Dialogue is an important building block in screenplays and just like any other element, its use adheres to certain parameters. There’s a fine balance in getting it right; it has to be organic, give each character a distinctive voice, and serve the narrative.
The fundamental points around dialogue are: it must reveal character and advance the plot, but it has to sound natural and not be overly expositional. These are the areas were mistakes are most commonly made.
Natural does not necessarily mean how people speak. It’s the right idea, but screen dialogue should be a subtly tailored version of how we really speak. Pauses, interruptions, finishing each other’s sentences are all good ways to make dialogue realistic, but it must remain clear and coherent. The same applies to the use of accents, slang or any kind of lingo the characters may be steeped in. It’s a great way to colour their language, but it must be done sparingly, or you risk losing the audience. Vernacular should be treated like salt: you gotta add the right amount to get the right flavour.
Knowing your characters well is key. Does their dialogue fit their personality? Someone who is arrogant or entitled wouldn’t sound the same as someone who was shy, or a people pleaser. Do the lines reveal their emotional state in that specific moment too? Impatient, scared, unsure, lost? If you know your characters, you can hear them clearly and that will transfer onto the page.
Getting dialogue to sound natural is one step. The other is to make sure it also carries the story forward. Another mistake that often occurs here is falling into obvious exposition. Again, it’s a question of finding the balance. Some exposition is ok; for example, having a character explain something in layman’s terms to another so the audience gets it. Sure, it’s a bit obvious, but necessary. When faced with this type of “essential” exposition, try to be subtle and concise. Avoid information the audience already knows and make use of visuals. Show don’t tell. If something can be illustrated visually, it reduced the chances of forced explanations slipping into dialogues.
An effective way to determine if your dialogue works is to hear it. Table reads are a great way to get a feel for its rhythm and quality, but is that’s not an option, reading out loud to yourself works just as well. Hearing it immediately highlights anything that doesn’t work, like surplus lines or a slump in the pace. And the physical act of reading help identify other stumbling points: is this sentence too long to say in one breath? Does it feel like a tongue-twister? Does this punctuation bring the desired flow to the lines?
It’s important to remember that a screenplay is a blueprint. It’s not only the story that matters, presentation is also vital. Just like everyone else involved in bringing the content to the screen, actors also need a clear set of instructions to work from. This should be reflected in the structure of your dialogue. The choice of words, punctuation, formatting, even the beats and silences, should all work together to bring the lines to life.
This won’t happen straight away. And that should not discourage you. Give yourself permission to do badly — terribly even — in the first draft. Let the cringey, bad, on the nose dialogue flow liberally if it has to. And when that’s out of your system, start going over it. You’ll find the lines that should be cut, the lines that work better as action, or the lines that should be silences. Take time to listen to your characters, fine tune their voices and shape the dialogue until it feels real, functional and serves a purpose.