How to Write Powerful Dialogue

04.04.2018 |

Episode #7 of the course Getting started screenwriting by Jurgen Wolff


In the previous lesson, you discovered how to write effective scenes. In this lesson, you’ll discover how to write powerful dialogue, which is an important component of most scenes. The purposes of dialogue are to reveal character, advance the story, and help establish the tone (funny, sinister, etc.)


The Only Trick

The only trick to writing outstanding dialogue is this: Really get to know your characters. If your dialogue sounds flat or all your characters sound the same, first go back and find out more about them. Ideally, each character should sound individual enough that we can tell who is talking not just by what they say but by how they say it.

What characters say

The personality of the character has a big influence on what they say. For instance, a character named Maria happily tells her friend, Jessica, that she just got engaged to her boyfriend, Brad. Jessica thinks Maria is making a mistake. What would Jessica say?

If she’s kind and sensitive, she would probably first congratulate her happy friend and figure out a way to raise her doubts later, when Maria is more calm. If she’s impulsive and insensitive, she might blurt out right away that Maria is making a big mistake. If she’s a schemer, she might try to come up with a plot to break up Maria and Brad without actually saying anything.

Of course, the specifics of your story play a big role. If part of your story is that Jessica made a play for Brad herself and is angry that he rejected her, she might say some things that plant doubt in Maria’s mind about Brad, which might cause Maria to question Brad in a way that makes him angry.

That’s an example of dialogue that advances the story—what Jessica says causes the beginning of a split between Maria and Brad.

Also, remember: Sometimes what we say is actually the opposite of what we mean. For instance, someone who says, “Not many people would be brave enough to wear such a colorful outfit,” may actually mean, “You look ridiculous in that outfit.”

How they say it

A character who wants to tell someone not to trust somebody might say any of these: “I wouldn’t trust that guy if I were you,” “I believe there’s good reason to question that gentleman’s motives,” “That fella is a snake in the grass!” and so on.

The meaning is pretty much the same. What makes the difference? The two biggest factors are the speaker’s level of education and where they come from. Their age also has an influence. The first statement sounds like an average middle-class kind of person. The second sounds like someone who is more educated—or wants to give that impression. The third one might be an older person from the South or who wants to be perceived as folksy.

So, when you’re writing the dialogue in a scene, keep in mind who the speaker is (their personality and background) and what they want in that scene. That will help you decide both what they say and how they say it.


Dialogue Is Not the Same as Natural Speech

If you’ve ever listened to a tape recording of a real conversation, you’ll be aware of how many times we hesitate, say “um” or “uh,” and change direction in the middle of a sentence.

If you write dialogue exactly the way we speak, it will make your characters sound ridiculous. However, you don’t want to go too far in the opposite direction, either; otherwise, your characters will sound wooden and overly formal. Generally, you’ll be aiming for a middle ground.

These guidelines will help you write powerful dialogue that makes an impression on the reader and eventually, the audience.

In the next lesson, you’ll discover three additional screenwriting tools: the description of the action, the use of settings, and juxtaposition.


Recommended book

The Art of Dramatic Writing: Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives by Lajos Egri


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