Script Coverage Chronicles – April 2015: Five Less Talked About Ways To Improve Your Dialogue

I read a lot of scripts, and I’ve noticed a trend. 

The average writer’s dialogue is getting better than it used to be. 

With so many resources available to learn from, most writers are moving past the basic mistakes and writing some pretty good stuff.

Now it’s time to think about making that pretty good dialogue great.  In that spirit, here are five less talked about ways to make your dialogue even better:

1. End Scenes On The Right Note

It’s always a pleasure when an exchange of dialogue leads to a really nice line: a punchy bit of humor or an insightful dramatic utterance.  But too often, after finding a way to this choice nugget of dialogue, the writer decides to let the characters drone on for three of four more lines instead of ending the scene.

A scene will often work best if you cut away right after that great line.  Of course, in the movie the scene may not end immediately; it’s a chance for the director to hang on an actor’s expression, or use music to enhance the moment.  A strong director will know how to end the scene after that great line.

There are a few exceptions when you don’t want to end the scene on your best line.  An example is when a great line calls for an immediate response.  For example, in the classic film As Good As It Gets, when Jack Nicholson tells Helen Hunt, “You make me want to be a better man,” we know she’s going to react, and we need to hear it. 

But often a line is just good, without calling for a response or any further conversation.  In those cases, a lot can be gained by ending the scene without any further ado.

2. End Each Line of Dialogue On The Right Note

This tip is similar to my first, but it concerns individual lines of dialogue and how to best order the phrases within them. When a single line of dialogue contains several sentences or phrases, it’s usually wise to put the best phrase at the end of a line of dialogue. Put the funny phrase at the end of the line.  Put the phrase with the revealing information at the end of the line. Whatever the meat of the matter is, it’s usually best to end the line on that note.

3. Say Neither More Nor Less Than Necessary To Tell The Story

Most writers know the basic rule that dialogue should work along with the visuals in a film to tell the story.  In other words, most writers know that if we see a blue car screeching to a halt, and a door opens, a bad guy doesn’t need to tell his captive, “Get into the blue car that just pulled up!” 

A mistake I do see a fair amount is that, even though a writer is aware of this basic idea, the dialogue nevertheless offers a bit too much or a bit too little information to go along with what we’re seeing on screen.

If the dialogue offers too much information, then it’s partly redundant and less than ideally efficient.  For example, the blue car rolls up, and the bad guy says to his hostage, “Get in the car!”  Why not just say, “Get in!”  Yeah, it sounds natural enough the first way, but that’s two extra words that don’t need to be said, because we all see the car.

The flipside is dialogue that offers too little information, even with the aid of the visual.  For example, the blue car pulls up, and the bad guy tells his hostage, “Go!”  In this case, neither the hostage nor the audience knows exactly what the bad guy means (maybe get in the car, maybe run away), creating a slight, momentary disconnect that can push your readers out of the story.

This is just a simple example for purposes of illustration.  My point is that the best dialogue says precisely as much as needs to be said, no more, no less.  It’s actually a very small target to hit, but hitting it consistently can make a script sing.

4. Give Those Great Lines To Your Main Characters

Again, we’re dealing with the mistake of an advanced writer here, because the mistake involves a great line of dialogue.  I see this one a lot: minor players getting the really insightful lines when it would be just as easy to give that line to the star of the film.  Most movies need star power in order to get made. If you want to attract a talented lead, give those great lines to the lead role, or at least to one of the major players and not to Policeman #2.

5. Whenever You Can, Say Something Unexpected

Technical craft aside, how do you write fresh dialogue that entertains?  One of the easiest ways to do it is to have a character say something unexpected. 

One talented writer I know went through his entire script and challenged himself to change every well-known phrase into something a little different.  For example, he had a character telling another character “we’ve been through thick and thin,” and he changed it to “we’ve been through thick and thicker.”  It’s a small change, but it became a much better line, because it subverted expectations. 

It may not always fly, but try things, twist things, screw with the words people say, and you might stumble upon the next classic quotable line!