Some Notes on Dialogue.

Robert McKee: Characters do not speak unless there is a reason. Dialogue is not conversation. It requires compression and economy. It needs to say the maximum in the fewest possible words.

Dramatic economy.

  1. Use contractions, punctuated correctly.
  2. Avoid padding. Delete all unnecessary words.
  3. Short sentences, simply constructed. No long speeches.
  4. Moving from noun to verb to object in that order. Film is always in the present tense.
  5. Simple, informal words. Avoid adjectives
  6. No writing in dialect or foreign accent; indicate that in parenthesis as indication to actor.
  7. Underwriting, understatement.
  8. No way to depict "she thought".

You always write in interaction.

  1. Use reactions as beats, often written up in the stage directions.
  2. Always keep in mind not only what is being said but what is being heard.
  3. A character can react to herself while speaking (in parentheses or in stage directions).
  4. Use confidante, shop talk, arguments. Good times to place needed exposition.
  5. People rarely hear exactly what someone else is saying.
  6. They interpret through own needs, wants, fears.
  7. They ignore, misinterpret, read special meaning into everything.

Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression.

  1. Hitchcock: "When the screenplay has been written and dialogue added, we're ready to shoot.".
  2. Body language while talking
  3. Hand gestures
  4. Facial mobility
  5. Walking around
  6. Frontality or cold shoulder
  7. Possibly in contrast to words
  8. Stage business
  9. During speech
  10. In environment around characters who are conversing
  11. Instead of speech

Dialogue and plot

  1. Each scene needs 5-7 beats, with a climax at the end: Importance of last word in a sentence.
  2. The advancing of the plot may come from the dialogue.
  3. Revelations
  4. Exposition
  5. Decisions made
  6. People convinced to act    
  7. Incorporation of conflict 


  1. You need to think of lines that tell some of what the audience needs to know, but not all, and which often keeps them from guessing how the plot will turn out.
  2. Partial information to audience and other characters
  3. Misleading information
  4. Mistaken information
  5. Character is ignorant of key element.
  6. Character may be kidding self. Or there may be deliberate deception.

Dramatic progression.

  1. Speeches build to most important thought.
  2. Save key word for end of sentence. Or speech.
  3. Second strongest place in sentence = first word.
  4. Begin scene at latest possible moment.
  5. Changes that go on in scene.
  6. Physical action and behavior while talking.
  7. Some people exaggerate.

Robert McKee:

Colloquial language.

  1. Social class exploited and pushed connotatively.
  2. Diction
  3. Range of things talked about
  4. Movies make the environment, costume speak .
  5. Vernacular speech from place or region, era, family.
  6. In geographical region
  7. City vs. country vs. suburbia
  8. Ethnic group
  9. Avoiding clichés
  10. Work group vernacular
  11. Hobby talk
  12. Social circumstances or places that dictate a certain conversational style [e.g., Restaurants, church, school, playground, sleepovers--for kids, grocery store, laundromat, hunting lodge, sporting event, army basic training, psychotherapy session, etc.]
  13. Peer group, friends’ vernacular
  14. McKee: Dialogue must accomplish its structural goal within the scenewhile sounding like talk, using an informal and natural vocabulary, using slang and common speech.
  15. Overlapping = all speak at once.
  16. Concrete language, sensory impact. Freshness.
  17.       The speaker describes a scene we can see
  18.       The words evoke a kinesthetic effect in audience.

Things to avoid

  1. Avoid the stereotypical.
  2. Avoid the trite.
  3. Avoid slang that will be dated soon.
  4. Avoid truisms.
  5. Avoid clichés -- first versions of a screenplay are often filled with clichés, thus the value of rewrites.

Use of commas.

  1. After introductory word: well, oh, hello, bye.
  2. In direct address.
  3. Around parenthetical expressions.

Avoid a common problem, that of sounding like your own voice.

  1. Physical tactics.
  2. Move around and sit or stand where each person does while talking.
  3. Make an ear trumpet and read aloud.
  4. Speak into a tape recorder.
  5. Have actor friends read your lines or, better, improvise variations.
  6. Writing tactics.
  7. Move characters to big city or small town environment.
  8. Try writing the opposite sex, wide age range.
  9. Do research, but unobtrusive use of it.
  10. Be or live among people as research.
  11. Get people to talk about themselves.

Character interaction is based on relationships.

  1. You are writing relationships.
  2. Character individuality, different speech styles.

Tasks of dialogue.

  1. Suggest character psychology.
  2. Reveal information.
  3. Advance the plot.
  4. Reveal thoughts and feelings.
  5. Express or evoke emotion.
  6. Play off the visual world of the film.
  7. Complement, not restate the visuals.

Things to avoid

  1. On the nose = dialogue that is too blunt and does not make the audience work.
  2. Character says exactly what she wants or is thinking, no secrets.
  3. Avoid conclusionary dialogue, that is, stating conclusion rather than revealing the specifics that led to it.
  4. Avoid too many dialogue cues; do not overinstruct the actor.
  5. Don’t tell what the audience can see = radio lines [where did you get that gun?]

Set up relation between dialogue and drama.

  1. Rhythms, patterns, phrases.
  2. Play against dramatic values, take another, even opposite approach to a line.
  3. Taking an opposite approach to what you might expect from a genre [e.g., Cat Ballou, Cabaret]
  4. Often trying to give a touch of lightness in an excessively melodramatic or heavy situation

Figure out ways to dramatize a character’s emotion.

  1. To what degree is intent revealed?
  2. Note what characters do not say.
  3. Fit the situation and the emotion of the moment.
  4. What do we feel behind the words?
  5. What character means vs. what she says may be left up to audience to interpret;
  6. A good way to work the villain and villainess.
  7. Let us feel the mind and nature of the characters.
  8. Sometimes, our deepest wants and fears are not conscious but underground. They color our speech so the desires slip out.
  9. Usefulness of writing a backstory
  10. Usefulness of visiting an appropriate locale
  11. What a certain type of person would never say.

Paralinguistics, ideolect

  1. Facial gestures go a long way toward advancing the action.
  2. Ideolect: a person’s characteristic expressions and way of saying things
  3. The three inner voices each person has: The child’s voice [greedy, egocentric, direct, playful, sometimes shamed].
  4. The adult’s voice: [calculates odds like a computer, makes shopping list of thingsthat need to be done, work processes step by step],
  5. The parent’s voice: [protecting, reprimanding, punishing, making moral demands. Controlling, guilt tripping, reinforcing social conscience, enforcing social respectability, reminding one of the higher moral path or more profound spiritual goal]


  1. Tone
  2. Pitch
  3. Rhythm and cadences
  4. Raspiness, hoarseness
  5. Throat clearing
  6. Lisp, stuttering, gasps

Expressing emotion

  1. Directly or indirectly: Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus
  2. Drawing on emotional situations writer and audience have experienced:
  3. dating, love, family life, sibling rivalry, emotional frustration, need for money,
  4. Desire for social acceptability and recognition, worrying about the body and appearance, illness, driving a car, having a party or going on vacation [and things go wrong]
  5. Drawing on archetypes: Jung, Greek and Roman mythology, etc.
  6. The seven deadly sins: anger, lust, greed, envy, sloth, jealousy, gluttony.
  7. Things that are less frequently spoken about, but are sometimes explosive.
  8. Basic moral norms
  9. Basic needs
  10. Old childhood needs, losses
  11. Fears, may be expressed via displacement

Ritual speech

  1. Polite expressions that are socially called for
  2. Used to mollify those in power over us
  3. Used to let others know that things are going normally, no special action called for

Value of offscreen dialogue.

  1. Establish a space.
  2. Person we see can be doing something the offscreen speaker does not see.

Subtext = something else is going on in a scene.

  1. A character is talking about more than one thing in this speech.
  2. Can be referring to self rather than to other in an argument.
  3. Struggling with x but don’t want others to know it.
  4. Anxieties hidden from one’s self.
  5. Really hate what is going on but do not show it.
  6. Deceit, self-deception.
  7. A person may be hiding something [Hitchcock good at this].
  8. From working class background--insecure.
  9. Building scenes around subtext characterizes good screenwriting.
  10. Gives actors something to work with, emotion to communicate.
  11. Implied meaning is the most powerful tactic because it gives the audience credit, just leads them
  12. Makes them curious and uses curiosity as audience hook.
  13. The scene lets us know that under the surface lies some real meaning
  14. unspoken levels of emotion
  15. characters' inner life, backstory
  16. the characters' real intent or motives, conscious or unconscious
  17. hidden agendas
  18. emotions behind or hidden by social respectability
  19. [e.g., men’s real hostility against women, women’s against men, workers against boss, racial hostility, etc.]
  20. fantasy life, dreams.
  21. See Eric Berne: Games People Play; Claude Steiner: Scripts People Live;
  22. Erving Goffman: The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. 

Love’s complexities.

  1. Lover calls and you are distracted by good program on tv.
  2. Teasing could mean real conflict under the surface.
  3. May find love or passion exists underneath the conflict.
  4. Sometimes direct communication can get us into trouble.
  5. We learn how to hide our agendas to satisfy our wants and find love.
  6. Know your characters' wants, fears, hopes, limitations--
  7. That how to know why and how that character needs to speak in your script.
  8. Don't talk of love, show me.

Some techniques.

  1. Playbacks.
  2. Judicious use of question, answer form [make the way of answering a surprise].
  3. Avoid feeding direct questions like an interview;
  4. feed lines = using what or where questions so we can know the other person’s answers.
  5. Agreement, disagreement.
  6. Tag business at very end of scene
  7. Repeat some action, use some previously used object, but with a new twist.
  8. Motifs in film
  9. Parallel grammatical structure of related lines
  10. Strategic repetition characterizes screen dialogue. Repetition and progression or escalation of intensity
  11. Matched wording is very useful.
  12. Pick up the last word of a sentence and repeat in next speech.

Avoid handles:


  1. Don’t put it in all at once, rather little by little.
  2. Insert it into scenes of emotion and conflict
  3. Have it occur while some other action is going on [e.g., playing handball]
  4. The writer must remain invisible as a writer;
  5. the plot is what has to speak or be noticed by the audience

Consider relation of dialogue to film technique.

  1. Off screen dialogue or sounds [e.g., the murder in the garage in Prizzi’s Honor]
  2. Ecu--so you do not see person, perhaps just a part of a body in a sex scene.
  3. Loud volume over a long shot, so it sounds as if the people were a few feet away.
  4. Silence as a punctuation mark.
  5. Mood music or ambient sound over some scenes, for contrast.
  6. Overlapping dialogue, people speaking at same time.           

Assignment: Write a scene in which someone is at work, surrounded by his/her clients, bosses, coworkers, lover(s). Someone from his/her nuclear family (mother, father, sibling, child, etc.) comes in with a problem and interrupts what was going on at work. The goal is to have different people talking and to have them reflect different personalities and goals. You may use the phone as a tactic to get these all in. Have at least five people speaking, within a five page script.  Use a subtext.

Have 5-7 major beats, with an emotional punctuation mark at the end. The scene should have its own dramatic center and emphasis, with progression to the most important point. Write three to five pages in correct script form. If you wish, you can write a brief introduction telling about the characters and where this scene comes in the script, but that is not necessary if your scene stands well on its own.

Basis for grading: correct script form, good conflict, progression, dramatic economy, cinematic interest, quality of dialogue, variety of speech from one character to another. Things to consider: the presentation of self in everyday life, roles and their degree of dramatic interest, creating dialogue according to social role, age and class.  Try to incorporate the authors’ principles of good dialogue, and avoid the pitfalls they mention.