writing dialogue for scripts

It is an undeniable fact that the most important and crucial part of any script is the dialogue… unless you’re in a mime show. Without dialogue there is no story to tell, no plot or characters to develop and absolutely no resolutions fully met. It’s vital that a writer knows how to carefully construct and evolve dialogue within the script and this article will hopefully explore how this can be achieved.

Writing good dialogue takes practice, patience and commitment – here are some key tips that I’ve picked up along the way that may help.

Always read your dialogue aloud

After all, it is meant to be heard. Reading aloud your script will allow you to listen to your characters and spot significant points that you may need to address in the overall construction of the piece. This practice will also allow you to see the fluidity of your words and strengthen any weaknesses in character voice and nuance. If you’re struggling to say it, don’t assume that’s a problem for the actor to fix – the problem lies with what you’ve written.

Show don’t tell

Don’t ever use dialogue to convey massive plot details. Leaking of important information through dialogue is referred to as exposition. This is a definite no-no and kills any sense of reality that you are trying to incorporate within the piece. There’s nothing wrong with some information along the way but you don’t want your characters to tell the audience everything just because you want them to be fully aware of the situation. The situation often tells the story.

For example, if you were writing a scene where I was walking to the shop with my friend and I said  “so now we are off to the shop to get some milk for my dear auntie who hasn’t been well lately” then this is blunt exposition. Show your audience me picking up the milk and show me the sick auntie. Things will make sense in context. Your script should be a voyage of discovery for both the characters and the audience. Show don’t tell.

Learn from other plays

Good dialogue should power your play, convey character and have some sense of reality. Go and see live plays at the theatre, you will learn so much from this experience and you’ll be able to have an even greater understanding of how dialogue really works on the physical stage. You’ll also see some truly awful plays – this will also give you an even better understanding of dialogue, because you’ll know what doesn’t work!

Make each character unique

Think about how each of your characters sounds and also try to give each of them a distinctive voice. This is probably the hardest part of any dialogue construction, it’s worth listening to the cadence of people’s speech and identify how each of them is different. A good tip is to record a conversation between a group of your friends (sneakily if you can, you don’t want them ‘acting’) and then transcribing the conversion down on paper. Identify what makes each person ‘different’ and then you can use this as inspiration for how your characters should speak.

Don’t be afraid of silence

Silence is an eloquent companion to dialogue. Shaping narrative through what is NOT said can be just as important as what is. If used correctly and sparingly silence can offer your characters emotional resonance and depth that words, sometimes, fail to achieve.

Constructing good dialogue that really works can be a challenge but if you have an understanding of the following key functions of dialogue, it may make more sense.

  • Characterisation: Giving voice, personal vocabulary, speech patterns and habit to provide the basis for the character
  • Exposition: Useful in limited ways to pass on key information, but don’t go overboard. Don’t let characters tell themselves (the audience) what is happening or about to happen when you can help it.
  • Communication: An obvious function of the dialogue process, how does your character use their words to achieve what they want?
  • Description: Dialogue can express feelings and emotional depth throughout your character’s journey.

Follow these tips and you’ll be writing dialogue in a way that fits your play perfectly. It takes plenty of practice, but it’s crucial to your development as a playwright. After all, the dialogue is what sets scripts apart from the novel so you better be making damn sure that it’s crafted to the best of your ability!

Want to learn more about the craft of the playwright? Visit our How To Write section for plenty of helpful articles about becoming a better writer!

Kiefer Williams
Kiefer Wes Williams is the artistic director for Grin Theatre Company, Merseyside’s first LGBTQ theatre company. Grin produces new works and develops new creative talent within the local community. Kiefer also leads playwrighting courses and writers workshops in conjunction with the Everyman Theatre and Writing on the Wall.