The purpose of dialogue in a drama script may seem obvious; it’s the talking bit – right? Of course. But it is also the hardest part of screen writing to get right. This is because the level of artistry necessary to really deliver credible, engaging, emotionally resonant dialogue is high and not even experienced, commissioned writers get it right all the time.
I have been lucky enough to work with some of the best dialogue writers in the business, which is a curse in a way, because I realise now, after reading scripts on a freelance basis for a number of years, that fantastic dialogue in a screen play is a relatively rare thing.
Dialogue carries a hefty weight in a television script; less so in film. Television is more akin to radio than film, in that respect.
The key to writing dialogue well is to remember that there is a surface job that needs to be done here, via the words your characters speak, but that the subtext to all dialogue is of equal importance.
When it comes to writing dialogue make sure you do not just deliver the surface impact, ensure to go underneath what is said.
There’s lots of advice out there on dialogue and how to write it well for the big and small screen.
So here, I aim circumvent that which is not essential for you to digest, so you don’t bloat out with un-necessary writing-tip calorie. I want you to only wolf down the most essential, most protein-packed morsels of scripty sustenance. So, who’s hungry?
THE PROTEIN PACKED MORSELS OF A DIALOGUE DINNER:
1/ PUSH YOUR TEXT FORWARD:
In a scene, ask yourself: ‘what needs to be said here in order to engage the audience in the plotline? What nugget of information must I get across here?
2/ IDENTIFY YOUR SUBTEXT:
Clarify for yourself, what is the subtext; that which is not said, in each character case. In a scene, ensure you suggest the presence of this subtext by what your character doesn’t say. Remember that actions also speak loudly on screen.
3/ DRIVE WITH MOTIVATION:
Use the motivation of each character to push the pace forward in a scene. What motivates a character to speak as they do, gives energy and adds interest to a scene.
4/ MAKE IT RELEVANT:
The dialogue in a scene must reflect the time, place and timbre of the world you describe. Keep the observations, comments and allusions made by your characters, relevant to both the world of your story and your audience.
5/ DEVELOP YOUR CHARACTERS:
Dialogue adds texture and tone to your characters. What a character says, what motivates them, what they hide, all adds dimension on screen. Remember, a character is on a journey in a script, and their dialogue represents their personal narrative. Keep dialogue pertinent to character. Ask yourself: ‘what do I want the audience to learn about this character; what do they need to learn about themselves, in this scene?’
Listen to how people speak. There is a rhythm, pacing and nuance that comes out in colloquial, flowing dialogue, try to ape this in your writing.
In conversation, people rarely actually sit and listen to a complete speech. We are a race of interrupters. We over-lap, cut short, change direction and repeat ourselves. I would not, however, advocate repetition in dialogue unless it is a character point you are highlighting. On screen repetition is even more irritating than in real life.
Failure plus practise makes screenwriting better. It will never be easy. But your results will be better each time.
There are two main purposes to dialogue in screenplays.
1/ To Push The Story Forward.
2/ To Reveal Character.
Keep those points in mind. Keep practising and if you need help, contact me www.scriptadvice.co.uk