Screenwriting Tips to Make Your Dialogue Shine

Have you ever guffawed or teared up at something a TV or movie character said? I’m gearing up to watch Season 5 of Downton Abbey, and am eager for more rib-tickling one-liners from the Dowager Countess of Grantham, played by the inimitable Dame Maggie Smith. Apart from the brilliant storyline and acting, the dialogue practically glitters in every episode.

Whether we hear or read them, the result is always the same: words are enlightening and evocative. We either learn something new, or feel something deeply. Dialogue is the stuffing in both books and movies. If it’s dull, the story falls flat.

If you’d like to try your hand at screenwriting (or playwriting), and want to make your dialogue shine, like screenwriter Steve Kloves accomplished in the Harry Potter film series, then follow these three tips.

Screenwriting Tip No. 1: See the story

Dialogue is the main vehicle for the story. The very structure of a script doesn’t allow for the traditional format and punctuation for dialogue that’s used in a novel or short story. No He said, She said. (Interestingly, though, in Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings, he employs a script-like format for the dialogue. It works!)

It means that you don’t have the luxury of waxing poetic, or of delving inside a character’s head to explore the reasons behind their phobia. Your goal is to drive the story forward briskly to its satisfying end. Therefore, you’ll need to craft your dialogue in such a way that the reader of the script visualizes the story as it plays out, scene by scene. Leave the rambling expositions and flashbacks for your novel, where they belong.

Screenwriting Tip No. 2: Listen to the language

Dialogue for the screen or stage is meant to be vocal, so pay close attention to the language and its sound. Read a character’s lines aloud to get the rhythm and sound of the words. Listen for any clunky phrases or stiltedness. Ask yourself these questions:

  • Does the dialogue sound realistic?
  • Is the dialogue consistent?

Consistency in dialogue means that it matches the vocabulary, nationality or ethnicity, background, etc., of the characters.

Screenwriting Tip No. 3: Consider the what, how, and how much

Dialogue in a script should relay relevant information and convey emotion. Always consider what the characters say, how they say it (tone), and how much they say. The more you engage in this practice, the better you’ll become at pruning unnecessary or unhelpful words. The result: crisp, taut dialogue.

Are you ready to make your dialogue sparkle and shine?

Examples of Shiny Screen Dialogue

The Green Mile (1999)

[The day after Coffey cures Paul’s urinary infection, Paul brings him some cornbread]
Paul: It’s from my missus. She wanted to…thank you.
John Coffey: Thank me for what?
Paul: Well, you know. [looks around, then whispers] For helping me.
John Coffey: Helpin’ you with what?
Paul: You know. [gestures surreptitiously to his groin]
John Coffey: [knowingly] Ohhhh. Was your missus pleased?
Paul: Several times.

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (2007)

[Ron and Hermione ask Harry about his first kiss with Cho]
Ron Weasley: Well? How was it?
Harry Potter: Wet. I mean, she was sort of crying.
Ron Weasley: [laughs] That bad at it, are you?
Hermione Granger: I’m sure Harry’s kissing was more than satisfactory. Cho spends half her time crying these days.
Ron Weasley: You’d think a bit of snogging would cheer her up.
Hermione Granger: Don’t you understand how she must be feeling? Well, obviously she’s feeling sad about Cedric, and therefore confused about liking Harry, guilty about kissing him, conflicted because Umbridge is pressing to sack her mum from the Ministry, and frightened about failing her OWLs because she’s so busy worrying about everything else.
Ron Weasley: One person couldn’t feel all that. They’d explode!
Hermione Granger: Just because you’ve got the emotional range of a teaspoon doesn’t mean we all have.

Downton Abbey

Isobel: How you hate to be wrong.
Violet: I wouldn’t know. I’m not familiar with the sensation.

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