How to Write Dialogue in a Script: Tips for Screenwriters

people talking in a movie

Key Takeaways:

In scriptwriting, great dialogue between characters will advance the plot, aid in character development, and capture the authentic voices of the characters.

When writing dialogue, remember to keep it concise, avoid heavy exposition or description, and make it as similar to real-life conversations as you can.

Are you writing a script, but not sure how to get the dialogue just right for the characters?

I’ve always been drawn to great characters in movies and books, and I’ve found that the best characters are those who manage to say the perfect words in a given moment!

That’s why my benchmark for my own creative work has always been the dialogue, and it’s something I strive to be consistent in no matter the style or genre of film I write.

In this guide, we’ll talk about how to write dialogue in a script that rings true to your characters and continues the plot of your story. I’ll start with the basics of what dialogue is, and then get into the role of dialogue in your screenplay.

What is Dialogue in a Script?

In a script, dialogue is the spoken word. It’s what the characters say to each other (and sometimes to themselves). As noted in this article from Wikipedia, dialogue refers to a written or spoken conversational exchange between two or more people.

In a screenplay, dialogue can reveal a lot about the characters’ personalities, their relationship with each other, and the overall tone of the piece.

Dialogue can be either formal or informal, serious or playful. It can advance the plot or provide information.

But no matter what its purpose, dialogue should be short, sharp, and to the point. After all, audiences don’t want to hear characters prattle on endlessly; they want to see them move the story forward.

So, when you want to write great dialogue in a movie, remember to keep it snappy and focused. Otherwise, your audience is liable to tune out.

writing dialogue in a script

Why is Dialogue Important?

Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has at their disposal. Clever dialogue can be used to reveal character, advance the story or plot, produce subtext, and create suspense or tension. It can also be used to establish the setting and mood of the movie or short film.

In some cases, dialogue can even be used for dramatic effect as a form of action, such as when two other characters, such as your protagonist and antagonist, argue or engage in a verbal battle (such as during the climax of your film).

movie characters

Regardless of how it is used, dialogue is vital to any script. Without dialogue, a screenplay would simply be a collection of action scenes and descriptions.

Dialogue brings the script to life and allows the screenwriter to express their vision for the film fully!

How to Write Dialogue in a Script

1: Let the Dialogue Advance the Plot

How to Write Dialogue in a Script

Dialogue is one of the most essential elements of a screenplay.

Not only does it advance the plot, but it can also serve as a tool to help develop character and create tension. When writing dialogue, it’s essential to keep these things in mind.

Every line should advance the plot, convey information, and/or serve a purpose. Otherwise, it risks feeling like filler or becoming distracting.

Additionally, dialogue should be used to help develop characters and create tension. By giving each character a distinct voice and using dialogue to reveal their inner thoughts and feelings, you can create complex and fascinating characters that readers will want to follow.

2: Dialogue Assists with Character Development

Screenplay dialogue shapes characters

One of the most important functions of script dialogue is to assist with character development.

Through dialogue, writers can reveal a character’s personality, motivations, and values. How one character speaks can be as revealing as what they say.

In addition, good dialogue can help to establish relationships between characters. By showing how characters interact with each other, dialogue can provide insight into their individual personalities as well as the dynamics of their relationship.

Dialogue can also be used to advance the plot or to provide exposition. However, its most important function is to help develop fully-rounded characters that audiences can invest in.

3: Be True to Each Character’s Voice

be true to your character voices

It is important in a script for the dialogue to be true to each character’s voice. It’s one of the main ways that we, as writers, can bring our characters to life on the page!

When done well, realistic dialogue can be a powerful tool for making our characters seem believable to our audience.

When done poorly, however, it can make our characters seem one-dimensional and stiff.

To ensure our script dialogue is true to our character’s voices, we must take the time to get to know them inside and out.

  • What makes them tick?
  • What are their hopes and fears?
  • What is their unique way of speaking?
  • What is their background, social status, and educational level?

By taking the time to answer these questions, we can ensure that our character’s voices ring true on the page.

IDEA: These days, if you’re having trouble thinking of interesting character motivations and backgrounds, you can always try using AI! While I don’t advocate using artificial intelligence to write entire stories, they are fantastic at helping you get over writer’s block and find new ideas. You can click to learn more about my favorite AI story generator for creatives!

4: Avoid Exposition in Dialogue

avoid exposition in screenplay dialogue

When writing dialogue for a screenplay, it is important to avoid exposition.

Exposition is a form of speech used solely to explain something or provide information. While it can be tempting to use long descriptions to help advance the plot, this can often result in wooden, unrealistic, just plain bad dialogue.

In addition, when a character explains something the audience already knows, it can be frustrating and confusing to that audience – this is not something you want to do!

Instead, good screenwriters will find creative ways to introduce information through action and subtext.

Remember – what characters don’t say should be just as important as what they do say, and sometimes even more so. You will create richer, more complex characters and storylines by making sure to show rather than tell.

This will make your characters seem like real people, and the script will be all the stronger for it.

5: Be Concise

keep your script dialogue concise

Concise writing is an essential skill for screenwriters. In a screenplay, dialogue serves two purposes: to advance the plot and to reveal character. To do both effectively, every word must serve a purpose.

Concise writing helps to ensure that every line of script dialogue is necessary and meaningful. When characters speak concisely, their words have more impact.

In addition, concise writing helps to keep the pace of a screenplay moving forward. Too much dialogue can slow down the action and cause the story to drag.

It’s important to find that fine line between exposition and a real conversation that actual humans might have!

“Nothing teaches you as much about writing dialogue as listening to it.”

– Judy Blume

6: Write Realistic Dialogue

write realistic screenplay dialogue

Great dialogue helps to create believable, natural characters and move a story along. Here are some tips for how to write realistic, natural-sounding dialogue (AKA a real conversation!) in a screenplay:

  • Start by listening to the way people talk in real life. Real conversations are chock full of pauses, stumbles, and repetitions. This is the kind of natural dialogue you want to capture on the page.
  • Don’t be afraid of using dialect or slang. This can help to create a more realistic picture of a character and their world. Just be sure that it is used sparingly and appropriately, and avoid stereotypes.
  • When writing dialogue, try to stay true to each character’s own voice. Each person should sound distinct from the others. This will help to keep the dialogue interesting and easy to follow.
  • Don’t be afraid to let the characters argue or disagree with each other. Conflict is an essential part of any good story, making the dialogue more natural and realistic.
  • Finally, remember that less is often more with natural dialogue. Keep your exchanges short and sweet, and let the subtext speak for itself.

7: Practice, Practice, Practice!

keep practicing your script dialogue

There’s no denying that practice makes perfect. And when it comes to learning how to write script dialogue, practice is essential.

By sitting down and writing out scenes repeatedly, you’ll get a feel for how effective dialogue sounds on the page.

You’ll also start to understand the rhythms and cadences of natural conversation, which will be invaluable when writing your own characters’ dialogue.

So if you’re serious about learning how to write excellent screenplay dialogue, be prepared to put in the work. The more you practice, the better you’ll become at crafting sharp dialogue that truly brings your characters to life.

How to Write Off-Screen Dialogue

One of the most challenging aspects of writing off-screen dialogue – such as an unseen character on the other end of a phone conversation, someone in another room, a voice-over, a narrator, and so on – is making it sound natural.

After all, you’re not just replicating real-life conversation; you’re also trying to capture the characters’ essence and the scene’s mood. Here are my best tips when writing off-screen talking in a movie:

  • Use off-screen dialogue sparingly – too much off-screen dialogue can be distracting or difficult to follow.
  • Ensure the off-screen dialogue is relevant to the story – off-screen dialogue should advance the plot or shed light on the characters and their motivations.
  • Write off-screen dialogue that is interesting – off-screen dialogue should be well-written and engaging enough to hold the reader or viewer’s attention.
  • Keep it concise – use short, declarative sentences.
  • Keep the dialogue brief – two or three lines at most.

If you are writing narration or voice-over, don’t have the off-screen dialogue describe what we see in the scene.

Instead, it should speak to what we can’t see!

screenplay

How to Write a Pause in Dialogue

Have you ever been in the middle of a conversation and not known what to say next?

Or, felt like you were talking without taking a breath?

When writing dialogue, it is essential to remember that pauses are just as important as the words that are spoken. Adding a pause in the right place can create tension, build suspense, or give your readers a chance to breathe.

There are a few different ways to indicate a pause in the dialogue.

One is to simply use ellipses (…) to show that the character has trailed off or is thinking about what to say next.

Another is to use action beats, which are small actions or gestures that show what the character is doing while they pause.

For example, you might write, “She paused, tapping her fingers on the table.” Action beats can add more description, help the reader visualize the scene, and provide the actor with an action to break up the dialogue.

Finally, you can use narration to describe the character’s thoughts or feelings during the pause. This can effectively add depth to your characters and help your readers understand their inner motivations.

how to write dialogue in a screenplay

How to Write Internal Dialogue

When you’re writing internal dialogue, it’s important to remember that less is more. You don’t want to overcrowd your script with internal thoughts, or it will become difficult for the reader to follow.

Instead, use internal dialogue to reveal critical information about your characters and their motivations. You want the reader to hear the character’s thoughts as if they’re thinking them themselves.

Internal dialogue can be used to show what a character is thinking at a particular moment or to provide background information about their past. It’s also a great way to reveal internal conflict and build tension.

To do this, you must ensure that the internal dialogue sounds believable.

One way to do this is to use short, simple sentences that mimic the way we actually think.

Another way is to use internal monologue when the characters talk to themselves out loud. This can underscore what the character is thinking or reveal important information to the reader.

script

How to Write Dual Dialogue in a Script

Dual dialogue is a writing technique used to show two characters speaking simultaneously.

It can add humor, tension, or realism to a scene. To write dual dialogue, each character should have their own unique voice so the audience can easily follow who is saying what.

To make sure each character sounds distinct, give them different linguistic ticks, such as different vocabularies, dialects, or accents.

Also, consider their different personalities and use that to inform how they speak. For example, one main character might be more assertive and use shorter sentences, while another might be more passive and use longer, meandering sentences.

When writing dual dialogue, it’s essential to keep these characteristics in mind so that the audience can easily follow along.

To write dual dialogue, both characters’ dialogues are written on the same line to indicate they’re speaking simultaneously. For example:

add dialogue to a story

How do you write good dialogue?

When you format dialogue in a script, there are a few things to remember.

  • Each character’s dialogue should be on its own line, with the character’s name above it written in all caps.
  • If the character is narrating, it should be indicated by writing (V.O.) – for “voice-over” – after the character’s name.
  • If the character speaks offscreen, that should be indicated by writing (O.S.) after the character’s name.
  • If two characters speak simultaneously, their dialogues should be on the same line.
  • If a character is speaking over another character’s dialogue, that should be indicated by writing (O.V.) after the character’s name.

Remember to use a good screenwriting software program, as this will help you format dialogue effectively and efficiently.

When you format dialogue correctly, it makes it easy for everyone involved in the production to understand who is speaking and when.

Dialogue Examples from Famous Movies

12 Angry Men

Our first film dialogue example is the courtroom drama 12 Angry Men.

It’s hard to imagine a film like this being released in theaters today. No big set pieces, exotic locations, car chases or shootouts, edge-of-your-seat action scenes, or special effects of any kind.

Just twelve people, sequestered in a hot, cramped room, debating the trial verdict.

It is mainly dialogue-driven, and yet it works on every level. It is one of the most riveting films ever made, thanks not only to the stellar cast’s phenomenal performances but also because those same actors were given such great dialogue to work with.

Each character is distinct and unique, from their words to how they say them. They are also consistent with the way they speak, so as a reader, you never doubt which character is speaking.

This entire film is a master class in writing great dialogue!

No Country for Old Men

This film has several examples of a single scene with great dialogue, but the best one is the one affectionately known as “the coin toss scene.”

This entire scene is purely dialogue-driven. Neither character even raises his voice or becomes physical in any way.

And yet, it goes from friendly banter about the weather to a menacing wager for one man’s life in a matter of a few minutes.

The dialogue drives the scene, compounding the tension and raising the stakes to such a degree that we know, with certainty, that every new word to be uttered could mean life or death.

That’s excellent dialogue!

Final Thoughts

Dialogue is what brings scripts to life, and writers must take the time to write natural conversations between characters.

By moving the plot along, developing characters through their words, and staying true to each character’s voice, good dialogue will add depth and richness to any script!

writing dialogue in a screenplay

Common Questions (FAQs)

How do you write good dialogue?

To write good dialogue in a screenplay, make sure it sounds like real people talking. Each character should have their own way of speaking, and the words they say should match their personality. Also, keep it short and to the point, so it’s interesting and moves the story forward.

What is the difference between dialogue and action lines in a screenplay?

In a screenplay, dialogue is what the characters say to each other. Action lines describe what is happening, like what characters are doing or what the scene looks like. So, dialogue is about talking, and action lines are about doing.

Can I use slang or informal language in dialogue?

Yes, you can use slang or informal language in dialogue if it fits your characters. It makes them sound more real and can show where they’re from or what they’re like. Just make sure it’s easy to understand and matches the story.

Want to write a great script or story? Check out these other helpful articles:

How to Write a Story with Three-Act Structure [with Examples!]

How to Write a Screenplay Synopsis: 7 Tips for Screenwriters

How to Write Effective Screenplay Action Lines

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