Amazing dialogue is one of the fastest ways to improve any screenplay.
Here are 20 ways to boost everything but the big print.
1. Plan your character web
Design your characters so each one has a unique disposition, habit, or set of values that opposes other characters in turn. This means that before you even start writing, you’ve set a stage for a wild ride full of conflict.
2. Give everyone an agenda
The desire line in a scene is not necessarily the same desire line for the character in the broader movie. A scene agenda could be something as simple as wanting to get a biscuit from the table. Inject a rival secretly trying to stop them and there’s a new dynamic playing out. But remember, agendas needn’t be spoken.
3. Make sure there’s a point
Revealing story information or character, setting the tone or the scene, or revealing theme, your dialogue must be there for a reason. What’s your character getting at and is it on point with the theme/argument of the screenplay?
4. Increase conflict and tension in dialogue
…without asking too many questions, do you have anyone in with Costello presently?
Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe fuck yourself.
Two detectives can work quite calmly and cooperatively during an investigation, but does this ever happen in the movies? There’s a reason why. Check out these clips of Mark Wahlberg’s hilariously antagonistic character, Dignam, in Scorcese’s, The Departed.
5. So start an argument
Screaming matches or mild kerfuffles, even a playful argument, just make sure your characters rub each other up.
What if our diabolic, evil, mega-lord, antihero is in the middle of a heart-to-heart and just about to reveal their great hamartia (the fundamental flaw that lead to their downfall), when Interflora ring the door bell. Interruptions are a simple way to prolong tension.
7. Make it so hard
Showing in the subtext by what a character doesn’t, won’t, or can’t say, give your character an emotional reason for avoiding the subject. If you’ve got parents, you’ll know how that goes, although it also works well if the other character has no idea. Watch this truly heartbreaking scene in Manchester By The Sea (Lonergan, 2016).
8. Erect a wall
A piece of glass. A train. Distance. A fish tank. Trees. Noise. A lake. A broken phone. Real physical things that mean what is crying out to be said, can’t be said, as Something is literally in the way.
9. Conjure fear
Pop in slight unease or dowse the dialogue in bloodcurdling terror. In The Graduate, Dustin Hoffman’s character, Benjamin Braddock, has decided to start an affair with Mrs. Robinson and he needs to secure a room at a hotel. The thing is, he’s worried that the desk clerk will find out what’s going on. In the first minute of the clip, watch how the added fear factor turns otherwise non-exceptional dialogue into something engrossing, awkward and funny.
10. Get down with some freestyle voice journaling
Write like your character. Go freestyle. Spend 20 minutes writing in a pad in the way your character would and see what comes out. With play, little quirks, gems, phrases and patterns will start to develop which will make your creations more real. This could be part of your Morning Pages ritual.
11. Read it out loud
Don’t be shy. Your neighbour might think you’re crazy but they’re never going to write a blockbusting screenplay. If it doesn’t sound right out loud to you, it’s not likely to sound right to anyone else.
Find a theatre group and have some fun. You have to be brave at first but remember, everyone else is doing the same thing. Google some stock characters and carry a list with you. Pull it out and it will add a little spice to date night when you start communicating as the hard-boiled detective or the bad boy.
13. Use Karpman’s drama triangle
Taking the above advice and playing out at an acting improvisation event, I was introduced to this concept. Used in psychotherapy and transactional analysis, it’s a social model of human interaction that plays with roles to manifest different conflicts. Apply a different role to characters in your scene and flip it around to see what happens.
14. Use vocab to deepen understanding of character
Where were they educated? Are they attempting to use big words to better their station? What’s their background? Is what they’re saying in keeping with what they know, how they feel and where they’re headed? Dixon shows how culturally aware he’s recently become here in, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (McDonagh, 2017).
15. Play with syntax
Ordering of words is a useful way to indicate a character is speaking out of native tongue. A Latvian might ask, ‘Can you tell me please where is high street?’ Or syntax can also be a tool to show elaboration or fanciness, ‘Our poor poodle has not been so active that I might have found opportunity to exercise. In consideration of such misfortune, you must forgive my rotundity.’
Engaging dialogue doesn’t always flow in the direction of obviousness. Flip it. Be innapropriate or unfathomable, you’re writing a movie. ‘On-the-nose’is a Hollywood term that describes far too obvious dialogue. Surprise us with something off-kilter.
17. Apply subtext
Secrets, memories, back-stories, relationships and fears can be present and effecting your dialogue without mentioning them. Richer scenes have more going on than meets the eye and when you start filling up more than what’s on the page, you start to fill spaces in the senses that make for a truly memorable script. The Iceberg Theory is a style of writing also referred to as the theory of omission, coined by American novelist, Ernest Hemmingway.
18. Write a load of crap whilst pissed on booze
Dig the basement of your writer’s mind and just throw it out there in drunken droves. Forget rational consideration and simply plough into the scene with a bottle of Shiraz and some loud music. Out of the clutter will arise gems of previously incomprehensible value, taking your screenplay to new and exciting realms. ‘Write drunk, edit sober’has been accredited to Ernest Hemmingway too.
19. Amp it up
Take the opportunity when you’re editing to finesse your dialogue. Add strokes of flair to make lines more interesting, memorable, poignant, sharp or funny. Quentin Tarantino is a rare egg, for inspiration in flair and flourishes, download his script for Pulp Fiction. And for an additional, neat-trick, check out your own private Kindle email so you can send scripts to your own device FOC with dubious legality.
20. Workshop your script
Hire some actors to thrash out your script. Don’t underestimate the power of a professional actor to breath new energy, direction or find a new significance for what’s written on paper. Your biggest dialogue flaws will come out in the wash when it gets acted. Don’t wait. Do it. Do it now.
Get in touch with your ideas to improve screenplay dialogue.
Follow the links to read original screenplay excerpts by blog author, screenwriter and filmmaker Peter Boydell and follow him on Instagram @lovescreenwriting
Red Moon – Two badass girl DJ’s are nailing a dream gig at a Goan beach festival until they get on the wrong side of a new Russian club drug and a mysterious group of Indian kids.
The Local – Four teenage boys skip school and play gangsters, but when a tetchy, Greek kebab shop owner flips, the boys get involved in something dark.
Sunday League – When the manager of a rough, local, Sunday League football team dies, a vicar steps into his boots and begins a journey to reclaim his joy in life.
Follow the links for script coverage or screenplay adaption and editing services.