5 Tips to Improve Dialogue in Your Script
Dialogue is strange by its very nature. When we watch movies and TV shows, we sort of pretend that the characters’ dialogue is realistic, even though it clearly isn’t. Dialogue is very different from regular conversations, whether it’s establishing plot points or fleshing out a character. Whatever kind of dialogue you’re writing, here are our 5 tips to help.
1. Avoid the clichés
There are a ton of cliché film lines that you’ll basically never hear uttered in the real world. We don’t know why these lines appear so frequently in cinema – we suppose it’s because of writers taking inspiration from other films. Do any of these lines sound familiar?
“You just don’t get it, do you?”
“We’re not so different, you and I.”
“Is that all you’ve got?”
“We’ve got company!”
“(S)he’s behind me, isn’t (s)he?”
“If you touch one hair on his/her head…”
When learning all about film dialogue, you might stumble across YouTube videos making compilations of these lines in dozens of films. Personally, whenever we hear one of these lines in a film, it pulls us right out of the scene and reminds us that we’re watching a movie with a script. Try to avoid these clichés and use more unique dialogue.
2. Be realistic (but not too realistic)
As we said, film dialogue doesn’t really represent real life. You’ll rarely see an “ummm” “errrrr” “sorry I didn’t hear that” or any other real-life utterances. When writing dialogue for the screen, you need to find a balance between the realistic and the artificial. The reason that there aren’t any “umms” and “ahhs” in movies is because no one wants to watch that.
On the other hand, try to avoid your dialogue feeling too stiff or manufactured. If your actors want to adapt lines and improvise around them a little, try letting them. They might end up producing a more natural scene. Over time, you’ll get used to striking the balance between realistic and artificial conversations.
3. Avoid clunky exposition
Sometimes you need to expose your plot points, and dialogue is one of the easiest ways to do that. However, try to avoid lines of clunky exposition where it’s very blatant that you’re just getting the plot across to the audience. You can find more clever ways to weave your plot points into the dialogue – don’t insult your audience’s intelligence.
One of our favorite ways around this is to use a title card at the beginning of a film – it doesn’t work with every genre, but it worked amazingly with films like Bladerunner. At the start of Bladerunner, you get a title card which explains the setting of the film, the year, what replicants are, and what Bladerunners are. You know everything you need to know, and then you jump straight in.
Imagine if Bladerunner had started like this:
“God damnit Deckard, you used to be the best Bladerunner we had!”
“I’ll catch the replicant, don’t worry”
“You better! These humanoid robot replicants are starting to rebel and its really giving us a lot of trouble. Lucky we have Bladerunners like yourself to hunt them down.”
“Yes. Good thing I’ve got my flying car because it’s Los Angeles in futuristic 2019”.
We’re being over the top, but it illustrates my point.
4. Keep it interesting
Even if it’s driving the plot forward, your dialogue needn’t be boring and formulaic. You’ve probably heard this before, but the master of interesting dialogue is Quentin Tarantino. His characters have drawn out conversations about things that may or may not affect the plot, but it keeps your attention, fleshes out their personalities, and grabs your attention. You’re never bored by the dialogue in a Tarantino film.
Here’s a great example from Kill Bill of exposing plot points while keeping the tone witty and entertaining:
“That’s right. I killed your master. And now I’m gonna kill you, with your own sword, no less, which in the very immediate future, will become… my sword.”
“Bitch, you don’t have a future.”
Here’s part of the famous Diner scene from Pulp Fiction which has nothing to do with the story, but remains nonetheless engaging while showcasing the personality of the characters:
“…Don’t you hate that?”
“Uncomfortable silences. Why do we feel it’s necessary to yak about bullshit in order to be comfortable?”
“I don’t know. That’s a good question.”
“That’s when you know you’ve found somebody special. When you can just shut the f*ck up for a minute and comfortably enjoy the silence.”
5. Define a rhythm
Every scene has a rhythm that it follows. Whether it’s fast-paced like a Baz Luhrmann movie or slow and drawn out like a Film Noir, you need to remember the rhythm of your movie when writing dialogue. If you’re going for a slow, meandering film, then fast dialogue cutting back and forth between characters isn’t going to work. Similarly, a choppy film with long-drawn-out speeches is going to feel uneven and out of place.