4 Tips For Writing Engaging Dialogue

4 Tips for Writing Engaging Dialogue

By Armaan Uplekar

Dialogue, in many ways, provides the thrust to a good screenplay. It gives characters a voice and it gives a good story its rhythm; in many ways, it’s the way audiences receive vital information such as backstory and plot details. Good dialogue can clarify and develop relationships between characters.  The right line of dialogue can stick in an audience’s mind – memorable, iconic even. It can even transcend the screenplay itself, becoming ubiquitous: There’s a reason “You talkin’ to me?”, “I’ll be back” and “I’m walking here!” have permanent places in the pantheon of pop culture.

But writing such dialogue can be a challenge: Good dialogue must strike a delicate balance between giving your story momentum while remaining true to your character’s unique voice. Good dialogue needs to feel true to your characters and to the world you’ve painstakingly established through your writing. If dialogue feels hammy or expositional, it can sink even the most intricately plotted scripts. By keeping in mind these key tips, you will be better suited to write dialogue that feels natural, organic, authentic and compelling.

1.)    Good Dialogue Should be Accessible

Raise your hand if you’ve been in the situation before: You’re at a meeting, a bar or a family barbecue, and find yourself locked in a conversation that you can’t possibly hope to understand. The shorthand being tossed around is hopelessly technical, specific and daunting; the topic at hand might not be rocket science but it sure as hell can feel like it is.

When writing screenplays, it can be easy to get lost in the technical talk. Maybe you are actually writing a script about rocket science, a topic you’ve heavily researched and feel versed in. Maybe you’re writing a space opera epic where intergalactic admirals rattle off sci-fi vernacular every other line. While you might have your reasons for writing dialogue that feels specific, you also need to take into account that you might be alienating your audience.

Audiences want to be able to lose themselves in a story quickly. They want to feel part of the narrative, and they want to be able to follow the story at hand. What you might intend to portray as well-versed vernacular can deteriorate in an audience member’s head to inaccessible mumbo-jumbo.

Now, this doesn’t mean you should water down your dialogue. Rather, you should find alternate ways for your characters to communicate. For example, if there’s a specific scientific term that your hero needs to say, you might have a quick aside where he explains what the term means to an uninitiated supporting character. This will catch your audience up to speed and allow them a chance to enter the world and vernacular of your characters.

2.)    Dialogue Should Define the Character

As mentioned before, dialogue is an opportunity for you to assert your character’s voice. Dialogue reflects your character’s personality, as well as their needs and wants– it’s how they communicate and express themselves towards others. Is your character aggressive? Shy? A fake tough guy? Insecure? These character traits should manifest themselves in the way you write their dialogue.

Our perception of characters is very much defined by their dialogue. Terrence Fletcher, the tyrannical band leader in “Whiplash”, spits streams of abuse at his students, needling them through any insecurity he can dig his nails into. Lines such as “There is no word in the English language more harmful than, ‘good job’” convey not only Fletcher’s brutal personality, but also speak volumes about his train of thought. His dialogue is a window into his soul, so to speak; it helps us form an impression about him as a character.

When writing a character’s dialogue, keep in mind how the words he or she speaks is an extension of their personality. Think carefully about what words they’d use, if they’d be direct or indirect when confronting a character, or what information they might decide to omit in a conversation. Keeping your character’s inner voice in mind while writing their dialogue is crucial to developing strong, believable characters who speak authentically.

3.)    Dialogue Should Dramatize the Narrative

Dialogue is also an opportunity to create stakes for your story. Take, for example, the Mission Impossible franchise, which nearly always opens with a debriefing scene in which we’re introduced to the key conflict at hand, the culpable antagonist, and the consequences of failure. While these debriefing scenes are certainly expositional, they succeed because they give the story a dramatic context.

We understand, through dialogue, that if Ethan Hunt fails this particular mission, cities will be vaporized, civilians will be hurt and damage will be done. This kind of dialogue gives a story its sense of momentum; it clarifies the importance of a certain plot point, or the difficulty of an obstacle, or the irreparable harm that will be inflicted to the status quo if your protagonist doesn’t manage to succeed.

4.)    Dialogue Should Be Memorable

“You can’t handle the truth!”

“May the Force be With You.”

“I’ll make him an offer he can’t refuse.”

The annals of film history are filled with dialogue that has wormed its way into our subconscious. Dialogue that has become ingrained in our collective cultural experiences. Dialogue that even the most casual of cinephiles can recite or recall at the drop of the hat.

It’s a tall order to create memorable dialogue. There’s admittedly no special formula, no recipe that can create an iconic line. In some cases, memorable dialogue is a cocktail that comes organically – a culmination of performance, direction and writing that sticks with audience members long after they’ve left the theater.

Nevertheless, memorable dialogue can be created by keeping in mind what makes your favorite lines from your favorite movies so iconic. They tend to be specific to a certain character, personifying their voice. They typically crystallize a plot point or succinctly communicate the scale of conflict to an audience.

But, most crucially, they tend to be simple. They aren’t overly complicated or chockful of technical doublespeak; they communicate character’s intention to an audience in a way that’s direct and easy to understand. When you attempt to write memorable dialogue, it’s important to keep things as straight-forward as possible, and to allow your characters to speak clearly.

By keeping these tips in mind while writing, you will be more likely to write authentic dialogue that feels dynamic, organic to the character’s personality, and leaps from the page with each breath. 

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