1) Dialogue Comes From Character
If you’re struggling to write dialogue and it just isn’t flowing, the problem is more than likely with your character.
Developing a unique, eccentric or opinionated character will do wonders when you’re writing your dialogue.
Instead of wondering what unique, interesting and memorable things your character can say, it will just flow off the page.
2) If in Doubt, Stereotype
There is no room for political correctness in screenwriting. Stereotyping is a really great way of making your characters more interesting and in-depth. Enhance their culture, show their backgrounds and experiences.
Expanding on this, you can subvert expectations and create a stereotypical character that has opposite traits to what the audience were expecting. Some examples:
Sherminator (American Pie): The nerdy kid who is actually confident with the ladies, the ‘smooth-talker’.
John Coffey (The Green Mile): The large and muscular convict whom is actually very caring and gentle.
3) Be Brief and Punchy
Dialogue is at its best when characters are straight to the point, short, sharp and sometimes curt. The audience don’t have time for long explanations, they want to see drama, conflict, tension and action.
You may think this is a contradiction to rule 7 (don’t be too literal), however there’s a time and a place to be brief and punchy. Usually when tension is rising and conflict is beginning .
4) Make Your Characters Combative
If your scenes lack interest or engagement, make you characters very combative and argumentative. Have your two characters in a scene have completely opposing views, so when you put them in a room together they clash.
Audiences can’t get enough of drama. Try not to write petite arguments all the time but deep and reasonable arguments that the audience can get behind.
5) Everyone Should Talk in a Separate and Unique Way
A common problem in many screenplays I read are that the characters tend to talk in a very similar manner. I’m not just talking about accents here, I’m talking about what they choose to say and what their values are.
If everyone talks the same, says similar things and in a similar way, it just gets boring… Mix cultures, mix opinions and mix accents; it truly is really interesting to watch.
Great examples of this are: Django: Unchained, Untouchable and Lock Stock and Two Smoking Barrels.
TIP: Take away all of your characters names in a scene. If you gave your script to a friend or family member would they be able to tell who’s who by the way they talk?
6) Don’t Repeat Information to the Audience
It’s a huge NO NO to repeat information in screenplays. Repeating in dialogue what has been shown in action is bad. Repeating information in dialogue that we’ve already heard in dialogue is forbidden.
Once you tell the audience something, don’t repeat it again as it gets boring and can take them out of your story.
But what if I have to repeat information to a new character?
If you have to repeat information to a new character, this can be done in a matter of ways, just get creative with it! A phone call we can’t hear? A text? A note? – The audience will know what it’s about from the characters reaction and response.
7) Don’t be too Literal
Being straight forward will really let your dialogue down. Be vague, let the audience try and figure things out slowly throughout the story.
Here are two examples of dialogue and you tell me which one you would be more interested in…
CHARACTER 2 — “You don’t trust me?”
CHARACTER 1 (option 1) — “I don’t trust you because you cheated on me, you know with my best friend Emily!?”
CHARACTER 1 (option 2) — “You know perfectly well why I don’t trust you.”
Be subtle, be ambiguous; it evokes curiosity which engages the audience.
8) Use Subtext
Subtext isn’t used enough in screenplays, so I’m going to define it and give you a couple of basic examples.
Subtext is when a characters dialogue has an underlying meaning, which isn’t what they’re direct saying. For example:
CHARACTER 1 — “How are you?”
CHARACTER 2 — “Yea I’m fine.” (not fine/sad)
CHARACTER 1 — “Do you even like me?”
CHARACTER 2 — “Like? I hate you for what you’ve done to me.” (I love you/I want you back)
Subtext won’t work without context!
Try to hide characters feelings, subtly get the audience to figure what they truly mean, but don’t actually vocalise it.
If you can master subtext, you can master dialogue!