How to Write Dialogue With Our “Tips for Writing Dialogue” Checklist
Learning how to write dialogue that conveys plot and jumps off the page by studying the best dialogue examples.
Ever since The Jazz Singer became the first talkie in 1927, people have been trying to learn how to write dialogue in movies and read dialogue examples. It’s not just about how to format dialogue on the page, but the speed...and dictation...and words that come out of your characters’ mouths.
Today, we’re going to learn tips for writing dialogue, look at some movie dialogue examples, and talk about the best movie dialogue scenes.
So strap in, get your jaws loose, and let’s learn...
How to Write Movie Dialogue
But first... let’s start with a quick definition… what are movie dialogues in the first place?
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, “is this guy going to try to define two people talking?” And the answer is… “kind of?”
Like I said before, people have been having conversations in movies since The Jazz Singer. These conversations can be about friendship, love, hopes, dreams, or even what people call a quarter pounder with cheese in Amsterdam.
Movie dialogue needs to do two things: espouse information, and give context to what the characters are feeling inside...without being over the top or having them blurt it out.
That’s why some of the most famous movie dialogues may seem like they’re about nothing on the page, but when you examine the subtext, they’re about so much more.
If that sounds complicated, that’s because it is complicated.
But it’s what makes great writing and movies with great dialogue so beautiful.
How many times have you been watching a movie and grown disillusioned or been taken out of it simply because of the way people speak? That’s not the way famous movie dialogues work.
And it’s not just the way the characters speak, sometimes it’s what they say.
We always nail movies for putting their exposition on front street. We have an informative post about how you can fix your movie’s exposition problem.
Humphrey Bogart once said this about exposition:
“If you’re going to give me something expository to say, you better have two camels fucking in the background.”
That’s pretty to the point, and it’s also pretty important to remember when you’re learning how to write dialogue. You MUST be entertaining while being talky.
We’re going to go in-depth on all this later. But you came here to learn how to write dialogue, so let’s start at the basics and then get to some fun dialogue examples.
How To Format Dialogue On The Page
Before you learn how to write some of the most famous movie dialogues, you have to learn how it should look on the page. Mastering how to format dialogue is key to making your script professional.
Now, I think writing a screenplay in Microsoft Word is an absolute trash idea, but I am also aware that screenwriting software is expensive. So if you are using "word" to learn how to write dialogue, here’s tutorial video on how to format dialogue.
If you want to pick up some screenwriting software to learn how to write dialogue, then check out our article on the eight best screenwriting software solutions.
Dialogue goes in the center of the page, under a character’s name. That’s the beauty of screenwriting it’s all so simple.
The page should be full of white pace and designed so we can hear these character’s voices in our heads.
Now that you’ve got the basics of format down, let’s get more in depth with our “how to write dialogue” tutorial.
How To Write A Conversation In Your Screenplay
When you’re learning how to write dialogue, the first thing you want to ask yourself is “What’s this scene about?” Seems obvious, but the tricky and important part comes next.
Because once you know what the scene is about, then you have to figure out where that scene sits in the greater scope of the screenplay, and how to make it dynamic.
Every scene, no matter what genre, should either brew tension or pay off the results of prior tension. Otherwise it risks losing the audience.
The stakes for every scene are high, so the stakes IN every scene have to be high!
Comedic tension. Romantic tension. Violent tension.
The words characters say in these movie dialogues should convey that tension too.
Learning how to write dialogue isn’t just about putting words in peoples’ mouths, it’s about finding the objective of the scene, and learning how to obscure that while still conveying it. Because people in real life RARELY SAY WHAT THE MEAN!
But they show you, right? Maybe in tone. Maybe in word choice. And this is where the real artistry of knowing how to write comes in.
Can you have a character say something but mean the exact opposite? Before you say that’s the actor's job, you want to consider how the actor can only use the motivation on the page.
Not to get too zen about it, but a lot of the best dialogue is about the things the characters aren’t saying. It’s about the unspoken truths.
It’s about the words you never type on the page.
But if you’re learning how to write dialogue between two characters what is the first basic step to all of this?
Extracting what those characters want. It all flows from there.
Let’s peruse some dialogue examples.
Movie Dialogue Examples
Think about your favorite movie. Does it have memorable lines? Some great conversation scenes? How do the words that come out of the character’s mouths affect the other people in the scene?
To learn more about who to write dialogue and how to write conversations let’s check out this scene from Forrest Gump.
It’s a perfect dialogue example to start with.
In the action we have a new year celebrated together, and Forrest and Jenny both trying to figure out what to do with their lives moving forward.
The motivations in this scene in the movie are clear. These are two people who see a different future. And they’re each afraid to have the conversation about what they see.
Setting the conversation against the strike of the New Year works thematically, but also symbolically. Who will they be in this new year?
Jenny wants to go. Forrest wants her to stay.
This scene is a marriage proposal. The dialogue seems simple, but it’s what’s underneath it all that matters. Forrest wants Jenny to marry him. And he thinks he’s the reason why she won’t, so he’s espousing why he thinks it will work out.
For Forrest, this scene, and this dialogue is about him coming to terms with his limited mental capabilities, but also the purest feeling he has in his heart. Love.
For Jenny, this scene is a revelation. She was already feeling bad about taking advantage of Forrest. About staying there and corrupting (her perception) his paradise.
This scene and its dialogue are about Jenny not wanting to reject Forrest, but rejecting a life she doesn’t think she deserves.
Sure, Forrest’s “I’m not a smart man, but I know what love is...” is a memorable line, but it wouldn’t work without the minimal dialogue before. Without setting up the stakes for the audience, reminding them about the character struggles, and then punching the emotions home.
This is one of those movies with great dialogue. It’s also a window into how to write in a dynamic and layered way.
Let’s go over a few more movie dialogue examples to really get the hang of what the masters do.
Here’s a series of scenes in The Godfather, where the dialogue is so crisp, so to the point, that they pay off a few minutes in one line.
We know there’s going to be retaliation by the Corleone family for the attacks on Vito. But we also know this movie is as much about blood family as it is about a mafia family. So when Clemenza’s wife asks him to get cannolis on the way back, he has to get them.
No matter what.
This dialogue in the car is considered exposition. We learn that Sonny wants to “Go to the mattresses” which is a phrase meaning hiding mafia thugs in a room together, so they can avoid/or plan violence.
In this scene, Pauly drives two of Sonny’s men into New York City to actually BUY the mattresses these guys are going to sleep on.
Now we have the stakes - there’s a mafia war going on - and the tension of Clemenza being there. We also have the lingering tension in Clemenza’s life. He has to return home with these cannoli, otherwise, there’ll be hell to pay with his wife.
You’re on the edge of your seat as Pauly drives. We know there’s a hitman positioned directly behind him in the car, and next to him. But the conversation is light, friendly, we get our information in a way that lulls the audience out of the tension…and lulls Pauly too.
...until the car pulls over. But Clemenza gets out...so maybe Pauly IS safe. Nope.
What’s crazy is that at the end of the hit, Clemenza still needs to honor the boss in his life, his wife, while teaching his protege how to handle this situation. Which is a bit of a payoff, it explains WHY Clemenza didn’t carry out the hit himself.
Plus, we get one of the most cold-blooded lines of all time.
“Leave the gun, take the cannoli.”
What makes the line powerful? It’s sort of like what Quentin Tarantino did much later about quarter-pounders with cheese. Death is being dealt out, but the mean dealing it casually discuss food.
Remember when we said dialogue isn’t about what’s being said?
What we learn about these men is that carrying out a cold blooded murder is no different than bringing home dessert. Just part of the routine.
Comedic Dialogue in Movies
Okay, we just covered how to write dialogue in two dramas, but I love to leave room for a comedy dialogue example.
So let’s take a look at the excellent “Family Health” scene from The 40 Year Old Virgin.
The tension is this dialogue example is obvious. It’s parents and kids talking about sex and reproduction. Boom. That's all kinds of tension.
But there is even more here.
It’s about a bunch of kids pretending their sexual experiences make them mature and ready for the world. Plus, a 40-year-old Steve Carell worrying that his lack of sexual experiences have stunted who he is as a person, which he has to hide from his girlfriend’s newly sexually active daughter.
The word “tension” doesn’t cut it here. This is a sheer clusterf*ck of amazingly wince-inducing comedic moments. That’s comedic tension executed through dialogue at it’s best.
The dialogue here is amazing. There are a ton of funny lines, but all of them build on the themes stated above. Steve Carell is inexperienced and wants to learn, the kids want to fake how much experience they have.
And yet again, characters aren’t speaking their truths. They are obscuring them from one another, and the tension is that WE know the truths they attempt to hide.
The great way it rounds out is in an emotional payoff. Carell’s character has to admit he’s a virgin to make his girlfriend’s daughter feel better. For her, it’s the first sign that he’s a good guy, and for him, it’s the first sign that he’s willing to let his guard down and let other people in.
Again, the dialogue, “I’m a virgin” isn’t a hard line to write, but it’s the sentiment behind it that makes this scene a masterclass on how to write dialogue. The build up works, and the reveal of what he actually is is powerful.
You’ve heard the screenwriting maxim “show don’t tell” when it comes to dialogue just think of it in terms of a character. They also need to “show” instead of “tell”.
The Best Movie Dialogue Examples
Okay, we’ve already gone over a few great dialogue examples, but I wanted to share a few of my favorite movies with great dialogue.
These are scenes where I think the writing is so wondrous that they’ll be an excellent tutorial on how to write dialogue.
Let’s start with one of my favorite movies of all time When Harry Met Sally. There are so many excellent dialogue examples in this movie, but I decided that we should go with the most famous scene to really dissect what’s happening between these two characters.
When Harry Met Sally asks us a very simple question. “Can men and women just be friends?”
This movie is a ninety-minute class on how to write a conversation between two people and keep it engaging.
Its dialogue is witty, staccato, and pulls each character close enough to feel romantic tension, but keeps them at bay long enough to make us wonder if it’ll ever work out.
Spoiler alert, but if you’ve seen this movie you know that When Harry Met Sally, both their lives changed forever. In this conversation scene, the movie dialogue is doing two things.
It’s establishing both of their viewpoints on dating. Sally is annoyed about who Harry is when he dates, Harry is annoyed about who Sally is when she judges him.
The scene is about whether or not someone fakes an orgasm, but on the subliminal level, it’s about knowing if someone has feelings and actually enjoys being with you.
Harry learns that women may fake their orgasms, but he truly enjoys being with Sally. Sally learns that even though she can fake enjoyment, she may truly enjoy being with Harry.
The movie dialogue here is great because it lets us in on both their points of view.
And the kicker of “I’ll have what she’s having” confirms that Sally’s fake orgasm was real enough for that women. Who, coincidentally, is played by director Rob Reiner’s mother. But the moment is also classic because of something else it does.
It grounds the movie. If two people are in a restaurant in real life, and one of them starts faking an orgasm that way, other people notice. Suddenly we’re not locked into the Harry and Sally story, they exist in a world, where people are watching them and reacting honesty (and hysterically).
Let’s take a look at another classic dialogue example, this time, from Jaws.
Another one of the best movie dialogue examples.
Ok first off, If you haven’t seen Jaws, please leave this article and turn it on. You haven’t lived yet.
Jaws has lots of great dialogue examples, but there’s nothing like the tension filled “show me your scar” scene on the Orca, late in the third act.
This scene is about storytelling. Hooper and Quint have never seen eye to eye. One is a rich boy, the other guy a seasoned fisherman.
So when they square off, they need to compare and contrast which man is tougher.
The tension in this scene comes from respect, but the brilliance of this screenplay is that it lets the tension boil over and change the objective of the scene.
In the beginning, it’s about these men seeing eye to eye. In the end, it’s about the audience understanding the tragedy that made Quint who he is, and the true nightmare of the monster these men rush to square off with.
This reveal is done just through the dialogue. It’s a simple question and answer.
But the way we get there?
It’s a competition. One Quint knows he holds the trump card for. If you put this beside The Godfather scene we watched, it’s eerily similar. Tension, diffuse tension, let the tension boil over.
All along the truth is left carefully unsaid but clearly indicated:
A man-eating shark is hunting them. Or are they hunting the man-eating shark? Sounds like you should read our internal and external conflict post to figure that out!
How to Write A Conversation (with a Twist)
Most of the movie dialogue examples we’ve gone over would help a writer learn how to write a conversation between two or more characters. But what if you want to have a one-sided conversation?
We’ve got you covered in this section.
I’ve written for many movie blogs over the years, and I always manage to work in Your Sister’s Sister into a few of the articles.
I think Your Sister’s Sister has one of the best dialogue examples because of how much tension it has one character confront and diffuse alone, while the two others look on in awe.
This writing is so clear and concise - it feels like you’re learning how to write a conversation from one side.
We can almost hear the answers from the other side, but we only get one confession.
This movie is about confronting how weird life can be, how it sends you everything you don’t need towards you all at once, and how impossible that kind of situation is to sort out.
When Mark Duplass emotionally dumps here, we get a speech that doesn’t feel boring. It’s like we are hearing the character work out all his internal anguish in real time.
It’s awkward and it’s beautiful.
We just looked at one dialogue example of a speech, but for my money, the best one-sided speech in movie history comes from Bull Durham.
Rules were meant to be broken. Conventions were meant to be challenged. And sometimes people DO say what they really mean.
If learning how to write dialogue is really about learning how to express a character’s emotions, then every once in a while it works:
Not to belabor the point, but the tension in this dialogue example is… two men trying to figure out which one of them will take up with the minor league baseball groupie this summer.
When things don’t go well for the veteran, he finally shows his colors.
Instead of Crash telling Annie that he’s too old for this, or just saying he likes her, we get this incredible moment where he gives her an intimate look into what makes him the better man.
But he doesn’t do it to curry favor, he does it to show her what she missed out on.
That doubles down on the tension, and creates a new wrinkle. Instead of Annie being in power, she cedes all control to Crash. Who leaves with it.
Now that we’ve gone over some dialogue examples, let’s finalize our “how to write dialogue” lesson with a few tips for writing dialogue.
6 Tips For Writing Dialogue Checklist
Now that we’ve gone over how the masters do it… I’ll give you a checklist I use when it comes time to write dialogue.
Do all the characters have unique voices?
If you covered their names on the page, would you know which lines correspond to which character?
Are there too many yes/no answers?
One thing that I hate in dialogue is when someone asks a question and the next character directly answers it. Instead, try having their answer not be “yes” or “no,” but a line of dialogue that implies “yes” or “no.”
Can you show us and not tell us?
Sometimes less is more when it comes to dialogue. Do your characters need to say how they feel or what they want? Or can they just perform actions that indicate those desires?
Does the dialogue fit the tone?
Sometimes you’ll write an excellent conversation, but does it fit the tone of the movie? The diner scene from Reservoir Dogs wouldn’t fit into There’s Something About Mary. And the Joker from The Dark Knight wouldn’t have his scar speech fit into Justice League.
Do you have button lines?
Are the lines at the ends of your scenes setting up what’s to come? Do they work as natural segues into the next scene or series of scenes?
Is your exposition hidden behind something interesting?
I’m not suggesting adding a few camels (thanks though, Humphrey), but even Inception tries to make its exposition come in action scenes.
If you’re going to dump information, keep the audience interested in what’s happening on screen by blowing something up. Or at least have them doing something cool.
These are just a few writing tips, but I think they all matter when you’re trying to learn how to write dialogue. If you can think of other tips for writing dialogue, post them in the comments!
Summing Up How to Write Dialogue
Well, after googling these dialogue examples, and reading my six tips on for writing dialogue, I hope you’ve learned enough to take your script to the next level.
Learning how to write dialogue is not something you can master by reading one post. You’re going to have to refine your voice on the page, and develop your voice as a writer.
You need to be a chameleon and disappear behind some characters, but also let your voice and point of view shine through others.
We all know the sound of a Sorkin character versus a Tarantino character, but what matters is that those people sound like who they are in the movie. And what they say takes the audience on a journey into somewhere else for a while.
If you still want to learn more about writing dialogue there is one more thing you can do.
Go watch Network. Then Watch it again. And Again. Trust me.