Chapter 13 of 30 from Shonda Rhimes

Writing Authentic Dialogue


Shonda shares her tips on how to write realistic and engaging dialogue for your characters.

Topics include: Deconstructing Dialogue • Subtext as Dialogue • Actors and Dialogue

Shonda shares her tips on how to write realistic and engaging dialogue for your characters.

Topics include: Deconstructing Dialogue • Subtext as Dialogue • Actors and Dialogue

Shonda Rhimes

Shonda Rhimes Teaches Writing for Television

In 6+ hours of video lessons, Shonda teaches you her playbook for writing and creating hit television.

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Make Great Television

When Shonda Rhimes pitched Grey’s Anatomy she got so nervous she had to start over. Twice. Since then, she has created and produced TV’s biggest hits. In her class, Shonda teaches you how to create compelling characters, write a pilot, pitch your idea, and stand out in the writers’ room. You’ll also get original pilot scripts, pitch notes, and series bibles from her shows. Welcome to Shondaland.

Watch, listen, and learn as Shonda teaches you how to write, pitch, and create a hit TV show.

A downloadable workbook accompanies the class with lesson recaps and supplemental materials.

Upload videos to get feedback from the class. Shonda will also respond to select student questions.


Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars.

All I can say is wow. Thank you Shonda! So many insights and levels of inspiration. I'm glad this was the first Master Class I took. I will definitely refer back to certain lessons again and again. And also the pages of notes I took. The clips really helped to drive some of those points, by the way. #futureshowrunner

It's a perfect course to learn basics of tve writting.

Before this class I enjoyed writing college assignments and stories and letters to my friends, now I want to write a script!!!!!! Before this class I loved Shonda Rhimes, now I LOOOVEEEEE Shonda!!!!!!!!!!!! I look forward to writing and maybe one day having my own show.

It was very informative about all the steps of developing and selling a show. Excellent in depth and detail.


Toni H.

I am the one who writes . . . Will watch Breaking Bad for that speech. Thank you, Shonda. I loved how Shonda clarified and validated the job of the writer and the job of the actor in this lesson. Several years ago, I belonged to the Actors and Screenwriters Assembly. Once a month, actors walked on stage and cold read scenes from submitted writers. This was extrememly helpful for the actor and the writer. Another activity - I would pick a specific resturant that embodied the atmosphere, theme, and personalities of my characters, then I would eat alone and listen to conversations around me.​ Dialogue keeps me up at nights talking in my sleep.

Tsakani 'tk'

So I absolutely loved the notes she gave on Actors and Dialogue. I am a script supervisor and I constantly find myself having to discuss with actors why and how they would want to change dialogue that they have been given. Their argument usually being, "My character would never say something like this." I have found this process to be disrespectful to the writer in assuming that they do not understand the character as well as the actor does. So to choose to edit work, that has been approved by so many other people, when the writer is not on set to defend themselves or approve the changes, is just wrong. So yes I think collaboration and back and forth engaging of dialogue between writer and actor is good and healthy, however I thoroughly agree with Shonda on the fact that, " So while I will never tell you how to act, you will never tell me how to write."

Jonathan S.

In every scene, ask: what do my characters want? They all want something; to be trusted, to get an object or a favor, to be loved, to get even, to be left alone. People very rarely tell the whole truth about anything. They have an agenda, and they need to protect things. Think of detective shows where the cops have to keep going back to people who don't tell the whole truth, not because they're guilty of the crime, but because they've done something they shouldn't have, and it will come out if they tell the truth. I've been with my girlfriend for 18 years, and there's a lot of sub-text that I know very little about. A big thing with her is not to hurt anyone's feelings. A lot of people are that way and won't say what they mean. Use that knowledge when you write dialog.

Gilda B.

Great advice. I need more practice writing dialogue, that shows my characters' personalities in detail, rather than on the surface dialogue. Thanks, Ms. Rhimes.

Donna S.

Great advice for writing dialogue. I usually do pretty well when my characters are having a "normal" conversations. Or if a character in a "professional" field is speaking to a "regular" person--for example if a doctor is speaking to a patient, then I can throw in some general terms people understand, and I keep the conversation short. I also probably would avoid having my main character be a doctor and would check with a doctor if I needed to have a more in-depth conversation take place. Usually I keep my conversations with professionals be in fields I am more familiar with, such as administrative assistants or teaching. I have listened to conversations, but usually pull out a book so it doesn't look like I am listening!

Ryan L.

One of the best shows ever for knowing when to not use dialogue (at least in the first season before the network interference started) was Joan of Arcadia. There are tons of scenes where the characters' facial expressions tell you everything you need, and the writers were smart enough to know that and not force dialogue in. I absolutely try to make dialogue sound naturalistic, and my pre-readers all said it was the best part so apparently it worked, even if it was also the hardest for me to feel like I got it right. So that's a big boost for my confidence going forward.

Christine L.

Anyone else ever wonder if Shonda has key people she would turn to for advice about dialogue? For instance, if I want someone to be a therapist, and sound like a therapist, not knowing how to form dialogue like that because of the particular vocabulary that I have personally as a writer, how can I access this kind of knowledge? Do I turn to someone who would know? I'm scared of my characters all sounding the same, sounding like "Christine". On another note, I love the dialogue in Gilmore Girls.

Mike A.

If you let characters take over and "own" the text, how do you make sure they convey the sub-text you want them to?

William R.

Dialogue. We recently watched X-Files Season 11 Episode 7... The two main actors didn't say a word, but their acting and the episode spoke volumes about today's society and automation. A wonderful experience!

Christian H.

Great lesson with a lot of helpful advice! Dialogue has always been the hardest thing for me when it comes to writing scripts and I very much appreciate how she broke down the different methods for creating authentic-sounding dialogue that doesn't seem like the same voice for different characters.


Well, dialogue is almost everything. I think what a character says and what a character does not say tells you everything you need to know when you're watching something. And so when you're writing something, you really want to be careful about the words you choose. I think a lot of people get lazy about what they let a character say or what they let a character not say. I think that Breaking Bad had some of the best dialogue I've ever seen. I always say the "I am the one who knocks" speech might be one of the best things I've seen in a, long, long, long time. It's lovely. There are wonderful moments in a lot of things. I think there are some shows that I think you should watch for the moments when characters don't say anything. I'm very excited right now about shows where there are scenes in which everything is conveyed but no one has said a word. That might be why I like The Crown so much right now. The West Wing was fantastic with language you really understood the characters based on how smart they were with their language. There's a lot of really good stuff out there right now. I mean, I think you should just watch a bunch of different shows and see how they use dialogue. And pay attention to what feels real and what feels stilted. Pay attention to those moments when you think, my god, everyone's telling me exactly how they feel instead of showing me. And see how that engages you or disengages you from a show. [MUSIC PLAYING] I try really hard to think of my dialogue as being the conversations that real people have. Even more of louder Shakespearean, bigger characters that I have, they speak in a way that those kinds of people would speak, I suppose. A Cyrus Bean who has lots to say, or a Papa Pope, who has more than enough to say. For them, the characterizations of what they say, that's real for them. And then everybody else, I really just try to make it seem like people are having conversations. The kind you would overhear someone having if you were hiding in a closet in their house or something. I think you have to-- if you are looking to make your dialogue sound authentic, if you want your dialogue to have a real quality that doesn't feel cliched or what I call "TV talk." I'm always saying that sounds like TV. If you don't want it to sound like TV, really listen to the conversations of people around you. Become an eavesdropper, just do it. First of all, it's incredibly fun. But second of all, you'll start to hear how people talk. People don't talk in complete sentences, people don't always know exactly what they're going to say, people use the wrong words, people drop out, people talk over one another. And people say some really crazy stuff sometimes. Nobody says all the perfect things at all the perfect times. And when you've heard dialogue before, it's a cliche already. Anything you've ever heard anybody say i...