Writing dialogue that is believable and natural can be a challenge. Each character in your script should sound distinct and different from the other characters. What they say needs to be important to character development or to advance the plot, but it can’t sound contrived. Above all, it has to be entertaining. Take a look (and a listen) to some of the silver screen’s masters of dialogue writing for inspiration. Below, we’ve rounded up some great scenes for you to watch for inspiration along with some great writing exercises. If you’re feeling stuck or simply want to flex your writing muscles, give these scene/exercise combinations a try!
1. Write: Characters Who Want Something From Each Other
Without a doubt, Quentin Tarantino has a flair for writing memorable, quotable dialogue that is simultaneously intense, insightful, and often laugh-out- loud funny. It’s a challenge to find clips that are appropriate for a PG-13 audience, but check out this scene from 1994’s “Pulp Fiction.” The dynamic between Vincent (John Travolta) and Mia (Uma Thurman) is immediately clear when she cuts off his protest with the reminder that he has been directed to do whatever she wants: “Now, I wanna dance; I wanna win. I want that trophy, so dance good.” Her dominance continues as she does the talking for both of them when they take the stage.
Why this works: Mia’s aggressive dialogue is matched by Vincent’s monosyllabic responses. The pauses and body language throughout the scene take on as much meaning as the spoken words.
A challenge for you: Write a scene where one character wants something from another character.
2. Write: Solving a Problem
William Goldman’s screenplay for “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969) is full of great back-and- forth between Butch (Paul Newman) and Sundance (Robert Redford). He also includes some great ensemble scenes, such as this one where Butch and Sundance reunite with the Hole in the Wall Gang and find there has been a challenge to Butch’s leadership.
Why this works: There is humor and dramatic tension layered throughout the scene. From News Carver (Timothy Scott) wanting to read his own name in the paper to Harvey Logan’s (Ted Cassidy) insistence on settling the issue with a fight, the scene has crisp dialogue that reveals character and advances the plot, while cementing the bond between Butch and Sundance.
A challenge for you: Write a scene with three or more characters trying to solve a problem — make sure each character is unique.
3. Write: Unwilling Attraction
“It Happened One Night” (1934) is a classic template for romantic comedy that works because of the smart screenplay by Robert Riskin and Samuel Hopkins Adams as much as because of the chemistry of the leads. The Screwball Comedies of this era usually matched a middle class character with a higher class character and “It Happened One Night” pairs a rough newsman with an heiress. In this scene where Peter (Clark Gable) and Ellie (Claudette Colbert) are hitchhiking, her cool wit undermines his gruff confidence.
Why this works: Ellie doesn’t speak many lines, but each one is sharp and cuts right through Peter’s bluster. He may have confidence, but she has brains. Their exchanges help establish the growing attraction between them.
A challenge for you: Write a scene where two characters are attracted to each other, but refuse to acknowledge it.
4. Write: Sustained Dialogue
Guy Ritchie’s films have dialogue that is as fast and twisted as any of the action scenes in them. His 1998 film “Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels” opens with a street hustling scene featuring Bacon (Jason Statham) who delivers his lines in a rapid-fire manner that would leave most actors breathless. Bacon has a crowd gathered around him and he’s trying to sell hot wares with the help of another hustler planted in the audience. Bacon’s eyes move as quickly as his mouth as he tries to find the suckers in the crowd.
Why this works: The scene quickly establishes Bacon as a small-time con who is always looking for an advantage and an escape route.
A challenge for you: Write a scene where a character has a minute and a half of sustained, uninterrupted dialogue.
5. Write: Revealing a Secret
The screenplay for “Jaws” (1975) was written by Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb. The scene where Quint (Robert Shaw) describes surviving the sinking of the USS Indianapolis in the sea between Guam and the Philippines is intense and frightening because of Shaw’s masterful delivery and the sharp details of Quint’s story.
Why this works: The scene is a very primal one, calling to mind the stories told around a fire on a dark, moonless night. The details about shark’s eyes and Quint’s shipmates bobbing lifelessly in the water are told in an unflinching, matter-of-fact way that helps the viewer picture the scene.
A challenge for you: Write a scene where a character reveals a trauma from their past.
6. Write: An Exaggerated Reaction
“Mean Girls” (2004) is full of scenes that are simultaneously funny and revealing. In this scene, Gretchen (Lacey Chabert) tries to explain her friendship with Regina (Rachel McAdams). Gretchen’s anger and insecurity bubble up through the surface as she suffers from yet another humiliation at the hands of Regina.
Why this works: Tina Fey’s script mixes exaggerated teenspeak, manic energy, and characters who are realistic enough to be recognizable even when their situations and reactions are distorted for the sake of comedy.
A challenge for you: Write a comic scene where a character has an exaggerated reaction to a situation.
Don’t stop now!
There are hundreds of other examples of great dialogue in film from every genre and era — when you watch a film, listen to how the dialogue functions and keep an ear out for models you can use for inspiration in your own writing. As you watch your favorite show or film, stop and ask yourself what is happening in the scene — and then try writing that action yourself.
Want to know more about writing dialogue? Check out NYFA’s How to Write Dialogue in Film or How To Write a Phone Conversation in a Screenplay. And apply today to attend NYFA’s Screenwriting School.