moment and put Jake off-guard.
In Pulp Fiction, Jules gives his opinion of hamburgers. He is not trying to instruct the young men in the apartment about beef patties, he is making it clear that he is the most dangerous, unpredictable and powerful person in the room.
Making dialogue sound natural
- Use contractions (“don’t”, “shouldn’t”, “can’t”) unless a character is very stuffy or speaking in a very formal context.
- Let characters break off sentences, or speak in phrases rather than sentences. (You might think of these as verb less sentences, they’re great for dialogue.)
- Have characters interrupt one another.
- Use the occasional “um” or “er”, if a character is being particularly hesitant.
Find the character’s voice.
- How your character speaks will bring him or her to life. The dialogue you construct for your characters needs to be specific. Let the dialogue help clarify characters.
- What area of the world is the character from?
- Is he foreign? Local?
- What part of the country is he/she from?
- Use of colloquial (not formal or literary used on ordinary or familiar conversation) slang can reveal roots of character.
What is the educational level of the character?
- Big words or small words?
- Malapropisms (the mistaken use of words in place of a similar-sounding one. Often with unintentionally amusing effect.)
- Understanding of the world.
- Ability to make their point of view.
What is the personality of the character?
- Violent? Meek? (Quiet, gentle) Timid? (Showing a lack of courage) Insecure? Proud? Egotistical?
- Finds humor in every situation?
- Chip on his shoulder?
- Seduces with every word?
Dialogue is also about attitude. Characters with sunny dispositions may find the silver lining on every storm cloud. Characters who view the world as a dark and menacing place will find words, images and ideas to reflect that.