Screenplay Dialogue: How to Perfect what Characters Say

Get ready for the big one. In this post, I’ve gone through not only books but interviews and classes with screenwriting experts. Some you know from the big screen some that helped those people get there. All this to compile the ultimate resource for you the screenwriter to answer the question that plague’s all us writers. How to write good dialogue?

Is My Screenplay Dialogue Good?

First, whats a definition of good dialogue?

According to David Mamet one of the icons of “good dialogue” and the unofficial teacher of Aaron Sorkin and Quintin Tarantino as mentioned by them.

Characters only speak to get something from one another.

David Mamet

Characters can speak to convey who they are but only under the lens of getting something. If you know what your character wants you also know what they will say. They don’t talk to give or get information they communicate to get a result. Unless you can make it intresting.

For many months I wondered what the “unless you can make it interesting” meant. Since this is an exception to the rule, then I remembered the conversation between Jules and Vincent in the movie Pulp Fiction.

This conversation is interesting to millions of people. Why? I don’t know. If you know god bless, you have what David Mamet calls a gift. Stop reading now and write the next Pulp Fiction. However, for the rest of us, It seems like a combination of a couple of things.

My best guess is that it follows what marketers believe is the formula for creating a dopamine release. Which is the slight excited feeling when you acquire money when your assumption at the poker table works out, or in this case, you learn something new. There are several ways to do this in writing like in marketing.

Applying any of the following:

  • Novelty
  • Beauty
  • Surprize
  • Financial gain
  • Insight
  • Repetition of patterns

Tarantino uses insight, novelty, and repetition. What they’re discussing to an American audience is something that most Americans were clueless on knowing. The insight and novelty of the information drip our brain dopamine which makes us go “hmmm.”

He was traveling through Europe when he wrote Pulp Fiction which would explain the reference if you were wondering. The repetition comes in when Jules repeats the lines less than 5 minutes later before killing a bunch of business partners who went rogue.

Adding this dialogue also shows familiarity between the two. The two then open the trunk and pull out guns. Proving they are going to do something dangerous but their conversation screams calmness. Again, this is my guess its still magic to me.

This pattern is visible in all of his writings even in one of the few that he didn’t direct. Take a look at this scene from True Romance directed by Tony Scott Written by Tarantino.

Can you see the repetition, the Insight it’s the same pattern just presented in a different way.

With that said you don’t need to be able to do this for good dialogue. You don’t even need to write dialogue to write a good movie. We watch subtitled foreign films all the time as proof. Films are made to music like Bao the Pixar’s Oscar-winning short. So dialogue isn’t the most critical part of a movie its added on to enhance the story.

Three Key Questions to Ask Yourself

These three questions raddled around in my head about a year ago and took a while to figure out the answer.

  • What are these characters going to say?
  • How do I make the dialogue sound good?
  • How do I make the dialogue intresting?

What are these characters going to say?

Again to know what they will say you have to know what they want. Does your character want the girl, the guy, the money, respect, power? Their motivations will drive their actions, and when their efforts aren’t enough, they will speak.

It’s not a hard fast rule. Of course, people shoot the breeze and not every word has an intrinsic motivation attached to it. It’s more of a guideline.

Let’s use an example, In Kill Bill, The Bride played by Uma Thurman. What does she want? One word Revenge. Nothing is going to stop her, except death itself. After a battle with Vernita one of the many, she wants sweet revenge. They decide to postpone their actions so the fight wouldn’t have to occur in front of a child.

At this point, Vernita wants to live for her new family. This conflicts with The Brides want of revenge. Watch there conversation below.

Knowing what the conversation encompasses becomes effortless when motivations are clear.

How do I make the dialogue sound good?

Good sounding dialogue depends on many factors. Those factors include the location there talking, the period, or the aesthetic of the film but most of all the personality of the character.

For continuity, let’s use the same example of The Bride In Kill Bill. Re-watch the case above. Heck, rewatch the movie if you have too. She talks very candidly and with intent. Why? Because she’s a trained killer, who has nothing to lose. She’s filled with hate, and that hate drives her period.

The Bride’s personality no matter how bleak creates a tone for her dialogue. Starting a process of elimination of conversations she might have with characters.

“You and I have unfinished business and nothing you have done in the last four years including getting knocked up is going to change that.”

The Bride

The only reason that sounded good coming out of her mouth is that it was the truth. It stays true to what we know about her personality. The only dialogue that sounds bad is dialogue out of character. If she would have said:

“I will be back in 30 days to finish this fight. Rest up and be ready.”

It wouldn’t work as well; it’s not good because you’re lying to the reader. The bride wouldn’t do that. She needs revenge, and she needs it asap.

I’m pretty sure if copperheads husband would have gotten in her the way she would have killed him right there. If the police tried to interfere she would have executed all of them. That’s who she is, so waiting 30 days letting her enemy prepare would be a lie.

How do I make the dialogue intresting?

Like earlier in the post, this question has a complicated answer; I think people who can do this have a gift. However, to answer this question I’ve analyzed what most not all but most so-called intresting dialogue does.

  • Reveals something about the person.
  • Tells something about the story.
  • Filled to the brim with conflict.

The first two are self-explanatory, but the third one people usually skip over. Meaning they put some conflict in but not enough. A story can exist without conflict. You’re not writing a isn’t a slice of life anime.

What is a compelling character?

Again this post is information gathered from the greats one of them being Robert Mckee. Take a look at the video below.

Even though conflict is a must remember to build conflict not everyone in the script should be having a full on battle for there lives every conversation. It’s about the build and release that keeps people in their seats for 90 minutes.

Guidlines of Good Dialogue

1.) Never tell an audience what they already know.

Most screenwriters do this by accident some on purpose, but it’s all bad. For example, If you introduce a gun in a scene, there’s no need to tell the audience its there again.

There are many ways to do this you can insert a shot of a gun in the script then later have the character say I think I have a gun in the drawer. This would be treating the audience as if they are dumb and collectively they aren’t. The only time this is acceptable is if there was a change with the gun. Someone took the bullets out. Its location moved. This pulling forward the story not staying the same. So again never say the same thing twice.

2.) Don’t worry about making a realistic-sounding dialogue.

There are a lot of writers who can write realistic dialogue. We don’t remember these movies too much. People don’t see movies for realism too often we get that for free. We go to suspend our disbelief nothing more nothing less. Most of the dialogue we hear in a film that’s memorable isn’t something people would say in a real situation.

This advice is according to Aaron Sorkin by the way, not my personal opinion. Some of his dialogue is realistic, but the parts we rave about are the unrealistic montages of his characters.

“You really don’t need a forensics team to get to the bottom of this if you guys were the inventors of Facebook you would have invented Facebook”

The Social Network

People don’t go around talking like that. This line isn’t real, and we don’t care when it’s said in the film it’s okay. Other popular lines include:

“Are you entertained!”

“I want the truth. You can’t handle the truth”

“They may take our lives, but they’ll never take our freedom!”

“They call it a royale with cheese.”

“Wax on, wax off.”

“Go ahead, make my day.”

3.) How it sounds is just as important as what you’re saying.

Aaron Sorkin and Quinten Tarantino refer to dialogue as music. Think phonetically and think rhythmically when writing. People often even in real life talk in incomplete sentences cutting off one another giving your words its own flow.

One way to make sure this happens is to read your script out loud. Most if not all great screenwriters follow this practice. They play their characters completely alone. It might seem silly walking down the street talking to yourself in two different voices, but that’s what Sorkin does every day he writes. Doing this also gets rid of clunky lines and actor will love you for it.

4.) Most Dioaluge is non-verbal.

This guideline might throw you a curveball. Up to now, we were talking about what to say let’s discuss what not to say. Did you know only 7% of the dialogue is done verbally?

93% is without words. The inflection of someone’s voice, how your characters are sitting or standing. The person’s eye movement hand placement etc. Doing this will put more words in your action lines and less into dialogue. Let’s go back to pulp fiction as an example of non-verbal communication.

The way Jules ate his food and threw it back on his plate. He did not only drink his sprite; he finished it. Yes, he did ask for permission, but in that situation, you can feel that Brad and others had no choice. They all were sitting down and told not to move. One of them was literally up against the wall.

Guided Questions for every Line you Write

Based on the above information I ask myself a set of questions when I write. It’s easy to revert without practice; these questions ensure you keep up the same quality of writing throughout your screenplay. They are as follows:

1.) Can you show it?

Meaning can you write it in an action line or can it then be indicated by the filmmaker? Actions speak louder than words.
Yes, take it out.
No, then write it.

2.) Does it get the character closer to what they want?

Once the protagonist gets there to wish the movie is over.
Yes, Use it.
No, rewrite.

3.) Has the point already been made?

Has the inforamtion been said before or showed before?
Yes, take it out.
No, keep it.

4.) Is whats said true to there personality?

Would your character say this line or are you forcing them too?
Yes, keep it.
No, change it.

5.) Are the characters contrasted?

Meaning is this conflict or is it leading up to conflict?
Yes, Keep it.
No, they are to similar change it.

6.) Is the audience overhearing a conversation?

Most good dialogue starts without a beginning and stops without a true ending adding to the interest factor. Get in early leave early.
Yes, use it
No, take out the exposition or narration.

7.) Can you shorten it and get the same effect?

Less is more.
Yes, do it
No, keep it

8.) Are they responding to each other?

Acknowledging as in not telegraphing an answer.
They should be responding as if they didn’t already know what the other was going to say.

9.) Do the people talking misunderstand each other’s point?

If they completely understand each other, there is no drama.

10.) Remember the public objective vs. The private objective or subtext.

What people say publicly shows what they will do privately or in other words people don’t always say what they mean outright. People work meaning into words that don’t explicitly mean what they’re saying. I will explained more in the following section.

I go through these with every page I write looking at the lines my characters speak to ensure good dialogue. Again these are guidelines if you can make it interesting some of these can be ignored entirely aka pulp fiction.

What is Subtext Dialogue?

When an entire film becomes visible then you have a screenplay.

Werner Herzog

What is subtextual dialogue? Subtext dialogue basically is the true meaning of the words someone says.

Why is it used?

It’s used because people never say what they truly mean all the time. Maybe, at the beginning of a film, someone might use subtext to convey meaning but after a while, they talk candidly or vise versa.

A great film series to watch for this is James Bond. Just watch any 007 movies. They never say what they truly mean its part of the coolness aspect of the film.

How to apply it?

Say two people get into an elevator one man one women. The man closest to the buttons asks the women.

"What floor are you on?"

That line was just said by a gangsta who just got in an elevator with a woman who just ran from a crime scene.

"What floor are you on?"

Now that line was just said by a man who just saw his high school ex-girlfriend after 10 years.

You see the context your head. It changes based on the situation. The subtext could mean I’m going to kill you or I want to rekindle the flame.

You don’t know what it means but your trying to figure it out. You might find out in a few seconds minutes or at the end of the movie the choice is the filmmakers. This is subtext. Now the question is how to write it.

Like in the example above think about what your characters are doing and then think about what’s going on in their heads. There fears or expectations and combine the two by discussing what they’re doing keeping eternal in mind.

The key is not to use it for every line it gets old fast but its pretty fun when you get the hang of it. You can also reverse the order. but the point is to talk about something other than what’s most important.

What is Bad Dialogue?

You really can’t place what bad dialogue is but we know when we hear it. Think about our definition given in the beginning.

What’s terrible is anything that’s doesn’t get our characters closer to what they want. Anything that is out of the personality of the character or doesn’t reveal anything about the person, plot or situation. But let’s get into some tangible examples.

Small Talk

Hi, how are you?
I'm fine and you?
Great, I just woke up just getting ready for school.
 What about you? 

Stop this now, It’s boring and bad. No one wants to read this you can just cut to what’s important. No one even likes small talk in real life.

I use to work for a movie theatre and the guests to try to be nice would say Hi, how are you? I started to say great and leave it at that not to continue the mundane small talk.

We are here to see drama. Very rarely in Hollywood films do they do this so you should either. This talk also includes the “how was school?” and the “nice to meet you.” The rule of thumb is if you can take it out then take it out.

Soggy Dialogue

Well, you know, so, ok because, um, ah

This is filler language. Anything that makes the words on the page not as powerful. David Mamet at the end of his scriptwriting process tries to cut 3 more pages out of the script in fillers. Knocking every two words down to one. Most of the time the actors will put this in if it’s necessary so you dont have to.

On the Nose Dialogue

The dialogue that gives exact measurements to characters intentions. Doing this lets the audience jumps ahead. So far ahead they can see the end of the movie. You telegraph by telling everything don’t.

One way to fix your dialogue is to have table reads. Have a group of actors or even just a group friends table read. This is were everyone sits at the table and reads a character out loud. You will cringe at the sound of the bad dialogue make notes of that and find out what about it made it sound bad.

Now You understand what good and bad Dialogue is and what it sounds like

Body language

Body language can be used in dialogue to enhance the meaning of what they’re saying. For example, if someone is standing over someone else, anything they say can have a different sense even if they’re talking about something non-threatening. The entire mood changes. Now, this is usually the director’s job, but in some cases giving body, language clues can be beautiful in dialogue pieces.

Accents and Foreign Language

When it comes to accents, I suggest you write your dialogue naturally and mention in the description of the character that there french or Russian unless you grew up int hat part of the world and now exactly how they talk.

Remember this is a screenplay, not a book everything you write will not be in the final project. Let the actors interpret to put there own spin on how it said.

We speak differently with different people

Yes, each character has there own personality so there for there own way of speaking. But keep in mind that this way of talking changes depending on the situation and the person they’re speaking too.

For example, you would speak differently with your parents than with your friends or your husband. Or you might not it depends on your character, but most people hold there tongue. Unless your writing that character that’s disrespectful to all you should be mindful of this.

No one should talk like anyone else

Every single character you write should have their own voice. This is a must. Readers must determine the differences between people when they talk or it smashes into one person with one particular voice. Avoiding this will help your screenplay stand out from the rest. As long as there is a compelling conflict you’re doing this correctly.

What makes Dialogue Iconic?

Iconic dialogue is iconic because of the moment when it’s said not because of what is said.

Think about some of the best lines in films you’ve seen. At the most crucial moment, in the plot when all the guns are pointed when there are 3 seconds left that line said is what we remember the most. Why because that’s the moment that matters most in the film.

So if your going for that Iconic line that will be remembered think about the climax of your film.


I know it was a lot of information all at once but with it, you will know what your dialogue is missing. Take the two definitions I give on good and bad dialogue and from that branch off into the examples and ways of doing and avoiding them.

Happy Writing.

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