Screenwriting Tips - How To Write Strong Dialogue
Every successful theatrical production has one thing in common: powerful, attention-grabbing dialogue. It's not just one or two great lines either; it's every line of dialogue, from every character....
Every successful theatrical production has one thing in common: powerful, attention-grabbing dialogue. It's not just one or two great lines either; it's every line of dialogue, from every character. Next time you're watching a blockbuster that has established itself as a great story, pay attention to the dialogue. Every line is meaningful to the plot. Every line delivers pertinent information that furthers the storyline. Do you think you can write dialogue like that? If you can't, you better learn how because screenplays with weak dialogue have no place in Hollywood.
While the common thread between successful movies is strong dialogue, the common thread in great dialogue itself can be summed up in four words: plosives, brevity, questions, and reinforcement.
What are plosives? They are sounds in any language that cause the speaker to form a pocket of air and then release it in order to verbalize the letter or the sound. To help you understand what a plosive is, say these words out loud: bat, cat, rubble, pancake, tart, corn, and baby. Can you hear the plosives? Can you hear the pockets of air in the letters c, t, b, p, and k? Those letters are voiced with sharp, crisp sounds that require a pocket of air to be released. Any word that uses a plosive is a subtle way of grabbing your audience's attention. The more you pack your dialogue with plosives, the stronger it will sound.
Brevity is extremely important in dialogue, particularly in theatrical productions. The longer a person talks, the more the audience begins to fall asleep. Short, one or two sentence lines are always best. Not only will you keep the attention of your audience, but your actors will be able to deliver stronger lines of dialogue if they don't have to be concerned with talking for five minutes straight. There is a slang term for a character that just talks and talks and contributes nothing to the furthering of the story. That term is a Talking Head - don't let your characters become talking heads or you'll bore your audience to death!
Whenever someone asks you a question, what's your gut instinct? To answer the question! We've all been programmed to unconditionally respond to any question asked of us. Even if we lie or somehow manage to bite our tongue and withhold a response, our natural response is to blurt out an answer. At the root level, even a harmless question is a form of interrogation! You can feel it in your gut when someone asks you something. When it comes to furthering a story, simple questions can move a story along very quickly. They can also be used to convey emotional conflicts between characters. Questions are a handy tool for any dialogue - use them wisely!
That last of the common threads in strong dialogue is reinforcement. When one character tells another, "I wish you were dead!" and the second character responds, "You wish I was dead?" That is a perfect example of reinforcement. It immediately places emphasis on the original line and the audience understands it's an important piece of information. Personally, I think reinforcement is heavily overused. Almost every other scene in a movie nowadays features some form of dialogue reinforcement. Don't do it! Try to use it at the right moment and it can be a powerful tool. If you overuse it, you will quickly diffuse its power.
The last bit of advice I'll give you regarding dialogue is to simply make sure it needs to be there to begin with. Analyze every scene and review the lines of dialogue you've given each character. Does each line need to be there? Does each line further the story or reveal pertinent plot information? If not, delete the line!
It may take some time before you start writing strong dialogue. It's a learned skill. Don't get frustrated, and don't quit. If you persevere, you will master the art of writing strong dialogue in due time.
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