Tips on Writing Dialogue That’s Truthful

By Susan Kouguell

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writing dialogue

(to Riggan. A derisive laugh)
You’re no actor. You’re a celebrity.
Let’s be clear on that.

Tabitha rises from her seat and grabs her things.

I’m going to kill your play.

In Birdman, (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, screenplay by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) theatre critic Tabitha is despicable. She knows it. Protagonist Riggin knows it. And what makes matters worse is that in these four lines, Riggan knows in his very soul that Tabitha is telling the truth. The truth hurts. Riggin is struggling with his celebrity and all that comes with this label. He wants to be respected as an actor, not for his celebrity.

The words flowing from your characters’ mouths should be true to who they are. Whether your characters are telling the truth or lying, or believe they are being accurate or not, when you, the screenwriter, have a deep understanding of your characters’ motivations and behaviors, the more believable your dialogue will be. Good dialogue clearly conveys emotions, attitudes, strengths, vulnerabilities, and so on, while revealing the details of your plot and advancing your narrative.

Ten Top Tips to Writing Truthful Dialogue

  1. Make every word of dialogue count. Often less is more and the less said can be more poignant.
  2. Readers should be able to identify who is speaking without needing to read each character heading. Characters’ voices must be distinctive and not interchangeable with other characters.
  3. Consider the silences and pauses your characters use, or another character’s interruptions, to further convey tensions, actions, moods, and emotions.
  4. How your characters listen or don’t listen to each other and respond or don’t respond to each other will enhance your dialogue.
  5. Dialogue must not sound wooden or stilted. In real life, most people do not always speak with flawless grammar in complete, formal sentences.
  6. Use contractions, colloquialisms, slang, and so on, when true to your characters.
  7. Characters can speak in verbal shorthand and finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, such as with family members and best friends.
  8. Watch out for on-the-nose dialogue. In real life, people don’t always say exactly what’s on their mind or say what they mean and neither should your characters.
  9. Do your research. If your character is discussing medical issues, for example, or if you’re writing a period film, accuracy is essential.
  10. Writing character biographies for all of your characters will not only enable you to learn more about who they are and what makes them tick, it will help you to determine their specific word choices and language usages, such as slang, speech patterns, and rhythms.

Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker, teaches screenwriting at SUNY College at Purchase, is a regular contributor for IndieWire/SydneysBuzz, and other publications. She is the author of THE SAVVY SCREENWRITER and SAVVY CHARACTERS SELL SCREENPLAYS! A comprehensive guide to crafting winning characters with film analyses and screenwriting exercises. As chairperson of Su-City Pictures East, LLC, a motion picture consulting company founded in 1990, Kouguell works with over 1,000 writers, filmmakers, executives and studios worldwide. Her short films are in the Museum of Modern Art’s permanent collection and archives, and were included in the Whitney Museum’s Biennial. Kouguell worked as a story analyst and story editor for many studios, acquisitions consultant for Warner Bros., wrote voice-over narrations for (Harvey Weinstein) Miramax and over a dozen feature assignments for independent companies.

Don’t miss Susan’s classes via Screenwriters University and her Screenwriting Tutorials:


2 thoughts on “Tips on Writing Dialogue That’s Truthful

  1. somedouchebg

    I realise this article is 2y’s old. but here’s why it’s just dumb.
    Its all down to the character, and the movie.
    Maximus Decimus Meridius, can be, Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius. Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wifee, and have his vengeance, in this life or the next. which is great
    but that sorta poignant language wouldn’t really work in the 40 year old virgin, say.
    Literally any dialogue can work, depending on the intent of the scene.

  2. Benten

    This scene has been widely criticized as the worst scene in a major film this year. Reality? The New York Times has never had a major woman theatre critic. She’s British – cliche. And who would ever say such a thing to an actor? If this exchange took place in Riggin’s mind, it is not made clear. And talk about on the nose! The critic has no motivation to destroy this guy. And what’s so fresh about the dialogue? Awful.