How to write great dialogue in screenplays: 5 pro tips

Thu 3 Aug 2023

How can you write dialogue that grabs the audience's attention? Check out five pro tips.

This post is by John Finnegan, founder of The Script Department, a screenwriting network that showcases up and coming writers and their work. He is also a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University and is the Course Leader of MA Writing for Script & Screen, an online screenwriting master's degree.


Whether you are a veteran screenwriter or someone just starting on your first script, dialogue is difficult to write. It’s difficult to figure out what characters should be saying and it’s even harder to have them say it in a way that captures an audience’s attention. 

Writing great dialogue takes practice and experience. However, if you are starting out, I’ve got 5 pro tips to help you avoid some of the trappings that this challenging aspect of screenwriting can present.

What do the characters need to communicate?

When thinking about what your characters should say, it’s best to start by asking yourself what information you need the audience to learn in the scene. Perhaps the character is about to undertake a perilous mission and they’re scared and you want us to understand their fear. 

This could serve as the focus of the scene and you can then start to ask yourself how dialogue can be used to emphasise this. You may even find that it’s best for your character not to say anything at all and have other characters in the scene do the talking. Silence can be just as loud, remember.

Avoid small talk

This is an easy one. Time is precious in a film. You’ve got 90-120 minutes to take us on a journey across war-torn France or watch John Wick fight his way through an army of assassins in New York. There’s no room for the kind of small talk that we find ourselves caught up in on a daily basis in our real lives. Stick to the point and get us through the scene in one piece with the information we need.

As an extension of this point, it’s also helpful to avoid needlessly prolonged sentences. Instead of saying “well, that depends…”, just write “that depends”. Actors can also ad-lib as and when they need to later.

You can even take your dialogue up a notch if you…

Have your characters say unexpected things

I recently had a student ask me how they should finish a scene in their script because they felt the last line of dialogue was too cheesy. I asked her to think about the most unexpected thing her character could say at that moment. Suddenly, the scene was fun to write again and she had provided an expletive-laden enriched experience that had us cracking up in the script-reading stages later.

Have you ever watched a film or television show where you know what the character is going to say next? Try to avoid this. There’s nothing wrong with audiences having a sense of where the scene is going but if they can predict lines of dialogue then there’s a problem. After all, think about how endlessly complex human expression is or how complicated and diverse languages can be. It shouldn’t be that easy to know what the next lines in the film will be.

Unpredictable dialogue can make even the most mundane scene feel fresh and new. As an example, there’s a famous scene in Mad Men, where we see Joan ask protagonist Don Draper what he wants to drink. He doesn’t respond with a predictable “whiskey on the rocks” or something to that effect. Instead, he says “make it simple but significant”. There’s no way a viewer could have expected those words at that moment. Now that’s good dialogue…

Get more advice on becoming a professional screenwriter in John Finnegan's two-part guide: 

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Use questions wisely

One of the core tenets of screenwriting is that you should set up ideas and pay them off later. If a character has a phobia in act 1, they’ll likely be forced to confront that fear in act 3. The same applies to dialogue.

If one character asks another a question, don’t be so quick to have them answer it straight away. Allow the question to breathe in the minds of the audience. Let them ponder over the possible answer and keep them active participants in the experience. Now, before you ask, this isn’t an outright rule. In some cases you do need to answer the question. 

Character 1: “Where’s Jim?” 

Character 2: “He was right here a minute ago.”

But imagine the possibilities if we were to draw out the answer for the benefit of the audience. 

Character 1: “Where’s Jim?

Character 2: “Have you seen my phone? It was right here.”

Character 1: “He’s going to be late for the wedding. Where did you see him last?”

Character 2: “I swear, I’d lose my head if it wasn’t –”

Character 1: “This isn’t funny. Where is he!”

Character 2: “I don’t know, alright? We had a disagreement…”

Character 1: “About what? Never mind. Where did he go?”

Admittedly the dialogue is a bit rough around the edges here but for the purposes of this lesson, it’ll work fine. In this mini scene, we’ve established that Jim is missing, but rather than just simply having a character answer the question outright, we’ve managed to infuse more drama and a hint of suspense into the audience’s experience of the scene. It’s not just Character 1 that’s left wondering, the audience are too.

More to the point, even after Character 2 gives their explanation, we’re still able to hold the audience’s curiosity because now we’re wondering what the fight is about - something to be explored in the next scene when they are out looking for poor Jim.

On a much more basic level, it can be as simple as one character asking for a name and the other person refusing to give it. You trigger the audience’s curiosity and give characters a chance to speak in unpredictable ways. After all, how often do people refuse to share their names in real life?

And this bring us nicely to the final point:

Real dialogue isn’t always great dialogue

I had a teacher once who told our class to go out and listen to how people actually speak, whether it was in the park or on the bus. Eavesdropping and privacy issues aside, it taught me one very important rule about screenwriting - people in movies don’t speak like people in real life.

Most of the time people in real life avoid conflict and drama. They outright give away information freely. They do little to try and hold people’s attention, or at least they are rarely successful at it. People are always making jokes that don’t land and we express ourselves poorly when it comes to matters of the heart. 

And it’s for these reasons that we love the escapism of cinema. It allows us to enter into a world where characters get away with things that would land us in hot water. It’s a platform for even the most unlikely of people to be a hero and for them to sound like a poet as they do.

The point here is, unleash your inner poet when you’re writing your dialogue and don’t be so quick to make them sound so ‘real’. That’s probably not the lesson my teacher was trying to pass onto me…


Of course this is not an exhaustive list of tips and suggestions on how to make your characters sound more interesting and captivating. There is no magic formula. Each character is different and so you need to adapt the challenge that each character presents. But it is a good set of principles to keep in mind as you work on your script. 

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