So when your characters speak, does what they say SOUND like something people would actually say, or does it come across as “too movie-like”?
Do they say EXACTLY what they mean?
Dialogue is a very tricky part of screenwriting that takes a lot of practice to make the words being spoken sound totally natural. When we listen to what the characters are saying, you don’t want to make us aware we’re watching a movie.
Too many times we’ll read the characters’ dialogue, and it leaves us totally flat. Maybe it’s pure exposition. Or nothing but cliches. Or exactly what you think they’ll say. There’s no subtext. No implying. Just straight-out “this is what I want to say”.
All of this makes for some boring and, in all honesty, awful reading. And if the dialogue isn’t good, it’s pretty likely the rest of the script isn’t that good either.
(And the less said about parentheticals, the better. In short – DON’T!)
A lot of writers will jot down lines of dialogue because they think that’s what the characters should be saying. But it goes a lot deeper than that. The dialogue is just one way for the character to express themselves. In fact, sometimes the most effective dialogue is where the character doesn’t say a word.
Do the lines read like the writer put a lot of thought into the content or intent of what’s being said? Audiences and readers are smarter than you give them credit for. They will get nuance and innuendo, which are both more effective than just saying the actual words.
How many writers say the lines out loud to see how it sounds? You may think that monologue is nothing short of genius, but in reality it probably makes the reader’s eyes glaze over for how much it rambles. There’s a lot to be said for organizing a table read of your script (where you will quickly learn to identify most problems, let alone having them pointed out to you by the actors).
Going back to one of the earlier questions, does what the characters are saying sound like not only something they would say, but something you would say? There’s a little bit of you/the writer in every character, so you know them better than anybody, which therefore makes you the most likely to know what they would say and how they would say it.
Like with the scene itself, you want the dialogue to deal only with the point of the scene, or at least be integrated into the context of the story. Anything extra is just going to slow things down, and the more unnecessary dialogue you have, the more it’s going to drag. Cut what you don’t need so you’re not wasting anybody’s time. Get in late, get to the point as soon as possible, get out.
There’s no secret formula for writing good dialogue. It just takes time to learn how. Read scripts and watch movies similar to yours. See how they did it, and work on applying the same principles to your material. Use what the characters are saying (and aren’t saying) to help tell the story of your script, with the challenge being keeping the words spoken and unspoken true to both characters and story.
And again – stay away from parentheticals. Please.