13 movie dialogue rules to write great dialogues (part 1)

Did you know that a flat movie dialogue is one of the Top 7 Deadly Flaws of a Bad Screenplay?

And it's one of the main reasons for a screenplay to get tossed instead of read ?

So, if you wonder if YOU broke any of these 13 rules, or how you can write an original dialogue, check this series of articles.

It's practical and full of movie scripts and video examples.

Clint Eastwood in Sudden Impact - Make my day!

The scope of the 13 rules

We asked our dialogue expert, David, aka Blablator, to lead us through the 13 movie dialogue rules.

What a script!:
What's the scope of these 13 movie dialogue rules?

They cover all the different aspects needed to write a great dialogue. Think of:

  • what matters when writing dialogues,
  • how dialogues should look like on the page,
  • how to write great content and
  • how to test your dialogues

What a script!:
What are these movie dialogue rules?

Here they are:

13 movie dialogue rules to write great dialogues
Alfred Hitchcock
Use dialogue sparingly

How much dialogue you need in your screenplay and why?
Find out what Ryan Gosling and Alfred Hitchcock say about it.
Think of your movie script as a silent movie

When should you use dialogues?
An answer and 2 useful practices to write them.
Dialogue rule #3
Use the 10-3 guideline

How many words should you use when writing dialogues?
When should you start editing your lines?
Cross your t's

How should your dialogue look like?
Did you make the usual beginner's mistake?
Fulfill the dialogue intentions

Should you keep your dialogue or throw it away ?
Implement a simple practice to find out.
Have your dialogue not be every day talk but sound like it

Robert McKee on dialogue and 2 ways to address the challenge of dialogue effectively.
Sam from Life as a House
Know your characters intimately

This is YOUR access to write great dialogues.
Find out why with a quiz .
Create characters we root / care for

Find out why it's a prerequisite to write effective dialogues.
Use subtext

The other side of on the nose dialogue.
Not following this rule tells the reader you are a beginner screenwriter.
Dialogue rule #10
Fire Bob, his family and friends

It's about taking drastic measures and being clear about who your real friends are.
Dialogue rule #11
Don't love me back

Discover one of the deal breakers for the reader with a quiz - and how to avoid it
Use dialogue techniques to spice up your dialogue

Apply this rule and get a definite edge in your ability to write dialogues.
Listen to the sound of your dialogue

It's the ultimate test to know if your dialogue works.

What a script!:
How should we use these movie dialogue rules? in a linear manner? We start with implementing rule #1, and go on until we reach #13?

No. These rules are kaleidoscopic. It's like if you were looking at your dialogues from different perspectives. They all apply at the same time.

What a script!: Some people say writing dialogue cannot be taught, you need an ear for that. You obviously have a different take on that.

I believe anything can be learned. If you are committed to writing great dialogues, are ready to follow the dialogue rules mentioned in this article and practice then you should be able to write a great movie dialogue. And definitely not on the nose.

Syd Field says in his excellent book "Screenplay":

Syd Field Writing dialogue is a learning process, an act of coordination. It gets easier the more you do.
It's okay for the first 60 pages of your first draft to be filled with awkward dialogue. Don't worry about it. The last 60 pages will be smooth and functional. The more you do it, the easier it gets. Then you can go back and smooth out the dialogue in the first part of the screenplay.

Movie dialogue rule #1. Use dialogue sparingly

You probably heard it many times already. Writing a screenplay is about showing - not telling. Why? because a movie is about pictures and a picture says more than 1000 words.

You should therefore tell your story as much as possible in pictures rather than in words. And when you use dialogue, you should use it sparingly.

What a script!:
Some screenplays have however lots and lots of dialogues. Think of Woody Allen's scripts.

True. "Annie Hall" is a good example of that genre. It's a brilliant script which got many awards including an Oscar.

On the other side of the spectrum "The Artist" written and directed by Michel Hazanavicius was completely silent. The screenplay got nominated for the Oscars and the film won 5 Oscars in 2011.

Both scripts are however more an exception than the rule. So I say it again: use movie dialogue sparingly.

Ryan Gosling confirms this point of view in this interview about the movie "Drive".

Ryan Gosling on Dialogue

A good practice is to ask yourself if you can replace a dialogue with a picture. It forces you to think visually and be creative.

What a script!:
Any example?

The famous movie quote "Go ahead, make my day" comes from the movie script "Sudden impact" written by Joseph Stinson.

Just before Dirty Harry Callahan says these famous words, he comes in his usual cafe not knowing that the staff and customers are being robbed and silenced.

Joseph Stinson could have chosen to have the waitress TELL Harry there was something wrong - although it would have probably been her last words. But that would have been too obvious. Instead he used a PICTURE to say the same thing.
See for yourself.

Dirty Harry Callahan in his usual cafe

Alfred Hitchcock used to say:

Alfred Hitchcock When we tell a story in cinema, we should resort to dialogue only when it's impossible to do otherwise. I always try first to tell a story in the cinematic way, through a succession of shots and bits of film in between... To me, one of the cardinal sins for a scriptwriter, when he runs into some difficulty, is to say 'We can cover that by a line of dialogue.' Dialogue should simply be a sound among sounds, just something that comes out of the mouths of people whose eyes tell the story in visual terms.

Whatascript Prize

Movie dialogue rule #2. Think of your movie script as a silent movie

What a script!:
When should you use dialogue?

Only when you really need to.

A good practice is to think of your movie script as a silent movie.
Read your screenplay without the dialogues and check how much of the story you can still understand. This represents the core of your story.

Watch this scene of The Kid of Charlie Chaplin.
Notice how much you understand the story without any dialogue.
Notice how "dialogue" or information gets displayed on the screen only when absolutely necessary.
Do the same with your own screenplay.

Charlie Chaplin and the Kid

Some screenwriters have the practice to first write what's happening in a scene, indicate where there will be some dialogues with xxxxx, and write these dialogues only later.

This is an example from a draft of The Bourne Identity written by Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron.

           EXT. HOTEL DE LA PAIX -- COURTYARD -- DAY            THE HOTEL BACK DOOR -- kicked open -- BOURNE coming out of            the house -- coming hard -- and --            The small courtyard is empty -- but now the ALARM is going            off -- and BOURNE turns back to MARIE -- races to grab her            as --            RATATATAT -- The FRONT DOOR -- WINDOWS -- ARE SHREDDED and --            here comes the PROFESSOR.                                  BOURNE                     xxxxxx                                  MARIE                     xxxxxx            And now they are running, across this little courtyard.       

A variation of this practice is to write on the nose movie dialogue first to get the general idea on paper and come back to it later.

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Find out about the next 3 movie dialogue rules

Blablator unconceals the dialogue rules # 3 to 6 in this article.
They deal with the number of words in a dialogue, the shape of dialogue on the page and the intentions that the dialogue must fulfill.


Pictures and screenplays:

-- "Sudden impact" - Clint Eastwood (actor and director), Bruce Surtees (director of photography), Joseph Stinson (screenplay)

-- "The kid" - Charlie Chaplin (actor, director, screenplay), Jackie Coogan (the kid), Roland Totheroh (cinematography)

-- "The Bourne Identity - Tony Gilroy and W. Blake Herron (screenplay)

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