Writing Good Dialog
Some writers have a natural gift for writing dialog. Others don’t. If you’re the latter, here are a few tips to help you write better dialog.
1. Good dialog is concise.
After you’ve written a scene, go through and try to reduce the number of words by 25%. It’s easier than you think.
2. Don’t repeat words within the same scene.
Use synonyms when you can. If a character says, “I know what you mean,” then avoid the phrases “I know” and “you” later on. Instead of saying “Yeah, I get it” or “You are right,” (those phrases repeat “I” and “you”), say something like “That makes sense” or “Totally understandable.” We use the words “I,” “you,” “that,” and “know” more frequently in speech than we realize. On screen, it’s noticeable. Rephrase your dialog on the second pass to avoid repetition.
3. Break up large chunks of dialog.
Once the scene is written, read each exchange of dialog aloud. Then put the script down and repeat what you just read. If you can’t remember it long enough to recite it, it’s probably too long. You’ll also tend to remember the more important points when you do this, so it will be easy to figure out what to cut out.
4. Dialog should fit the character.
People are individuals that speak differently from each other and so are your characters. The way we speak (rhythm, sentence length) is influenced by who we are and who we’re talking with, and our word choice is influenced by our background, level of IQ, and education. When we speak colloquially with our friends, we opt for different words than when we’re involved in a conversation with our superiors at work. I find that novice writers tend to focus so much on making their dialog “snappy,” all the characters sound the same.
5. Understand subtext.
On-the-nose dialog will ruin a script. Most people are not self-aware enough to articulate exactly what they want or need or know about themselves, and yet I hear characters do this all the time in poorly written scripts. Most of the time, less is more when writing dialog. Take a scene you’ve just finished writing and try to rewrite it with as little dialog as possible. Dialog is not the only tool in your toolbox. Adding beats, action, and emotions in parentheticals can help the reader understand how a line is said even if the character says something he doesn’t mean.