Dialogue is one of the most important tools in the screenwriter’s tool box. Screenplays rely heavily on it since the writer can’t talk about what’s going on inside a character’s mind. Audiences can only experience the journey by seeing the characters take action and speak. That is all we screenwriters have to convey our story; visuals and sounds. Dialogue is half of that.
Dialogue also has several specific functions in a screenplay: It should move the story forward, both by carrying exposition needed to understand the story and by helping characters achieve their goals. It reveals character by showing someone’s background, age, social and economical position in life.
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It can also highlight the theme of a screenplay, create tension and obstacles for the protagonist, and make the experience of watching a movie so enjoyable when used effectively. Given how important dialogue is, here are some things to consider to make your dialogue shine:
1. Character development is key
Your dialogue should sound authentic to your characters. Make sure you develop each character well enough with a full and rich back story that will dictate how they speak. When you create authentic, flawed and multi-dimensional characters, their voices will come out naturally. If your characters are authentic, the dialogue will be authentic as well.
2. Show, don’t tell
‘Show, don’t tell’ is probably the most overused saying in the history of screenwriting and filmmaking. But it holds water. You can’t rely too heavily on dialogue to deliver all the information. Use visuals whenever you can. Something to try and practice writing more visually evocative scenes is to rewrite some scenes with no dialogue to see if you can convey the same ideas without needing to explain everything by having the characters speak.
3. Make exposition as organic as possible
Nobody enters a room and states their shared history with one another. If you need to show that two people have known each other for years, don’t have them state how long they’ve known each other, show their shared history by crafting real interactions.
4. Make sure everyone has their own unique voice
If all of your characters sound the same, they sound like the writer. A child and an adult don’t sound the same. Different regions have their own accents and dialects. Social and financial status and educational levels will also influence how someone speaks.
Be aware of the writer’s voice in the work instead of the character’s voice. Writers often fall in love with certain ideas and want the characters to express them. Sometimes this is out of place or out of character. Keep an eye out for that.
5. Listen to how people talk
Eavesdrop whenever you can. Pay attention to how the people around you talk. The next time you engage in a conversation with someone you know really well, take mental notes about their speech patterns, accent, vocabulary as well as non-verbal cues like body language and facial expressions.
6. Less is more
Trim repetition or over-explanation, or lengthy monologue. We rarely let people go on for too long in real life, especially in our Twitter, meme and emoji loving world.
7. Make it memorable
Dialogue should be memorable. There are some lines of dialogue that immediately make you think about a particular movie. I’ve come to the conclusion that what makes a piece of dialogue memorable includes one of these elements:
- It reveals the essence of the character.
- It’s the theme of the story.
- It goes directly to the emotional anchor, the emotional core of the story.
- It’s the protagonist’s arc summarized in one sentence.
Take a look at some examples and see if you agree.
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Julia Camara is an award-winning Brazilian screenwriter/filmmaker. Julia won a Telly Award for the sci-fi found footage feature Occupants. Julia’s feature directorial debut In Transit, won Best Experimental Film at four different festivals. Julia’s other writing credits include Area Q and Open Road.
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