Film & TV

How to Write Script Dialogue: Tips for Writing Dialogue for TV and Film

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 5, 2019 • 5 min read

The best television shows all have one thing in common: crisp, memorable dialogue. In television, dialogue can function as a way to further the plot, express our characters’ point of view, or simply deliver a joke. Writing great dialogue for television takes skill, patience, and a deep understanding of your characters.

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Why Is Dialogue Important in a Screenplay?

Whether you’re writing a screenplay for a comedic half hour or an hourlong drama, dialogue is an essential tool for advancing the plot, developing your characters, and establishing backstory. The dialogue in a screenplay may serve as a way to express a character’s point-of-view or to understand the interpersonal dynamics between two or more characters. Dialogue is also a way to convey the story’s mood or tone. In a television comedy, much of the humor will come from your dialogue. Many of the biggest laughs in a sitcom emerge from the quippy, clever dialogue between the comedic leads, while many of the largest plot twists or character developments in dramas stem from layered, nuanced dialogue.

What’s the Difference Between TV Dialogue and Prose Dialogue?

Attempting to write dialogue for television for the first time can be intimidating, especially if you’re a fiction writer who is used to writing prose. Below you’ll find the key differences between writing dialogue for television and literature.

  • Dialogue tags. Unlike in a novel, short story, or other types of prose fiction, there’s no need to use dialogue tags like “he said” or “she said” when a character says something. Dialogue does not appear in single quotation marks or double quotation marks—it simply exists underneath the character name. Learn more about dialogue tags in our guide here.
  • Punctuation. If you’re worried about how to punctuate dialogue, don’t be. Dialogue punctuation remains the same: screenwriters use periods, question marks, and exclamation points within their dialogue. You can also use em dashes to indicate that a character is being cut off or interrupted.
  • Formatting. When writing a teleplay, any time a character speaks, whether out loud or in voiceover, the screenwriter must format the dialogue the same way: dialogue is centered on the page, one inch from the left margin. The name of the character who is speaking should always appear in all caps above the line of dialogue.

Here is a simple example of dialogue:

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Karen and Dan dialogue

5 Tips for Writing Better TV Dialogue

Whether you’re working on the first draft or polishing a final draft of a television script, there are certain dialogue tips that can help improve your dialogue writing every step of the way. Here are some writing tips that will help you write great dialogue for television:

1. Learn from real life.

Whether you’re at a coffee shop, a bar, or in any other public space, you’re bound to overhear snippets of real conversation that can serve as inspiration for your own dialogue writing. Spend 10 minutes eavesdropping on a conversation. Record everything they say and how they say it as specifically as you can. Pay attention not only to the words, but also the conversational rhythms. Who is dominating the conversation? Who is asking the most questions? What is their body language? Note that real people usually speak plainly, rather than using literary devices like alliteration. Observing the real world will help you write realistic dialogue.

2. Subtext is important.

A real person rarely vocalizes their true inner thoughts. Similarly, screenwriters should be careful to not let a character’s outer dialogue mirror their exact inner dialogue. Rather than having your main characters say exactly what they are feeling and thinking, allow the viewer to surmise their emotional state through subtext and inference. This will allow you to build tension and stakes with your dialogue.

3. Cut to the chase.

Small talk is prevalent in real life, but it can be dreadfully boring to watch two people chat about the weather and other pleasantries on screen. One way to rectify this is to enter the conversation as late as you possibly can. This technique can you help you write better dialogue by allowing you to skip the boring, introductory remarks and unnecessary follow-up questions and get straight to the heart of the scene. This is one of the most important writing skills for television writing especially, because an episode of TV is generally only 30 or 60 minutes along, leaving no time for extraneous dialogue.

4. Desire should motivate your characters to speak.

When your characters are speaking, they should be trying to get something from one another. When writing dialogue, ask yourself what your characters want. (This is a crucial aspect of character development.) Ideally, you will know your characters’ voices well enough to sense not only what they want but how they would express their desires verbally. Will they be blunt or subtly manipulative? Will they be angry, or do they always keep their cool?

5. Say your dialogue out loud.

Sometimes a line of dialogue may seem fine on the page, but when it’s spoken it feels awkward or confusing. The first word that sounds unnatural will take your viewer out of the scene. That’s why it’s important to read your own dialogue out loud. Does the dialogue sound clunky? Does the dialogue flow naturally between your characters? Does a specific word choice or single line seem unnatural? Oftentimes, these problems can be resolved by simply saying your own dialogue out loud.

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The 3 Common Mistakes to Avoid When Writing Dialogue

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  1. Show, don’t tell. Sometimes, the most effective dialogue is no dialogue at all. It’s often more compelling to see characters’ actions than to hear them speak. For instance, instead of writing countless lines of dialogue in which your main character says how happy she is, it’s often much more effective to see an action that conveys that emotion, such as waving cheerfully to a stranger or smelling a flower.
  2. Avoid clunky exposition. When writing dialogue, be careful not to get bogged down in heavy exposition and backstory. Look out for examples of dialogue that use red flag phrases like “as you know…” or “we’ve been over this before...” When your characters restate the obvious or use dialogue to awkwardly provide backstory, your viewer will tune out.
  3. Beware of clichés. If you find that your character is speaking in cliches, maybe it’s because you don’t understand your character well enough to give them a unique, specific style of dialogue. What is their point of view? Do they have distinct speech patterns? Oftentimes, use of cliched phrases is a symptom of not understanding your characters well enough. Learn more about common clichés in our guide here.

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