Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the dialogue has been so beautifully written that you are in that moment, experiencing the character’s emotions and hanging on to their every word? Or you know exactly what the character is feeling or thinking because of their lack of dialogue? Great dialogue can make stories and characters shine and, in novels, it’s a valuable tool to break away from writing too much internal monologue and a wonderful way to show readers the relationships between your characters and reveal important information.
Popular culture is full of memorable movie lines that are quoted the world over. See if you can figure out which movies the following lines are from (extra points if you can name the character!):
A/ Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.
B/ Here’s looking at you, kid …
C/ Show me the money!
How did you do? A was Gone with the Wind, B Casablanca and C Jerry McGuire. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know them (as we can’t see every movie ever made!) but chances are you’ve heard at least one.
Screenwriters are masters of dialogue. They rarely have the opportunity to include a character’s innermost thoughts on the screen so they rely heavily on dialogue to drive the story forward, develop characters and convey a range of emotions. By studying the art of dialogue through reading screenplays and watching movies or TV shows, it will help you develop your own characters and stories.
There’s an array of movie and TV scripts available on the internet for you to read and I recommend you start with the screenplay of one of your favorite movies. I will add that screenplays available on the internet are not pirated, as screenwriters and film production companies often make them available for the public to read after a movie or TV show has been produced.
When studying dialogue, here are some points for you to consider:
What Isn’t Said
Humans rarely say everything we’re thinking and feeling and neither should your characters. If we’re talking about something that scares us or we’re in danger of being found out or simply too embarrassed to talk about a subject, we change topics or do something that helps us avoid talking about something we don’t want.
The Coen Brothers are brilliant at holding back dialogue that creates tension so that when a character does speak, we’re mesmerized by their words and really want to know what they have to say. The movie No Country for Old Men is a great example.
No Two Characters Should Sound the Same
They way in which a character speaks is a culmination of their experience, upbringing and beliefs and no two people should ever sound the same. Listen to the way your friends and family talk. People have favorite words and expressions, some interrupt conversations while others sit quietly and wait until they’re asked a question or think a long time before saying how they feel. Others avoid talking about their emotions all together. Imagine a conversation between a teenager and someone in their mid-forties. They’re likely to use different idioms and expressions the other may not understand.
Look at each of your characters and figure out what kind of person they are. Are they a leader, follower, questioner, peacemaker or a troublemaker? How would this be reflected in the way they speak? Their traits will greatly influence their conversations with others.
Read the Dialogue Out Loud
The best way to discover if dialogue is working is to read it out loud. You can do it yourself or enlist a friend or family member to be the other character or you can use one of the many available reading programs that will read what’s on the page to you. Does the dialogue sound natural or stilted? Are they using the other character’s name too much in the dialogue (a mistake nearly every writer does!)? Are they too wordy? Remember, most conversations between people are short and simple. Most of us don’t use big words and opt for the simpler version to get our message across. We also don’t speak for great lengths of time without being interrupted and neither should your character.
Don’t Tell Us Something We Already Know
If an event has happened the reader has been privy to, we don’t need our characters to relate the same event to another character. It could be briefly referenced in a way such as “Like what happened last Thursday” and we’ll instantly know what the character is talking about. If you have information to give the reader or another character, do so in an organic way, just like you would inform a friend in real life.
Be a Screenwriter for a Day
Try writing an entire scene only with dialogue. Then read through and see how the conversation unfolds. Does it sound realistic? Does it flow like a conversation between real people would? You may find this makes it easier to pinpoint the areas of dialogue that need addressing. Of course, once you’re happy with the dialogue you can add in the inner thoughts and descriptions like you would in the rest of your manuscript.
There’s a classic scene in Before Sunrise where the two main characters manage to convey how they feel in dialogue but in a unique way. I won’t elaborate here, as you can watch it unfold in the video below. Are there any ways you can creatively use dialogue in your scenes?
One of the best screenwriters of our time is Aaron Sorkin. He’s written The West Wing, Steve Jobs, The Social Network and A Few Good Men among other TV shows and movies. He’s a master at dialogue and I highly recommend you read at least one of his screenplays. The website Script Slug gives you access to scripts he has written. You can find it here: https://www.scriptslug.com/scripts/writer/aaron-sorkin
Learning how to write effective dialogue can be one of the most interesting and fun aspects of the craft. What’s your favorite movie or TV show that has great dialogue?
Resident Writing Coach
Alli is an Australian multi-award winning and bestselling author whose fact-based fiction explores little-known historical events. Alli’s books have been voted into the Top 100 Australian novels of all time and when she’s not writing novels, Alli is working on international film and TV projects as a screenwriter and producer.
Alli hosts the Writers at Sea cruise retreat for writers, presents writing workshops internationally, and volunteers as a role model for Books in Homes. Alli is an experienced manuscript assessor and loves to work with writers to help their manuscripts shine.
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Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling.
Rick Clogston says
Good article, but left me with a basic unanswered question. In trying to write dialog in a novel, I struggle with, not so much what the characters say, or how to make each voice individual, as much as how to keep track of the people talking. The trap I keep falling into is;
“But I’m saying something,” he said.
“Yes, and I’m saying something back,” she said.
Or, she replied, or asked, or growled, or spat, or whimpered, etc. If I have a couple pages of two or more people conversing, how many times saying “said” is too many? And how many different alternative words can be used before it gets too weird? Should using “said” be avoided altogether, or does it matter?
BECCA PUGLISI says
Hi, Rick. This is a great question. The best way to avoid the he-said-she-said pattern of dialogue is to use action beats instead of tags. So, the character says something, then they do something, then maybe they say something else. This shows the reader who’s talking without coming right out and saying “he said” and it also adds action to a conversation, giving the scene a more active feel. Here’s an example from The Emotion Thesaurus:
Sarah bolted toward an older woman wearing a matronly purple dress and enveloped her in a hug. “Nana, you made it!”
“Silly girl. A delayed flight couldn’t keep me from your special day.” She pulled back and cupped Sarah’s cheeks. “Such a beauty.”
Sarah took her grandmother’s weathered hands in her own. “I hope you know what it means to me, that you’re here. You’ve always taken care of me, and—”
“I love you, girl. Always will. Enough for both your mother and me.”
As you can see here, each line of dialogue is accompanied with an action beat. It doesn’t have to be anything big and meaningful, just small actions will do. And because the action beat and the dialogue are in one paragraph, readers will know who’s doing the talking. Occasionally, as you can see in the final line, you won’t even need a beat because the readers will follow the flow of the conversation and know who’s speaking.
This isn’t to say that you should avoid “said” altogether; it’s so common as to be almost invisible, like an article or preposition. Sometimes you need to keep the writing simple, and “said” is a great way to accomplish that. On the other hand, you want to use the more expressive tags (whispered, yelled, etc.) sparingly, because with too many, they start to stand out and sound a little melodramatic.
If you can pick up a copy of Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, I highly recommend you do. It’s a treasure trove of editing tips with a whole chapter dedicated to dialogue mechanics.
I hope this helps!
Nicola Martin says
Fantastic article, Alli. Reading out loud always highlights so much awkwardness. I’m forever speaking out loud to an audience of no one in my living room. 😉
ANGELA ACKERMAN says
Great post, Alli. Strong dialogue makes all the difference. One of the best scenes I can think of that changes the dynamics of the story in a big way was Breaking Bad – the “I am the danger” scene. That was a big turning point for him and for everyone around him.Skyler saw him very differently after that.
Thanks Angela! Oh yes, that was a HUGE scene in Breaking Bad! Such excellent writing on so many levels.