3 Ways to Improve Dialogue In Your Script

If a picture paints a thousand words… close your eyes and imagine really expressive dialogue, instead.

Summertime is a great time to drill down on a few specific skills to master them. Just like going away to band camp – where you can allot time for special projects, practicing a lot of scales or etudes, or learning new songs, Summer can be time an opportunity to FOCUS.

Screenwriters TIP – if you’re going to chose something to focus on, pick something that needs improvement. Working with students over the years in many different mediums, people gravitate toward working on what they do well. Resist that temptation, pick where you’re flailing, and do the hard work that’s uncomfortable and often embarrassing.

Dialogue is one of those things, that after plot, can really deepen an understanding of characters and amp up a every aspect of a story.

What is dialogue?

Dialogue can be a powerful tool to further our story, entertain and inform. An evocative way of speaking can vivid characters, which ultimately deepens our appreciation of a story. Dialogue reveals who these people are, in a visceral way.

What is effective dialogue?

Dialogue is an aural representation of a person. So when you read good screenplays, examine the dialogue and ask yourself, does it show who a person it at their essence, and how? Speech patterns convey, the words they chose, and the rhythm of their patter. By focusing and working on these three elements, manner of speaking, words selection, and their rhythm of talking, you can refine what your character says and how they say it.

people-2582878_960_720.jpgAs an exercise you can select one of your main characters and tweak dialogue, therefore, use the following 3 ways to improve your dialogue.

3 Ways to Improve Dialogue In Your Script

Examining each in detail of your favorite script:
1. Manner of Speech
2. Words and vocabulary
3. Rhythm of talking

What the sum total of these elements convey, which is showing, not telling – which is the key to effective script writing.

Dialogue shows (not tells)

Among the many things that dialogue offers us are the various keys to the person on their surface, as well as underneath that facade, family, past, job, education and so on. Often when you design your characters initially, you detail the following items in much detail. If you haven’t, you may find that your dialogue is bland with a flavor of same, same, same. You should be able to open up any page of your script, not read WHO is talking, but by what they say, know exactly who they are.

talking mouth.jpgIdeally dialogue shows us the following:

• Personality Traits and Disposition (confident, sunny, open, shy, untrusting, thoughtful, bookish)
• Education
• Socioeconomic sensibility (White collar, blue collar, poor, middle class, upper class)
• Where you live or come from, accents, slang (region, geography, North/South)
• How you feel about yourself (deprecating, jokester, braggart)
• How you want others to feel about you – your job, social strata, your crowd – what’s commonly done, as well as your need to fit in.

Creating Examples

For fun, we could create a dialogue profile for a college English professor who studies folk history. Let’s call him Clayton Dustworthy. How might he talk?

1. Manner of Speech – dry, technical, long-winded
2. Words and vocabulary – long words, almost old fashioned
3. Rhythm of talking – drone-like, ask few questions and those only rhetorical

What does this dialogue show us? It informs us that he’s overly educated, among other things and probably as dull as a bag of moist hair!


So, on to Clayton, here’s what his dialogue will reveal:
• Personality Traits and Disposition (confident, sunny, open, shy, untrusting, thoughtful, bookish)
• Education – his mind is in books, not necessarily in the present, he’s probably somewhat retiring, fanciful, and bookish
• Socioeconomic sensibility (White collar, blue collar, poor, middle class, upper class) – upper class
• Where you live or come from, accents, slang (region, geography, North/South) – North East, retains a nasal manner of speaking from being born in Maine
• How you feel about yourself (deprecating, jokester, braggart) – he feels he’s fascinating and misses that he’s boring other people. He lives for anything J.R.R. Tolkien, has an obscure book collection and gets really excited when he can add new gnomes from historical book to his figurine collection, which he’s entitled ‘gnomes from tomes’
• How you want others to feel about you – your job, social strata, your crowd – what’s commonly done – he wants people to know he knows a lot, even if they couldn’t care less. In the academic hierarchy, he’s pretty low on the pecking order. He’s a rock star at places like the Renaissance Fair where he can show off his knowledge

In addition to a character’s actions and appearance, ask yourself what you can indicate about your character through dialogue more effectively than any other way. What do we need to know about this character as it relates to the plot?

Find Examples In Your Favorite Scripts

To better understand dialogue, I like to look at extreme examples, like Rain Man or Rocky,

Opening the door Rocky is taken aback when he sees a set of very flashy clothes. ROCKY (mumbling) … These ain’t my clothes.

Hey, how come I been put outta my locker?

If you look at select lines of Rocky’s throughout the script you get immediately who this guy is by his grammar, straightforward, no frills way of stating his mind. He doesn’t speak beautifully, but gets straight to the point – and he’s guileless, always speaking from the heart. Here are a few of his lines:

I said, how ya feelin’?

…Don’t you never say that.

…You guys talk like that in front of a little girl — You guys are scum.

…That doesn’t matter — You don’t really have to be a whore, just act like one an’ that’s it.

Ya gotta be a little soft to wanna be a pug… It’s a racket where ya’ almost guaranteed to end up a bum.

I don’t think you’re a bum.

… I’m at least half a bum.

Rocky’s verbal tics in his manner or speech– like uh, ya’, and often stating what he sees as facts about morality, reveal his blue collar status and street-wise upbringing, as well as minimal school education – but a thinking and thoughtful man.

Also, ethnicity can play an important role in speech. If they speak English as a second language, they may not have an accent, but instead flip nouns and adjectives sometimes, or use unusual words, due to their ongoing translating in their head.

man-couple-people-woman.jpgOf course you will vary a character’s speaking within a script, however it’s a good bet that if you can tell, just by the dialogue, who is speaking, it will give you a sense that is distinct and varied between characters. Then have fun and use these 3 ways to strengthen your character’s dialogue and note how it deepens and enriches your story and the characters themselves.

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