Talk the Talk: How to Write Great Dialogue

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When I went to the University of Southern California for my MFA in screenwriting, I took a one-hour TV drama course for my thesis. My thesis adviser said there were three types of TV writers: “big picture” writers, who can naturally see the character arcs and major plot points of a whole season; “episode” writers, who are better at weaving plots A, B, and C together in an individual episode; and “dialogue specialists,” the writers who can really bring the characters to life through what they say.

Now, this isn’t to say that dialogue specialists can’t map out an entire season arc or figure out the intricacy of multiple plots. Rather, these are just top-level strengths you can add to a TV writers’ room. And some writers are just especially good at dialogue—which is wild, because dialogue is one of the hardest elements to master.

Luckily, we’re going to help you enhance your way with words on the page.

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What is dialogue?

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Simply put, dialogue is the words characters say—the literal lines that an actor reads in the script. 

But under the umbrella of dialogue is much more: It can express exposition, emotion, tone, character, plot, or all of these things at once. What a character vocalizes, or even how little they speak—think of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” or Clint Eastwood’s the Man With No Name—helps determine who they are, what they think, how they feel, and why they changed.

If action is the yin, dialogue is the yang. Together, they work in harmony to help make your characters more complex and dynamic while propelling the plot. 

How to format dialogue in a script

If you’re using screenwriting software like Final Draft, then the formatting will already be set up for you. But for those working on a word processor, here are the alignments (based on industry standards established by Final Draft):

Character cues should be in ALL CAPS at 3.5 inches from the left and 7.2 inches from the right. No need for a colon or dash after each speaker—just write the name. If there’s a voiceover or the line is intended to be heard but not seen, just add a simple space with a (VO) or (V.O.) for “voiceover,” and (OS) or (O.S.) for “offscreen.”

For the dialogue itself, start a new line on the document that is 2.5 inches from the left and 6 inches from the right. Here’s an example from Christopher Nolan’s “Oppenheimer” screenplay: 

Oppenheimer excerpt

What you want in a script is a lot of white space because it’s easy on the eye for readers. Large chunks of text encourage people to glaze over or skim your words.

Tips for writing great dialogue

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Writing, in general, is subjective. A person could love a character and the story, but hate the plot; they could love the plot, but hate the characters, yadda yadda yadda. Dialogue, though, is that one area in which both casual viewers and cinephiles know what is good, bad, and…fine. 

With that in mind, here are some ways you can take your dialogue to the next level. It’ll take practice and finesse, but keep these tools and tricks in the back of your mind. 

Avoid exposition dumps: A cardinal sin of dialogue writing is just having characters explain background or context information. Spouting off exposition for long stretches becomes dry and uninteresting. The best way to establish context and backstory is through comedy or conflict. In other words: Show, don’t tell. Couch your context in a snarky quip or joke—or through an argument, as in this exchange in Alan Ball’s script for “American Beauty.” 

American Beauty excerpt

Be purposeful and concise: Great dialogue is generally short and sweet. Because you only have so much space in a screenplay, imbue every word with meaning. Amateur writers afraid of blank space often have characters drone on without actually saying anything. And yes, a monologue can be fun—especially for villains—but they should be a garnish, not the main ingredient. Look at the tension within this sparse exchange in Taylor Sheridan’s “Hell or High Water” script. 

Hell or High Water excerpt

Remember pacing: Dialogue should almost be like a dance. This, of course, goes hand-in-hand with keeping your dialogue concise, but it also refers to the back-and-forth between characters. It doesn’t have to all be quick and snappy à la Aaron Sorkin, but there should be a rhythm. That rhythm can and should shift—rise and fall, give and take, receive and send back—depending on the scene. People don’t just talk at each other; they respond. Study the use of repetition, interruption, and back-and-forth in David Mamet’s “Glengarry Glen Ross” script. 

Glengarry Glen Ross excerpt

Subtext, subtext, subtext: Once you get past exposition dumps, it’s time to understand that characters should rarely be speaking their feelings out loud at all. Scenes need conflict, and subtext is a great way to generate it. Think of a character who can’t bring themselves to confess long-harbored feelings, or someone lying about who they are. They’ll say one thing but mean another. The unspoken becomes the spoken. 

The writers on “Mad Men” were masters of subtext. One of the finest examples comes on the Season 1 finale, written by creator Matthew Weiner and Robin Veith: During Don Draper’s pitch for Kodak’s slide projector, the Carousel, he beautifully sells nostalgia by sharing happy family photos—“the pain from an old wound,” he says—which is completely at odds with what the audience knows about his actual life. 

Keep it natural: Consider how you, your family, your friends, and co-workers talk in real life. When you’ve finished a scene, read it out loud. Does it sound right? If you’re struggling with stilted or awkward dialogue that just doesn’t ring true, train your ear. Go to a coffee shop or diner, close your eyes, and just listen. I had the great fortune of taking a class with screenwriter Mardik Martin when I was at USC. He mentioned that when he and Martin Scorsese were writing 1973’s “Mean Streets,” they would sit at a café and absorb the sounds of Little Italy. 

Use distinct voices: If you covered up the names in your script, would you know who everyone is just by the way they talk? Each character should have a well-defined voice. This doesn’t just mean an accent or being fluent in another language (unless that’s true to the character). Rather, consider backgrounds and beliefs—a steelworker from Pennsylvania sounds different from a finance bro in New York City. 

Graham Yost’s FX series “Justified” provides an example of two main characters who grew up together in eastern Kentucky but sound very different: Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is more direct, while Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) is more verbose. 

Avoid filler words: Yes, a lot of people use “um,” “uh,” or “like” in the real world; but in a film or TV show, over-relying on these kinds of words comes off as awkward or dull—and worse, as over-directing the actor on the page. (If your dialogue is well-written, an actor will know when to add a pause or stammer.) The only reason to include filler words is when there is a specific, necessary meaning to them. For example, use an “um” to show that a character is coming up with a lie on the spot, or add a “like” to establish a valley girl in the 1990s.

Point of view: At the end of the day, what we do or don’t say defines who we are. All of your characters should have a unique point of view on the world, and their dialogue should reflect that. If everyone is agreeing with each other all the time, there’s no story. Creating a POV should, of course, start during the initial character development phase, but it should also inform every word that leaves someone’s mouth. It’ll help make your characters more interesting and help generate conflict.

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