Guides

How to write dialogue

The Boords Team
The Boords Team
|
11 min read
11 min read

Good dialogue is the thing that makes your story ring true for your audience. If it's believable, they'll be on your side. If it doesn't sound like real life, you'll probably lose them.

In this post, we'll show you everything you need to know when writing dialogue for the screen – including some of our favourite dialogue examples. We'll explain some nitty-gritty bits that you might not have thought of. And we'll give you writing tips on how to craft effective dialogue that drives your story forward, and keeps your audience engaged.

Here are 14 things to think about when you're next writing dialogue for your story.

1. Do your research

The simplest way to write realistic dialogue is to write what you know. And that's fine – unless you want to write about something outside of your day-to-day existence. In that case, you'll need to do some research – and speak to some real people who know their stuff.

Take the Fast & Furious franchise. Maybe you want to write a screenplay for the fifteenth instalment... but you have no idea how to drive a car. In which case, you'll want to spend some time talking to petrolheads. Preferably while sipping on a Corona.

2. Show, don't tell

Sometimes the best dialogue is no dialogue. One of the common mistakes that first-time screenwriters make is churning out endless lines of dialogue, when all your script needs is a page of pedal to the metal action. Because action – not small talk – is what grabs an audience.

Take a look at this round-up of action clips from Live Free or Die Hard (aka Die Hard 4). As McClane and co. battle it out amid a series of explosions and gunfights, there are very few occasions where the characters actually use dialogue. After all, what needs to be said? Except for the occasional cry of "get down!" of course.

3. Use an outsider

A solid way to improve your dialogue writing is to use someone aside from the main character to give information. So instead of having our favourite boxer Rocky say "I'm better than that", it's much stronger to have his coach Mickey give a line of dialogue: "I think you're a hell of a lot more than that, kid".

Having someone else provide information makes it seem more like real life – as if there's inside information that everyone in the story already knows. It's a subtler way of getting your point across than making characters talk about themselves.

4. Write between the lines

Having a character avoid the truth can make for some great dialogue. They don't have to lie, per se, but being not-100%-truthful can make for juicy situations.

The comedy show Workin' Moms forces character development by putting its protagonists in sticky binds, where they have to fudge the truth... then work out how to get themselves out of a new mess. Which means we, the audience, get to watch them squirm.

5. Build a rounded character

People aren't one dimensional in real life, so your characters shouldn't be either. No one is totally good or totally bad. Instead, we're a mix of conflicting emotions and actions.

Take BoJack Horseman. On the one hand he's a sweet, generous guy (or horse) who lets his friend sleep in his house. On the other hand, he's a narcissistic alcoholic who ruins most things he comes into contact with. However, his flashes of goodness leave a question mark over how we think of him.

6. Make each character unique

Everyone has their own way of speaking. Even among people who are similar to us – like our friendship group – our word choice and the way we make sentences sets us apart. It should be the same for your characters, too – and this is where it's useful to understand character archetypes.

In Derry Girls – a comedy about five high school kids in Derry, Ireland – each of the five main characters has a totally distinct identity. There's the goody-goody, the airhead, the rebel, the narcissist, and the downtrodden boy. If you covered up their names in the script, you'd still probably be able to tell who was who from their speech patterns. And that's the sign of great dialogue.

7. Say it out loud

The simplest way to see if you've written realistic dialogue is to read it out loud. If it sounds janky, then it needs work. Imagine how your character would speak if they were next to you now, and harness that in your writing.

Would this character say this in real life? Is this easy to say? Do you pause at parts where you haven't written commas? (If you do, add commas so that people read it how you intended.) As dialogue examples go, there are few better than this one – courtesy of Aaron Sorkin's The Social Network.

8. Trim the fat

Although you want your dialogue to be believable, no one wants to hear your characters standing around and talking about the weather. (The only exception is if they're talking about the weather to avoid talking about something that does impact the plot.)

It's important to hone your self-editing skills, trimming off any snippets of dialogue that slow the pace of your story. You want to keep the audience on the edge of their seats – and the weather probably won't do that. There's zero fat in this impeccable clip from The Dark Knight, featuring Heath Ledger's Joker.

9. Add slang

Language is constantly evolving, with new slang emerging every day. Punctuating dialogue with a bit of slang can anchor your story in the appropriate place or time. A story set in New York, for example, will have very different slang to one set in London.

Netflix show Top Boy tells the story of competing London drug dealers, and it's packed with London-specific slang that makes the show authentic. However, it's all too easy to get slang wrong, and that can ruin your dialogue. Make sure you do your research thoroughly or get help from someone else who knows their slang.

10. Be consistent

It's important to make your characters' voices consistent throughout your story. If a character speaks in a certain way in one scene, they should sound the same in the next scene, too. Obviously, there might be subtle differences if they're talking to different people. But their voice should be consistent.

In Big Mouth, each of the characters' voices is totally distinct, and always consistent. Like The Ghost of Duke Ellington, who has the same mannerisms and speech patterns – maniacal laughter, bursting into song, general perversion – each time we see him.

11. Ditch the greetings

While you want your dialogue to be as realistic as possible, there's nothing quite as dreary as watching two people exchange pleasantries throughout your story. Effective dialogue cuts out the small talk and heads straight to the good stuff.

It's easy to poke fun at 2003 cult film The Room. In terms of how not to write dialogue, it's a treasure trove. Particularly this dreadful scene, made all the more dreadful with the greeting, "Oh, hi Mark." Just don't do it.

12. Leave some things unsaid

Sometimes the best way to build tension is to not say everything that's going on – and leave the audience to figure out some bits for itself. Because good dialogue can also mean less dialogue.

The Coen Brothers' No Country for Old Men – based on Cormac McCarthy's great book of the same name – is a masterpiece for many reasons. The 'coin toss' scene is a particular highlight, with the clerk not realising – because it isn't said, it's just the subtext – that this coin toss is the difference between him keeping his life and losing it to Chigurh. Which keeps everyone on tenterhooks.

13. Consider using narration

At its worst, narration can be a crutch that helps people get away with lazy writing. But at its best, it can show off your writing skills and introduce texture to your story. Just be careful to use it only when necessary.

For an example of narration done well, check out Arrested Development. The narrator's a character in his own right, driving the plot forward and adding humour in spades.

14. Have fun

If you want to get a maverick like Daniel Day-Lewis in your film, you need a script that offers delicious, sumptuous dialogue. And with Paul Thomas Anderson's classic There Will Be Blood, that's exactly what you get. You can tell Anderson had fun writing it – and it comes across on screen.

The film's packed with great dialogue. Not least the culmination of Daniel Plainview's character development into a full-blown maniac, as he spits lines at Paul Dano's creepy Eli Sunday before... well, we don't want to spoil it. But things get a bit messy.


Take your great dialogue to Boords

Once your dialogue's tight – and you've mastered the art of 'show, don't tell' – head to Boords. It's the online storyboarding app for creative professionals. Simplify your pre-production process with storyboards, scripts, and animatics – then gather feedback – all in one place. Creating storyboards has never been simpler.

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