Writing great dialogue is what makes your story come to life. Some of the most beloved writers are revered for their masterful dialogue, like Nora Ephron and her iconic character banter in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, or Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue style in THE WEST WING and THE SOCIAL NETWORK.
Writing realistic, compelling dialogue that moves your story forward is not a natural skill for every writer. In fact, many high-concept writers who are great with structure have to work even harder at dialogue. Luckily, it’s a skill that can be learned. Here are my top tips for writing better dialogue.
This may sound obvious, but listeningto the cadence and rhythm of everyday conversation can vastly improve your dialogue. Go to a diner or a restaurant and listen to the conversations happening around you. Take note of how people finish each other’s sentences or speak in incomplete thoughts. Make sure to also pay attention to what is notbeing said. Having a beat of silence in the middle of your scene can speak volumes about what a character is feeling.
Keep only what matters.
Real human conversation is filled with filler words like “um” and “so” and “like.” As much as you want realistic dialogue in your script, keep only the words that truly matter. Every word that comes out of a character’s mouth should be revealing who they are, moving the plot forward, or expressing an important emotional beat. Go through your script and circle each piece of dialogue that accomplishes one of these. When you’re done, look at the lines that aren’t circled. Ask yourself if those are truly necessary, and if they’re not, cut them.
A mistake I’ve seen some beginners make is using the characters’ names over and over in the dialogue (Think of Tommy Wiseau’s overuse of Mark’s name in THE ROOM). Real people don’t talk like that, because they know who they’re talking to.
Insert physical action.
Ground your characters’ dialogue in the physical world. Long chunks of dialogue can read more smoothly when they’re broken up with physical action. For example, if you have a character who has a page-long monologue, break up the read with brief descriptions of action like, “he turns to her, taking in her accusation” or “he moves across the room, now wielding the knife.” When used correctly, physical action can help elevate the dialogue on the page by increasing tension, humor, and emotional impact.
Pare it down.
Page space is a precious commodity. Cut greetings and small talk and cut right to the chase to keep your dialogue compelling, starting the scene as late as possible so you’re able to use the available real estate to help the conversation flow and breathe. For example, instead of writing a scene where an employee enters his boss’s office, says hello, sits down, and then says, “You wanted to see me?” and the boss replies, “I’m sorry to do this, but we’re letting you go,” try starting the scene with the boss and employee already sitting across from each other and make the very first line, “I’m sorry to do this, but we’re letting you go.”
What’s your favorite tip for writing better dialogue? Let me know@CaroleKirsch!