Ask any screenwriter, new and old, what’s the most difficult part of writing a script. While some may vary from their response, an overwhelming number would say “Dialogue!” Creating effective dialogue that is rich with purpose and realism is a special talent; one that many screenwriters never master. Unlike theatrical plays or other storytelling mediums, film and TV dialogue is not the only element that tells the story. While important, dialogue must work seamlessly with action sequences and subtext given by other characters while remaining focused on the primary objective.
Writing object-focused dialogue free from stiffness and rich in realism is far easier than it sounds. However, with practice and a solid understanding of the true importance and value of dialogue you’ll be able to pen interesting words that may help you sell your script.
In our daily lives we have hours of conversations that are truly, actually meaningless. The same cannot be said for characters living in your screenplay. While off-script a character may spend hours talking about random activities and notions, during a scene all dialogue must be tightly focused around the primary story objective and the primary scene objective.
Dialogue that features an excess of casual and meaningless conversation does nothing but slow the story and suggest you’re an amateur to filmmaking professionals. Tightly focused dialogue not only reads better, but it paces the film nicely.
What About Casual Scenes?
The biggest question asked by novice screenwriters is what should you do when you’re faced with a casual scene between friends or lovers? First off, if the scene is only there to showcase the relationship or casualness between friends, consider eliminating it from your script. However, if the scene adds value and is essential for the flow and progression of your script then keep the rule established above — maintain tightness and focus.
Every scene has an objective, therefore every piece of dialogue and action sequence must achieve to meet this objective (or at least support the progress to meet the objective). Even in casual scenes that may not seem paramount to the story or lives of your characters, write dialogue that’s free from pleasantries and provide a hint about the objective or the relationship between the characters. Above all else – keep dialogue as interesting as possible with as few words as possible.