Screenwriting: Dialogue by Pauline Kiernan

Understanding dialogue

Dialogue functions to reveal character, impart information and move the story forward but it’s the way you make it function that’s important. How you create dialogue will determine how original it is at conveying meaning, developing the story, and drawing the audience into the emotions of your characters.

Always be aware of how you can incorporate subtext into your dialogue. Subtext is the underlying meaning of a character’s words and actions. It’s when someone says one thing but means something else – usually the emotional significance behind the surface words. That’s why it connects to the audience at the deepest level. As you write see how much your dialogue can suggest the inner emotions of characters.

Give dialogue energy

Listen to your dialogue out loud as you write. If you leave them on the page you won’t know whether they’re going to come alive or not.  Use a tape recorder or the voice facility on your computer. Ask yourself how the dialogue’s going.

  • Does it have energy, pace and rhythm?
  • Is it original? Believable?
  • Unique to each character?
  • Emotional connection with the audience?
  • Have I used subtext well?
  • Creating tension?
  • Breathing space?
  • Creating conflict?
  • How sharp is it?
  • Each word necessary?
  • Suggesting psychological state?
  • Does it have energy, pace and rhythm?
  • Is it original? Believable?
  • Unique to each character?
  • Emotional connection with the audience?
  • Have I used subtext well?
  • Creating tension?
  • Breathing space?
  • Creating conflict?
  • How sharp is it?
  • Each word necessary?
  • Suggesting psychological state?

Looking Over the First Draft

Again, move around and say the words out loud or get friends to read through it and you listen and make notes. This time you’re assessing the dialogue’s role in the trajectory of the story. Ask yourself:

  • Is this developing my characters’ inner life?
  • What distinctive details are shaping my characters’ ways of speaking? Are they all sufficiently individualised by not only what they say but how they say it?
  • Is it forwarding the action?
  • What do I lose/gain if I get rid of this?
  • Are there moments where I’m giving the audience some space to absorb what’s happening?

  • Why is my character compelled to say this? And why at this moment?
  • What does the audience need to know here? Better to keep them waiting?
  • Would silence be more dramatic here?
  • How are the words speaking to the theme of the story?
  • How much is subtext expressing meaning?

More screenwriting exercises

Get into the habit of watching a few scenes of films and focus solely on how the dialogue and subtext are working.

Choose a few movies you haven’t seen. Try watching dialogue scenes with the sound turned off. Then write the dialogue. Turn the sound up. Compare your words to those in the film.

Try writing short exchanges for your characters using subtext alone

Get two lovers talking. A scene of tenderness. A violent row. Making up.

Get a supporting character and main character together. Make it a power struggle. How is the subtext conveying hostility?

Notice how you’re creating emotion which lies behind the words (the subtext).

Pauline is a screenwriter, award-winning playwright, Shakespeare scholar, and former journalist. She’s also the author of one of the best guides there is to screenwriting, Screenwriting They Can’t Resist: How to Create Screenplays of Originality and Cinematic Power. Explode the Rules.