By Ashleigh Ferguson
Few people think about how the mechanics of good writing can affect a film. After all, film is a visual medium: your audience watches events unfold, rather than reading them as they would in a book. A screenplay, however, is the backbone of every film. Without a clear, effective script, the final visual product will fall short.
A script is the foundation of the filmmaking process: a guide for how the film should play out. Since the purpose of your screenplay is to be read and understood, it’s good practice to ensure that it is as clear as possible.
There are a few components that come together to make an effective screenplay: character, scenes, themes, and dialogue. In this post, we’ll focus on dialogue: what it is, why it matters, and how to improve it in your script.
Why Does Good Dialogue Matter?
Dialogue is an important component in screenplays and story-telling. As a literary device, it helps to bring your readers along with your story in several ways.
Dialogue gives insight to your characters by peeling back their layers: their personality, their motives, and their plights. Dialogue is also an effective tool for exploring conflict and tension between characters.
Good dialogue doesn’t just bring characters to life, it ultimately drives your plot as well. Through dialogue, characters exchange crucial information that’s important to the narrative. Dialogue can help to establish backstory and give the audience a better understanding of the plot.
Finally, dialogue casts light on the themes of the screenplay, creating a deeper engagement with your audience, and drawing them further into the story.
Why Clarity Is Important for Dialogue
Dialogue can make or break your screenplay. So how do you write good dialogue?
Your primary goal with dialogue is clarity. Clear dialogue lets your audience follow your ideas with ease. Your audience will understand what your characters are saying and feel a deeper connection to them.
As a writer, your goal is to keep your audience interested in your story. Clear dialogue brings your audience along with you and helps them understand the story you’re trying to convey.
Clear and concise writing also helps with character development. Your audience will appreciate and understand your characters more because of how they communicate.
If the dialogue is incoherent and lacks clarity, then you miss the chance of connecting with the audience. Your dialogue will fall flat and become ineffective. Boring or unclear dialogue makes it difficult for the audience to connect with your characters. While action brings your characters to life, clear dialogue adds indispensable sub-context.
While positive audience perception of your dialogue in your film is your goal, there are people who will read your screenplay by itself: readers, agents, producers, actors, and other executives. Your dialogue needs to not only translate well on film but also read well. Thus, clarity is important at every stage of the process.
How to Ensure Your Dialogue is Clear
The best way to ensure clarity in your dialogue is to revisit and revise. Here are a few things to look for when editing to ensure your dialogue is clear.
#1: Keep Your Dialogue Realistic
Have you ever heard characters in a film and immediately thought “No one talks like this in real life”? Robotic and unrealistic dialogue can take your audience out of your story.
You don’t have to add filler speech like “huh” and “uhm” to be realistic, of course. There’s a very delicate balance in making dialogue feel human without being monotonous.
Stick to the important points, but make it as natural as possible. When in doubt, try speaking the lines out loud. If they feel strange, you might need to edit.
#2: Remove Distracting Elements
Once you’ve finished writing the dialogue you should analyze it to see if it’s doing what you intended. Ask yourself:
- Is this conversation moving the story along?
- Does it offer insight into my characters’ personality, past, or pursuits?
- Does this conversation sound forced?
- Does it help to set the scene and highlight any relevant themes?
Essentially, if the dialogue isn’t helping to move the story along in a purposeful way, then it’s just clutter and it should be removed.
#3: Improve Readability
A readability score is a measure of who can read and understand your writing. Readability scores can help make your writing clearer.
It may sound counterintuitive, but people often enjoy reading at a lower grade level than they’re able. For instance, the average adult may comprehend texts at a twelfth-grade level, but they prefer to read fiction written at a seventh-grade level. That’s because adults reading for pleasure don’t want to spend their time combing through a dictionary to understand the plot of the story they’re engaging with.
The same is true for dialogue in a script. The readability score of your script should rarely match the age of your characters. That’s because people rarely talk formally or with complicated words or sentence structures.
Here are some ways to improve the readability of your dialogue:
- Use an editing tool. An editing tool like ProWritingAid can help improve the style and clarity of your dialogue at the sentence level. An editing tool will spot errors and improvements you might not recognize as the writer.
- Remove glue words: All sentences contain some glue words like the, that, like, go, and will. They don’t contain much information, but they hold sentences together. An overreliance on glue words, however, will make your writing clunky. ProWritingAid can also support identifying and removing these words.
- Opt for the active voice: The passive voice appears when you have written the object of your sentence first and then put the subject of your sentence at the end. When a sentence is in the active voice, the subject of the sentence is the one doing the action expressed by the verb. The active voice is a lot more engaging than the passive voice. ProWritingAid can help find and correct instances of passive voice in your writing.
#4: Show What’s Happening In Your Dialogue
The best scripts show the reader what’s happening through their dialogue. They let the reader interpret the character’s emotions and feelings.
Consider the classic Pride and Prejudice line: “You have bewitched me, body and soul.” In this line, Mr. Darcy shows Elizabeth Bennett how he feels about her by using engaging language. If he just said, “I love you” the scene would be much more boring.
Your characters shouldn’t tell their emotions—they should show them! Showing rather than telling creates compelling arcs and important conversations. Memorable lines are always lines that prioritize showing over telling.
ProWritingAid can support you in identifying places where you’ve told, rather than shown. The Realtime report identifies instances where you have used weak adverbs, a sure sign of telling. If you’re using dialogue tags like “said” and “asked” in the different iterations of your script, the Dialogue Report can also identify places where you’ve used constructions like “said angrily” so you can reassess the dialogue and ensure you’ve included the emotions in the words your actors will deliver, not just in the notes on the page.
#5: Use Sensory Language
While film is a visual medium, it’s important to use more than just sight words to make your world come alive. A real-world envelops the audience through all five senses. While your film might not have a smell, your characters can use dialogue to share what they’re smelling and make the world come alive.
Most writers prioritize sight sensory words. That’s why a report like the Sensory Check from ProWritingAid can help. This report analyzes your script to see the breakdown of sensory language you’ve used in your writing. You can see which senses you’ve prioritized and which you might have neglected. Then, you can edit your writing to include more types of sensory words to make your world come alive.
Use an Editing Tool to Make Your Dialogue Clear
Of course, the revision process can be tedious so our preference is to run the script through a grammar checker like ProWritingAid.
ProWritingAid can improve the clarity of your writing by eliminating grammar and style issues with the touch of a button. It also features over 20 reports that work together to improve the readability of your screenplay, making it more cohesive and easy to follow.
Keep clarity at the forefront when developing your dialogue. Your dialogue should always be clear, easily understood, and focused on driving the story along. If you prioritize clarity in your screenplay, your audience (and your film production team) will thank you.
Don’t miss a deadline. Download our Contest Calendar!
Ashleigh Ferguson is a Copywriter on the ProWritingAid Team. With an affinity for learning new things, you can always count on her to know some random fact.