Expert screenwriting tips by working screenwriters
At the heart of every great screenplay is great dialogue.
Professional screenwriters work tirelessly to ensure their dialogue is great. Writing great dialogue is not easy, there's an art to it. Read any scripts by Aaron Sorkin, Alan Ball, Quentin Tarantino et al and you'll find masters of that art.
The vast majority of non-professional screenplays have issues with their dialogue. Some regularly commit one fundamental flaw, many regularly commit a number.
You can avoid such mistakes by reading this section carefully and taking its points onboard.
Real-life dialogue is often uninteresting and rarely engaging for an outsider, it frequently also contains a lot of unnecessary padding, small talk and the like.
Screen dialogue has to be different - you can't bore your prodco reader (you want to sell your script right?) or your movie audience.
Screen dialogue needs to be tight, interesting, engaging whilst also being realistic and authentic (to a character's life experience, job, back story etc).
Each character needs to speak with their own distinct voice.
It is often conflict laden or has undercurrents of drama or conflict - which keeps the reader engaged with the story.
We'll explain these key screen dialogue fundamentals and more here.
Easy? Not necessarily. Your dialogue has to be appropriate for the character - if the character is an FBI agent or doctor then he has to speak accordingly. If he doesn't then your prodco reader is not going to purchase your script.
Think of the Bourne movies and how appropriate the dialogue was for its characters - you felt you were part of their CIA world, their dialogue helped propel you there.
Novice screenwriters often miss this mark badly. For example, we have read far too many scripts were child characters speak with a very adult voice - they don't read or sound like children. Scripts with unrealistic or inauthentic dialogue won't sell.
An example of tight authentic dialogue from The Bourne Ultimatum by Tony Gilroy et al:
INT. CRI HUB - DAY
TWO NEW TECHS plus the three we met before. All watching
VOSEN lead LANDY and CRONIN into the room.
This is Pamela Landy. She's
gonna be quarterbacking our
search effort. I think what we
oughta do, just to get started,
let's go around the room, say who
you are and what your spec is.
LANDY stepping in before this gets going --
Let's do names later.
(she's got the floor)
What's Bourne's last fixed position?
London. Twelve hundred Zulu.
Status? Wounded? Armed?
Alive. Mobile. Unknown.
Where are your grids coming from?
You have an Echelon package?
Why isn't it on?
We were waiting.
You're nine hours behind the
toughest target you've ever
tracked. I want everyone to sit
down, strap in, and turn on all
That would mean now.
That lights it. They're moving.
I want everything you've got on Ross on screen one.
LANDY watches as the screen lights up with ROSS information...
Non-professional writers often have too much redundant, uninteresting or unnecessary dialogue in their scripts. Such dialogue bores readers and slows the read. If you want your screenplay to sell, keep your dialogue interesting, engaging and tight.
Keeping your dialogue interesting, engaging and tight is not easy to do but it's possible. It takes time, effort, constructive feedback and often requires a good amount of rewriting. But it's worth the work, your script will be exponentially better for it.
Some great scripts that demonstrate this particularly well include any Aaron Sorkin script, Flight, Margin Call, Bridesmaids, Traffic, Syriana, Crash, anything by Quentin Tarantino (not tight but interest-level is off the scale), Little Miss Sunshine etc.
Source Code is another great example. The story largely takes place on a commuter train yet the dialogue was kept natural, tight, and very intriguing. Tight and interesting dialogue makes for a reader keen to turn the page (and potentially buy your script), and a satisfied movie goer.
Here's an excellent example from the Academy Awards nominated Bridesmaids by Annie Mumolo and Kristen Wiig:
INT. CHOLODECKI'S - DAY
Annie stares at wedding rings in the counter.
Annie looks up. A snotty 13 year old rich GIRL stands at
Annie's counter with an iced coffee, chewing gum.
I'm looking for a birthday gift for
my best friend. I want to get her a
necklace that says ‘Best Friends Forever.'
Are you sure you want it to say forever?
(off the girl's "duh" face)
I don't think you guys will be together forever. No offense, but the friends you have when you're younger, sometimes you grow apart. You'll get older and maybe she'll find a new best friend. And maybe she'll be more successful than you are, and prettier, and richer, and skinnier, and they end up doing everything together.
I'm not weird.
Yes you are.
No I'm not. You started it.
You started it. Did you forget to
take your Xanax this morning?
God, I feel bad for your parents.
I feel bad for your face.
Call me when your boobs come in.
You call me when yours come in.
What, do you have four boyfriends?
Have fun having a baby at your prom.
You look like an old mop.
You know, you aren't as popular as you think you are.
I'm very popular.
(miming a blow job)
I'm sure you are. Very popular.
You're an old single loser who is never going to have any friends.
You're a little cunt.
INT. DON'S OFFICE - DAY
Don stands across from Annie who finishes cleaning out her
locker. She sadly starts to leave.
Professional screenwriters include as much drama and conflict in their screenplays as possible. It keeps readers (and movie audiences) fully engaged, makes them desperate to turn the page. Done well, such scripts are a great read, and often sell.
A great sample from an Oscar-winning script packed with drama and conflict, American Beauty by Alan Ball:
INT. BRAD'S OFFICE - DAY
Brad is seated behind his desk, reading a document. Lester sits across from him, smiling.
...my job consists of basically masking my contempt for the assholes in charge, and, at least once a day, retiring to the men's room so I can jerk off, while I fantasize about a life that doesn't so closely resemble hell.
(looks up at Lester)
Well, you obviously have no interest in saving yourself.
Brad, for fourteen years I've been a whore for the advertising industry. The only way I could save myself now is if I start firebombing.
Whatever. Management wants you gone by the end of the day.
Well, just what sort of severance package is "management" prepared to offer me? Considering the information I have about our editorial director buying pussy with company money.
Which I'm sure would interest the I.R.S., since it technically constitutes fraud. And I'm sure that some of our advertisers and rival publications might like to know about it as well. Not to mention, Craig's wife.
What do you want?
One year's salary, with benefits.
That's not going to happen.
Well, what do you say I throw in a little sexual harassment charge to boot?
Brad stops laughing.
Can you prove you didn't offer to save my job if I'd let you blow me?
Brad leans back in his chair, studying Lester.
Man. You are one twisted fuck.
Nope. I'm just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose.
You need to keep your audience interested, excited in what they are seeing and hearing. Film is a very visual medium, always try to:
Show Don't Tell
Very long exchanges of dialogue and speeches are particularly difficult to convey well to the scene - it is very easy for your prodco reader to become disinterested and zone out. If your reader zones out, so too will any theater goer.
If you must have a very long piece of dialogue, study how the pros do it. Anything by Aaron Sorkin or Quentin Tarantino, and of course The King's Speech would be good places to start.
Too many non-pro scripts repeatedly name characters within dialogue - it does not read or sound authentic.
Bill, we need to get outta here.
Bill, come on! Let's go!
Go through every line, read it out aloud.
Take into account the situation the character is in and honestly ask yourself whether that line is realistic for that character at that time.
Also ask yourself where the exchange is interesting and engaging. Could it be made any tighter?
It's often helpful to ask an objective friend to help when you do this. Since it's your script you are somewhat (very?) biased regarding it - other opinions are helpful.
Your script will likely have multiple characters - do they all speak with a distinct voice, ie their own separate voice, distinct from your other characters.
Achieving this takes some effort and skill.
Too many non-pro scripts we receive, have a number (even every) character speaking with the same voice. That's not realistic and will kill your chances of selling your screenplay.
In real life, people often abbreviate their speech - you need to as well.
The above is just a sample, hopefully you get the idea.
The Academy's Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting has a wealth of excellent screenwriting advice on its website and Facebook page including:
...Screenplay dialogue needs to written in language appropriate to the characters and most often must resemble the way human beings actually speak. Of course, certain genres - comedy and historical scripts are obvious examples - often require funny and/or heightened speech appropriate to the characters, tone, setting, time period, etc.
When description and/or dialogue is awkward, stilted, anachronistic or inappropriate to the characters, readers and judges notice almost immediately.
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