The Best Pro Tactics for Writing Dialogue
Welcome to our ongoing series on screenwriting tactics, where we will explore in-depth professionally-proven techniques, tactics, and strategies for writing dialogue that can aid writers in achieving their screenwriting goals.
Tactics are best defined as an action or strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end.
A set compilation of actionable tactics creates an effective screenwriting process. With this process in place, you can take control of your screenwriting destiny. If you are disciplined, structured, and motivated in your screenwriting process, you'll be an effective and successful screenwriter — or at least better the odds of breaking through those Hollywood walls with force.
With that in mind, let's now delve into the tactics of screenwriting that will help improve your dialogue.
Table of Contents
Why Less Is More With Dialogue
The first step to unlocking the mysteries of writing great dialogue is the lack of dialogue.
Action speaks louder than words. Ironically, when we're told to search the world around us for realistic dialogue, we quickly realize that if we are truly going to convey realistic communication, we must realize that we learn the emotions of others not by direct language exchange but by outward actions and physical reactions to those around us.
If someone is angry, most people wouldn't outright say:
"I'm angry and this is why..."
Instead, they sulk, look away, shake their head, retreat, or react with signs of rage.
If someone is sad, most people don't say:
"I'm sad and this is why..."
Instead, they sulk, stare at the ground silently, have tears in their eyes, weep, sob, or run away.
Nothing is worse than reading or hearing on-the-nose dialogue that shoves meaning in the audience's faces.
Read More: How to Avoid Writing On-The-Nose Dialogue
A lack of dialogue is often your best bet. The key to writing great dialogue for a script is to refine it by cutting out unnecessary lines rather than trying to force in clever one-liners or speeches. The goal is to find a simple, powerful phrase that perfectly captures the scene's essence.
Here's where our pro screenwriting tactic comes into play. If you utilize these three basic steps as you write(as opposed to after), you'll save yourself a lot of editing and time.
Techniques for Writing Dialogue To Improve Your Script
To meet professional contract deadlines and save time during the editing process, try incorporating these proven tactics used by successful screenwriters when writing dialogue. These techniques can help you write better and faster, especially when working under tight deadlines of 4-8 weeks for a first draft. They can also be very useful while writing on spec as well, allowing screenwriters more time to focus on story and character arcs instead of sometimes tedious editing and trimming.
Write the Scene With No Dialogue
Film and television are visual mediums. The power of implication and subtext in dialogue can be more impactful than the words spoken by characters. What many professionals do is embrace this philosophy during the writing phase, as opposed to waiting until the first draft is done and then having to go back to edit and trim during the rewriting phase.
How do you accomplish this?
It's fairly simple — but also forces you to be a bit more creative in each scene you write.
Write the scene with no dialogue — all action. Instead, do your best to focus on moving the story forward with visuals and actions rather than leaning on the dialogue to do so.
It will be tough. Some scenes naturally call for exposition and back and forth between characters. However, when you challenge yourself by accomplishing what you intend with each scene without using dialogue, you're forcing yourself to use a more cinematic narrative.
For some scenes, this practice sounds impossible. Challenge that initial reaction because most of the time it's your survival instincts trying to make things easier on you. The best scenes in film and television were usually ones that required some ingenuity and imagination.
Read More: 10 Things to Delete From Your Dialogue Scenes Right Now
If the Scene Needs Dialogue, Write One or Two Lines
When you realize that a given scene needs that extra element, challenge yourself to accomplish what needs to be accomplished by achieving that goal with just a sentence or two. It's about finding that diamond in the rough that encapsulates the moment at the core.
Here are two versions of the same scene from a spec script that garnered meetings at Disney, Warner Brothers, Sony, Universal, and Dreamworks.
The overwritten version is an example of too much dialogue (it's also an example of too much scene description as a side lesson). The correct version represents what you can accomplish in a scene by getting to the core of the scene's intentions using as few lines of dialogue as possible. As you can see, we've gone from ten sentences to four.
As you can see, we've gone from ten sentences to four. Each section of dialogue was reduced drastically, with fewer sentences in each dialogue block or fewer words per sentence (or both).
This tactic helps put focus on writing just one or two lines (give or take), as opposed to waiting until the rewriting process. It will save you time. You won't need to later go through a whole draft cutting dialogue down to find those gems. They'll already be there.
It may sound daunting, but once you make this tactic a habit in your writing process, it will become instinctual and swift.
Read More: 35 Most Overused Lines of Dialogue in Screenplays
Eliminate Unnecessary Exposition
What Is Exposition?
The problem with exposition in screenplays is that many screenwriters don't really know what it is, and when writing dialogue, it can easily be left out or miswritten.
Exposition is comprised of those pieces of vital information — often shared in dialogue — that is necessary for the audience to know and understand for character arcs and plot points to make sense.
These nuggets of information usually exist outside of the direct narrative. They, therefore, are difficult to properly insert into the story and plot seamlessly without halting all story and character momentum.
But that doesn't mean exposition is bad. An exposition is an essential tool for storytelling. It's sometimes necessary.
What Is Bad Exposition?
It's an old (but true) adage — screenwriters should show rather than tell. But sometimes, exposition is needed. When screenwriters use expositional dialogue as a crutch to save on time, pages, and effort, there's a problem. From time to time, they don't even know that they're doing it.
- When characters talk about pivotal events and information rather than the screenwriter showing the audience through the live narrative
- When characters learn pivotal information by reading aloud to themselves from papers or computer screens
- When screenwriters use the crutch of TV and radio newscasts to share detailed information about plot elements
The problem with exposition — good or bad — is that it is utterly boring and lacks drama. There's no action, no suspense, no plant, no payoff, and no compelling beginning, middle, or end. It's just an information dump that slows any narrative momentum down.
How Can You Avoid Writing Bad Expositions?
The first step is to be aware of exposition — what it is and why you need it. Half of the time, you don't need it. If it's not partial to the story, plot, and character arcs, ditch it. But when you do need it, write it well.
Spread Exposition Thin, Not Thick
Exposition is better if spread out thin, as opposed to laying it on thick.
When you use monologues, extended scenes, sequences, and undramatic moments of characters reading information aloud (including background characters like newscasters), that's laying it on thick.
There are certainly ways to utilize those expositional tools well, usually by keeping their usage — and the accompanying information — brief. When it's brief, it's subtle and fits into the narrative better. It can be worked into the story and character arcs as turning points, reveals, plants, and payoffs.
Too many screenwriters lay the exposition on thick through on-the-nose dialogue because they fear that the audience won't pick up on more subtle information.
You must trust the audience or script reader and respect that they've been to movies and watched series episodes. They know when to pick up on certain information, and they'll appreciate a little trust with you spreading it thinly and weaving it into the narrative instead of forcing it on them with large information dumps.
Inject Exposition With Compelling, Engaging, and Surprising Moments and Reveals
As good as Inception was, it suffered from overextended scenes of exposition — with Ellen Page's character seemingly conceived as nothing more than a way for the characters to explain away the difficult science and rules of dream-sharing technology and dream espionage.
But the script made up for that by pairing necessary extended exposition dumps with big moments in the script.
This scene with Leo DiCaprio explaining dream espionage to Ellen Page was growing tiring until the reveal that they were, in fact, in a dream.
The expositional sequence continues with them discussing the finer points of dream building. Again, normally this would be bad exposition — and it still is arguably borderline, mind you — but the script continues to distract us from the exposition by revealing compelling, engaging, and surprising moments.
Ellen Page's character could be seen as nothing more than an excuse to allow the audience to understand the peculiarities of the plot and tech through her eyes. But thankfully, her character worked by weaving her and the exposition into eye-catching visuals and reveals.
Have Characters Argue About the Exposition
Conflict is everything. The problem with exposition is that it lacks conflict — it's just bland information.
So the easy fix is to create conflict by having two or more characters react differently to the shared or revealed information. If you can't conjure a better way to share exposition and find yourself in the trap of using characters to recite it in dialogue form or reading from papers or screens aloud, then the next best thing is having that information cause conflict between two or more characters.
Take a look at this scene from Aliens. While this was a sequel to the original Alien, the writer still needed to summarize the first film's events in case audiences hadn't seen it or couldn't remember the details. Beyond that, the narrative needed more information to set up the atmosphere and setting that would come with the mission Ripley would be asked to join.
Normally, this information dump would slow the story's momentum to a halt, but the writer was wise enough to create conflict between the characters. The company executives are questioning her story (the information), and she is struggling to convey the danger at hand.
Those that saw the first film know what happened and don't necessarily need a rehash of the events. However, the narrative requires it and uses that exposition to create one of the central themes and conflicts of the overall film — greed versus logic and ignorance versus reality.
As written and produced, the expositional scene creates one of the best conflict scenes within the story. Those that saw the first film understand Ripley's utter frustration. Those few that hadn't seen the original understand that Ripley feels very strongly about what she saw and experienced. The company executives are on the opposite end of the spectrum. They come off as suspicious of her account. That's a great conflict.
Takeaways on Writing Dialogue
In conclusion, when it comes to writing dialogue for your screenplays, less is often more. Instead of cluttering your script with excessive dialogue, try writing the scene with no dialogue at all. If the scene truly requires dialogue, keep it minimal, with only one or two lines. Additionally, eliminate any unnecessary exposition that doesn't advance the plot or reveal character traits. By following these tips, you'll be able to create powerful, impactful dialogue that will elevate your screenplay and make it stand out.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, and many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner, the feature thriller Hunter’s Creed, and many Lifetime thrillers.
Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies