Writing Dialogue

The purpose of dialogue is not to carry inform­a­tion about the “char­acter.” The only reason people speak is to get what they want.”

David Mamet.

Speaking dialogue should, as it was, be the last thing a char­acter does, not the first. And only because it’s abso­lutely neces­sary. … Only when the situ­ation is speaking urgently to them do char­ac­ters really need to reply.”

Steve Gooch.

You often hear writers praised for having an ‘ear for dialogue’.  What is usually meant by that is that their dialogue is convin­cing, it makes you believe in the char­ac­ters and the situ­ation. To the unini­ti­ated or less perceptive, this is some­times mistaken as a talent for writing dialogue that sounds like ‘real’ people talking. Char­ac­ters in a drama, however, are not ‘real’ people (see notes on Char­acter) and they do not indulge in idle conver­sa­tion; their inter­changes are purposeful and part of an unfolding action directed by the writer.

Another truth is that ‘real’ speech is nothing like the dialogue in an average soap opera. It is disjointed, poetic, repet­itive, lyrical, banal – and peppered with non-sequiturs. Real humans behave very differ­ently from fictional char­ac­ters in stressful situ­ations. A skilful writer can use these tics and patterns in human speech to make their dialogue more recog­nis­able (i.e. convin­cing) but this is a ques­tion of style. The dialogue that we admire is usually written by writers who are terrific styl­ists, masters of their craft.

Styles come in and out of fashion too. In the fifties, actors like Brando and Dean invented an acting style that seemed radic­ally different and fresh at the time but, in hind­sight, can appear quite mannered. Acting styles, like writing styles, are being constantly rein­vented and each gener­a­tion offers up their own version of what is recog­nis­able and truthful.

Lazy writers often strive to write ‘natural’ sounding dialogue without real­ising that they are serving up a second-hand version of some­body else’s idea of what’s natural. Good dialogue is rooted in a close scru­tiny and under­standing of what is taking place in the scene. As the quotes above remind us: dialogue is always part of an event, only one aspect of the action taking place. This is where you should be looking if you want to write dialogue that is original and convincing.

Dialogue for the screen

Writing dialogue in search of scenes, writing scenes in search of a story – is the least creative method. Screen­writers habitu­ally over­value dialogue because they’re the only words we write that actu­ally reach the audi­ence. All else is assumed by the film’s images. If we type out our dialogue before we know what happens, we inev­it­ably fall in love with our words … the prema­ture writing of dialogue is the slowest way to work.”

Robert McKee, Story

Mckee usefully reminds us of a common fault of screen­writers; most common perhaps with those of us who come from a theatre back­ground. In a play­script, the dialogue is the drama.

There are few acting or stage direc­tions in a Shakespeare text, everything is conveyed by the spoken words. This is obvi­ously not the case with a screen­play which relies more on action and imagery to tell a story.

You might think then that writers with a literary back­ground, novel­ists and prose writers, are better equipped for the task; but this kind of writing can also have handi­caps – see the section “From Script to Screen” on overly literary writing.

Subtext – the hidden agenda

There almost always wants to be tension between what your char­acter is liter­ally saying, what your char­acter intends to commu­nicate and what your char­acter is thinking.”

 Alex Epstein

One way of looking at speech is to say that it is a constant stratagem to cover nakedness

Harold Pinter

Human commu­nic­a­tion is rich and complex. Even the simplest of trans­ac­tions is coloured by layers of meaning; most of it non-verbal. When an actor is given a text, he auto­mat­ic­ally digs down to discover the subtext beneath it – the unsaid and unspoken which will bring his portrayal to life. He knows that words are both precise and capable of enormous ambiguity.

Put in the simplest terms: the job of the dram­atist is to bury this treasure for him to dig up. In the successful drama, every moment is fraught with possib­il­ities. We sense a secret life to the scene, lurking beneath the surface, from which the dialogue protrudes like the tip of an iceberg.

Expos­i­tion – neces­sary information

A classic misuse of dialogue is as a method of dealing with expos­i­tion – meaning that inform­a­tion which is neces­sary for an audi­ence to under­stand a  story. Some stories require a lot of expos­i­tion – a science fiction or fantasy film, for example, often requires us to grasp a complic­ated premise – but most require at least some.

Scriptwriting is some­times described as the art of disguising expos­i­tion. It is a ‘trick’  in which the writer provides the building blocks of inform­a­tion that create a narrative by subter­fuge or sleight of hand. When does the trick fail? When the audi­ence becomes conscious they are being told something.

An audi­ence actu­ally is looking for drama, not inform­a­tion. They want to remain involved and prefer­ably enter­tained. The acid test for any dialogue that conveys expos­i­tion (ie. neces­sary inform­a­tion) is: “Does it hold up the action?” The important ques­tions to ask about expos­i­tion are: how essen­tial is it really? Can I leave it out? Have I shown suffi­cient respect for the audience’s intelligence?

Some­times the problem can simply be solved by ignoring it. Proceed as if the audi­ence already know the inform­a­tion and it is amazing how often it will natur­ally emerge through the action. All expos­i­tion prob­lems come from the same flaw — lack of integ­ra­tion with the action. The solu­tion is always, in Robert McKee’s phrase: to “convert expos­i­tion to ammuni­tion”.

Written dialogue – text on screen

Audi­ences gener­ally don’t like to read text on a screen. This was once some­thing that was abso­lutely under­stood but in the age of the text and the e-mail, it’s been creeping back into recent scripts I’ve been given by students.

It is hard enough to read subtitles and follow what is happening on the screen simul­tan­eously but at least you know what to expect when you go and see a foreign film. The real resent­ment occurs when you are supposed to read and under­stand, some­thing on the screen used to give the audi­ence crucial inform­a­tion about the story.

You can get away occa­sion­ally with perhaps a couple of lines  – if they are clearly written and shown in close-up (thus read­able on a small as well as a big screen) – but you’re still making the audi­ence work too hard. Remember, people read and take in inform­a­tion at different rates, so why do it?

If your script has to feature some written expos­i­tion, there are many well-tested ways of getting around this problem. You begin by reading a letter over a character’s shoulder but then someone says: “Read it out loud, please”. Or you have a voice-over track. Or the lawyer reading the will says: “And now I have this video made by your late uncle …” Have you noticed how many of the deceased in movies like to leave video messages?

Of course, there are situ­ations where you can break this rule – for comedy effect, for example –  but even then it’s best used spar­ingly. If anything, I think audi­ences find it harder to read screen text than they once did. Not many films could start these days with the famous text effect of the first Star Wars: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… “

Memor­able dialogue

Contrary to what some people think, an audi­ence rarely remem­bers lines spoken by actors; perhaps a frag­ment here and there, at some partic­u­larly powerful or funny moment. This is as it should be if the perform­ance was good. They will have an impres­sion of an event in which char­ac­ters spoke as part of their inter­ac­tion with each other.


The mono­logue can be a powerful and useful weapon in the writer’s armoury. Powerful because it allows insight into a char­acter which would be diffi­cult to commu­nicate any other way. Useful as a struc­tural device to move the story forward. (Shakespeare was a master of both.) Some­times a mono­logue is a more econom­ical way of doing this than pages of dialogue. But beware — it can easily be misused.

Useful link
A great collec­tion of Film Speeches can be found at Film­Site

James Joyce’s Women 1985

The so-called “stream of conscious­ness” style of writing adopted by novel­ists in the early twen­tieth century, where a writer tries to convey the inner work­ings of a character’s mind, has been imit­ated by screen­writers and dram­at­ists with varying success.

One of the most well-known examples is the long soli­loquy written by James Joyce in his novel, Ulysses, for Molly Bloom. Here she ponders the nature of men and women in a bravura perform­ance by Fion­nula Flannagan.

Writing in Idiom

A char­acter is inev­it­ably and ulti­mately a mouth­piece of the dram­atist. The energy levels of different char­ac­ters create the “illu­sion” of real people talking –  part of the condi­tions for a willing suspen­sion of disbe­lief.  Most writers have an idiom that is natural to them and which is shaped by factors beyond their control such as vocab­u­lary, educa­tion, sense of rhythm and social background.

There are occa­sions however when a writer is called upon to be more inventive, to go beyond the speech patterns that come natur­ally to them: stories with period settings, for example, or sci-fi stories, or foreigners speaking in English. Creating, or attempting to create, a unique idiom for a char­acter in a script; whether using a dialect, a special­ised lexicon, or simply distinctive speech patterns; can free the writer’s imagin­a­tion and give the world of the story an added reality.

If you are faced with this chal­lenge, remember the lessons it teaches you. They have a wider applic­a­tion. Charles Dickens is one writer who took a delight in inventing idioms and catch-phrases for his char­ac­ters and it made them vivid and memorable.

The tv series Spartacus uses a ‘made up’ idio­matic style of dialogue which is meant to conjure up the formal Latin of its upper crust – and not so upper crust – Roman char­ac­ters. It emphas­ises nouns and is some­times terse; at other times, quite flowery, in an almost Shakespearian fashion. Swearing is frequent and scatological.

The non-Roman char­ac­ters, like the gladi­ators, speak an earthier version of it which is closer to the modern idiom because they are meant to be more sympath­etic. It is a good example of how dialogue can be used to strengthen our sense of the world of the story and its power struc­tures, and also to make it more distinctive and different from our world.

On avoiding cute dialogue

wildeMost writers, at one time or another, will over­hear or think up lines which are funny or clever. The tempta­tion is to squirrel them away and then slip them into a piece of dialogue you are writing to spice it up. (This is one of the symp­toms of pret­zelling – of which I write more elsewhere.)

Very rarely will they fit seam­lessly into the flow of the action and be consistent with the characterisation.

A good director will spot them and cut them; a bad one may be tempted to keep them in because they raise a chuckle or divert atten­tion from other weaknesses.

There is a place for this kind of writing if your primary aim is to enter­tain and impress your audi­ence with your wit –  but you’d better be at least as good as Wilde or Stop­pard to get away with it.  Alas, few of us are.

But if you want simply to engage an audi­ence, it’s a kind of cheating; and, on some level, the audi­ence will know it.

Poetry and Purple Passages

The word “poetic” is often used to describe writing that is heavily laden with imagery or as a synonym for verb­osity and self-indulgence. But it can also be applied to the poetic discip­line that shapes the sparse­ness and exactitude of Harold Pinter and David Mamet who employ odd juxta­pos­i­tions, silences, broken syntax, and repe­ti­tion to make us aware of other realms of meaning.

It’s not a terrible idea to think of dialogue as a kind of poetry. Poets choose words care­fully and try to distill meaning into them.  Poets have a sense of rhythm and cadence and they’re not afraid to break the rules when it’s required.

A “purple passage” by defin­i­tion is a piece of dialogue not strictly connected to the unfolding story. It occurs when the writer steps away from the story to convey some­thing through imagery or narra­tion. Some­times it adds another dimen­sion by tempor­arily elev­ating a story rooted in the mundane onto the poetic plane. Or some­times it provides a key image or meta­phor which provides the story with a symbolic fulcrum.

The Silence of The Lambs contains an example where Clarice, the Jodie Foster char­acter, recounts an extended anec­dote from her child­hood about slaughtering lambs — and incid­ent­ally gives the film its title. Another is the speech Robert Shaw delivers in Jaws about the sharks attacking help­less sailors during the war. Both of these speeches add some­thing to the films by using dialogue in a unique way.

Whatever func­tion they perform, such passages should be used spar­ingly. It is dangerous to break off a story in progress. Do it too often and it will alienate an audi­ence. It’s note­worthy that many memor­able plays and films feature only one such passage; always stra­tegic­ally placed and well earned by a story that’s rich in action and conflict.

David Clough © 2010


The Power of Words

Dialogue is used often as a way of commu­nic­ating the Back­ground Story of a film, the themes, emotions, dilemmas and internal conflict. Many films feature a char­acter making a powerful speech to other char­ac­ters that have an impact on the course of the story or causes a major reversal of some kind.

This can be a moment where the writer uses words to reveal a glimpse of a character’s soul. Think of the famous scene in On The Water­front where Brando’s char­acter laments his lost oppor­tunity to “be somebody.”

There are also the times when words trans­figure, when they change a char­acter or our under­standing of the char­acter in a radical way, giving depth and meaning to the story. Drama relies on this kind of trans­form­a­tion and it occurs in the most banal tv shows; even if reduced to the process of “hugging and learning” that the makers of Sein­feld were so scornful about.

When words are used well by an accom­plished writer there is nothing more powerful. They can destroy or inspire and change destinies and lives. In Three Bill­boards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017), written by Martin McDonagh a racist redneck cop is trans­formed from a stereo­type into a three-dimensional char­acter because of the words addressed to him in a suicide note. It’s both unex­pected and touching and yet believ­able – maybe because we still need to believe that human beings do listen and change

The Birthday Party 1968

Harold Pinter’s dialogue has many levels of subtext although it can often appear super­fi­cially banal. Notice as well the music­ality of the patterns and repe­ti­tions he uses in his char­ac­ters’ conver­sa­tions. That is where a ‘good ear’ comes in.

David and Mamet

This sketch satir­ises David Mamet’s char­ac­ter­istic dialogue patterns, with their repe­ti­tions, echoed phrases and non-sequiturs, affec­tion­ately but accur­ately. Mamet’s style is memor­ably indi­vidual and often imitated.

Alas Smith & Jones

The pace of dialogue, as well as it’s abund­ance or sparse­ness, can create a distinctive style for a film – or even a film genre. Sergio Leone’s films were char­ac­ter­ist­ic­ally spare with dialogue and delivered at a speed that was easy to lampoon (as in this comedy sketch by Mel Smith and Griff Rhys Jones).

Alan Rickman talks about his approach as an actor towards speaking scripted dialogue and the import­ance of reacting. This re-enforces what was said earlier about dialogue arising from what is happening in the scene.

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