Contrary to popular belief, characters in films do not speak as people do in real life.
Information like this can feel misleading, especially if you are struggling with the dialogue in your screenplay. Common feedback around dialogue that is stiff and expository is to "make it real". But, what we should really be saying is to make it "reel". We want to create the illusion of natural dialogue in screenplays, while avoiding the messy parts of how we speak that are sure to bore the viewer and slow the pace of your film.
You have to understand the difference between "real" and "reel" in order to find the balance between them.
Purpose of Dialogue
What is the purpose of dialogue? Why does it matter? Why do motives matter in film? It's the same principal. If we understand the purpose behind an action, we can begin to understand the importance of the method. In real life, we speak for a variety of reasons: to pass time, to convey emotion and to communicate information. Speech (be it through voice or signing) is our main method of communication. So, we talk... a lot. We ramble. We lose our train of thought. We stutter. We speak in circles of little sense.
In short, we are far from perfect. But hey! That's okay. It's part of what makes us human. It's that exact quality that we want to replicate in films. It would be amazing if we could transfer our dialogue, verbatim, from mouth to page. Can you imagine how easy that would be?
Unfortunately, that rarely works. And there's a good reason for it.
In films, the purpose of dialogue is to communicate plot and character. The goal is to mimic "real" dialogue, without having it slow down the story. Words are precious in screenplays.
We go to see films to be entertained with conflict and action. "Reel" dialogue cuts to the chase. It doesn't waste time on trivial things. It focuses on what's important. And it's indirect. It implies more than it tells because viewers want to see the conflict dramatized rather than spoken about. This impacts the how dialogue is used in screenplays.
The goal is to write dialogue that feels real, but is not real.
Writing "Reel" Dialogue
Now that you understand the difference, we can dive into the specifics. How do we fool the viewer into believing in the dialogue that's unfolding across the screen? The last thing we want is to have our dialogue accused of being too "expository" or "forced".
The essence of writing good "reel" dialogue is in the details.
In screenplays, characters don't "chat", they argue. Viewers are drawn to conflict, so that's what we need to give them. These conflicts should be motivated by a desire or a want that your character has. These could be small things (like "pass the salt") or big things (like telling someone "I love you" for this first time).
Try This: Give your character a desire and an obstacle to that desire in every exchange/scene.
2. Distinct Voices
The leading characters in your screenplay should have voices that are distinct from one another. Explore "how" they speak. This is where you are going to infuse an element of "reality" into the dialogue. Choose different speech characteristics and flaws for each character and stick to them. Consider elements like: education, personality, comedy, language, slang, imperfections, frequency and volume.
Try This: Assign a couple traits to each leading character, like the examples below.
Character #1: loud and confident, always interrupting, always has to have the last word
Character #2: high educated, speaks in long sentences, big words, loves to explain meanings
Character #3: crude, always going for a laugh, can find an inappropriate spin on anything
Character #4: chatterbox with a southern twang, manages to bring God into everything
One of the most crucial elements of "reel" dialogue is subtext! Try to avoid characters that always say exactly what they are thinking, feeling...etc. Let's be honest, most people barely do that in real life. We lie, cheat, mislead and pretend. How often have you greeted someone with, "Hey! How are you?". And how many times have they responded with, "Hey! I'm good, you?", even when they are far from it.
Subtext is all about what isn't said. It's about showing that "point" through a less obvious method: body language, talking about the "point", actions...etc. By doing so, we avoid "telling" the viewer the story. Instead, we "show" it.
Try This: In every scene, figure out the "point" that your leading character is trying to drive home. What do they want to say? Why do they want to say it? Then, instead of writing that out in on-the-nose dialogue, try to come up with a way to relay this information without saying it.
Where subtext is the implicit meaning of the lines being spoken, context is the environment in which they are said. This is equally as important as a change of environment can completely change the meaning of the conversation.
Consider this example:
Becky and Tom want to go on vacation, but Becky doesn't want to bring their two kids. Tom does. This is their argument.
Tom: What about a resort in Hawaii? The kids could play at the beach all day.
Becky: I don't think so.
Tom: Come on, Becky. We all need a break.
Becky: Exactly my point. They're not going.
Now, let's change the context. In this scenario, Becky and Tom are divorced. He wants to take their kids on vacation, but she doesn't trust him. Suddenly, their lines take on an entirely different meaning.
Try This: Make sure the "context" of your scenes are clear, so the meaning of the dialogue is properly interpreted.
A screenplay written in English does not mean that every character in it must also speak that language. Accents and foreign languages, when appropriate, add further authenticity to dialogue. There is a balance to be found here. We don't want to overwhelm the viewer with something they don't understand. Instead, we want to provide a flavour of those languages and accents.
The Scottish accent is one of the most distinct in the world. They have a lot of sayings, the spelling of which would send most scratching their head.
Such as: "Awa' an bile yer heid!"
Most will read this and not have the slightest clue of what it means. In situations like this, we want to find the balance between acknowledging the accent, but also writing in terms that will be clearly understood.
Like this: "Away an' boil yer head!"
Same sentence, but now we have a better sense of what is being said without completely losing the acknowledgment of the accent. The same principal follows characters that are speaking a language other than the one the script was written in. You have two options there. You can choose to subtitle every word they say. Or you can transition into the screenplay's language in a way that tells the viewer that they are still speaking their foreign tongue (as seen in shows like Vikings and The Man in the High Castle).
Try This: Flavour your screenplay with accent and language, but always maintain clarity of what is being spoken.
Parenthesis is used in dialogue to describe how the line is being said, or an action that is being performed with the line. This is an element that should be used sparingly. The context of the scene should provide enough information to your reader. We shouldn't have to be told twice. But, there are exceptions to this.
Parentheticals are great for when characters say something in a tone or emotion that we don't expect. Such as giving a compliment, but in sarcastic tone (from a character that is not typically sarcastic). In these situations, parentheticals are a great tool to add further insight to your characters lines.
Try This: Don't go overboard. Context should cover this more often than not.
Your characters don't always need to have a witty response or cutting insult. Sometimes silence is the most powerful response a character can give. In the right context, silence can represent nearly every emotion in the book. And it's incredibly human. We don't always have the answers. We choke up. And silence is the result.
Imagine a scene where a girl says "I love you" to her boyfriend for the first time... only to be met with silence. That tells her everything she needs to know. It's embarrassing and heartbreaking for her. It's awkward for him. It infuses conflict into the scene.
Imagine a scene where a child discovers they might be adopted and confronts their parents about it... only to be met with silence. It's devastating for the child: their suspicions are confirmed. It's terrifying for the parents: how do they fix this?
Try This: Replace the end of an argument with silence. Respond to a question with silence. Start a scene with silence! How does it change the dynamic?
Test out your "Reel" Dialogue
Perfecting "reel" dialogue takes time. For some, it comes naturally. For others, it remains one of the most difficult aspects of screenwriting. These are by no means "rules". There are exceptions. That's what makes screenwriting interesting. Look at this as a guideline. If you can master this I have no doubt that it will lift the quality of your dialogue onto a new plane, rendering a stronger screenplay.