This is where you earn your money. When people read a script, they are predominantly looking at your dialogue. Oftentimes scene descriptions get glossed over or even ignored, but your dialogue will always get read.
And it’s also the key element that attracts “talent” — the performers whose involvement can get your project greenlit. Fun fact: oftentimes name talent will have their own writers on set to do “dialogue polishes” — don’t be the writer whose script induces an actor to ask the production company to spring for another writer to do on-set polishes.
What should you look out for when writing dialogue?
1. Make sure every character sounds different.
Each should have their own unique voice. Now if you’re very much established and in the club (ahem, Aaron Sorkin) then you can get away with characters all sounding the same and maybe even make it your trademark. But until you are in that lofty position, a reader should be able to tell who is talking without looking at the character name.
Now, the difference in dialogue might be more pronounced depending on the situation (e.g. all of the characters are exchange students from different parts of the globe) or less (e.g. they are all members of the same family). How a character expresses themselves depends on many things: their level of education (are they mispronouncing words or exclaiming in Latin?); where they grew up (accents, dialects, regionalisms); their hobbies and interests (are they using sports metaphors or quoting novels?); and many other factors. Know your characters well and the dialogue will take care of itself.
2. Silence is golden.
If you character can say it with a look or an action, then there is no need to put words into said character’s mouth. We often tend to overwrite, afraid our ideas don’t come across.
JANE doesn’t have to state that she’s angry if she can simply withdraw and immerse in her Fallout 4 mod instead of responding to JOE.
Maybe MIKE feels shitty about his behavior but instead of telling MOIRA, he finally cleans out the closets like she’s been asking him to for the past five years.
Instead of telling BOB that this relationship doesn’t satisfy her, BELLA could maybe leave the box with little blue pills on his desk.
3. It doesn’t have to be big, but it has to be real.
Here is an anecdote from The Great Maker himself (yeah, that only landed if you’re a Babylon 5 fan). In Becoming A Writer, Staying A Writer, J. Michael Straczynski relays a piece of advice he got from his mentor Harlan Ellison (and if you don’t know who that is, I beg of you, read more).
JMS asked for advice regarding an episode of The Twilight Zone he was currently working on. In it, his protagonist is tormented by the death of his wife in a car accident years earlier, because their last conversation was an argument. JMS was trying to figure out what they could have been arguing about. Money? Politics? Infidelity? His pal, legendary sci-fi writer Harlan Ellison, responded that those were certainly big arguments — “and that’s exactly why it’s not working.” Because arguments like these happen all the time and are just standard TV stuff. “Yeah, he’d feel bad about arguing with her before she died, but he wouldn’t necessarily regret it on a very personal basis.” After all, money worries happen, bills happen.
“You know what we regret? We regret all the really stupid things we’ve done, the stuff that comes out of nowhere to haunt us while we’re sitting at a stoplight waiting for the green.” Ellison suggested JMS try something like this:
“You know those jars of cherry or plum preserves you get at breakfast? He always called them jams but to be cute and funny, she called them jellies instead. So every morning for the last thirty years he’d say, ‘Pass the jam, dear,’ and she’d say, ‘Here’s the jelly, dear.’ Then one day he was in a bad mood—maybe he didn’t get a good night’s sleep or something else was bothering him—and when she says, ‘Here’s the jelly, dear,’ he just goes off on her, saying that after thirty freaking years it’s not funny, it’s never been funny, and when he asks for the goddamned jam just give him the goddamned jam and stop giving him crap about it.”
They go on to finish breakfast in silence. Of course, he feels terrible but he just figures that he’ll apologize to her after work. That afternoon, she gets killed in a car accident. “So it’s not just that they argued, it’s that it was a stupid argument because he was being an ass, and unfair, and petty, and he’d give anything to make it right.”
JMS’s good advice: If you want to go big, go small.
As you already know, we’re always here for questions (and the answers are free).