Great Films for Learning to Write Dialogue

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.


How to Write Dialogue in Film

It can take many years—even decades—to master the art of writing dialogue. Good screenplay dialogue can be as multi-faceted and complicated as the real-life human relationships and interactions that inspire stories to begin with.

While we can’t possibly hope to cover every aspect of how to write dialogue in film here (it’s a topic that can fill an entire screenwriting school program let alone a blog post), we are going to tackle a couple of the biggest stumbling blocks with which new and experienced writers alike struggle.

Today, we’ll be covering an overview of exposition (and how to solve it), as well as how to begin your screenplay with a bang…


Solve Dialogue Problems with Non-Dialogue

Ever feel like a character on-screen isn’t really talking to another character, but is instead lecturing you as an audience member?

That’s what we call heavy exposition, and there’s nothing more amateur to a screenplay than a character who constantly describes everything that’s going on for the “benefit” of the audience.

So how to write dialogue in film to get around this? What’s the best way of getting facts and tricky concepts across to the viewer?

Having a character who is not aware of what’s going on (thus creating a plausible reason for another character to explain key plot points) can be a good way of delivering information to the audience, but this needs to be handled carefully.

The main dangers here are:

  1. A) You might make the “clueless” character who needs everything explained to him immensely dislikable
  2. B)A heavy-handed approach can be a glaringly obvious ploy to the audience and might even bore them, especially for those who have already figured it all out for themselves.

If you’d like a bit of homework that will reinforce this, re-watch Inception and count the number of times Ellen Page’s character has the “rules” of the dream worlds explained to her at great length. At numerous points, it borders on a lecture to viewers and grinds the pace of this otherwise great movie to a standstill.

A far better approach—and a real golden rule in writing dialogue—is to show, not tell. In fact, it’s more of an anti-rule of dialogue, since you’re aiming to give the audience information without having a character overtly state it.

Let’s say you want to get across the fact that a character has a serious drinking problem. There are two possible ways you could do this:

1) John Doe is in the middle of an argument with his wife. While John storms away from the dinner table, Jane yells after him, “You’re always like this when you’ve been drinking!”

2) John Doe glances out of the window to see his wife has come home from work early. He hurriedly screws the top on a half-drunken vodka bottle, places it into a plastic bag, ties a knot in it, and hides it in the toilet tank.

In both screenplays we get the same idea, but we aren’t forcibly beaten over the head with the information in the second scenario.

If in doubt, a good rule of thumb is simply to assume that the audience is a lot more switched-on than you might give them credit for.

Consider Beginning In Medias Res

In Medias Res translates as “in the middle of things,” and the literary technique is exactly that.

If you’re starting out with narration in your screenplay, you might want to consider using this technique to hook the viewer right from the very get-go. Let’s take a look the opening of a story told in two very different ways:

1) “My name is Officer Mick Zerco. I’m standing at the foot of a building in downtown LA. My wife and kids are somewhere in there. In two minutes, I’m going to have to go up to the top floor and disarm the bomb that’s about to go off.”

2) “All I can hear above the ringing of my ears is panicked screaming. Half the block is in rubble, and my wife and kids are among it. Officer Leeroy must have rushed in first and botched the disarmament of that damned bomb. My name is Mick Zerco, and if you’re listening to this recording…I have failed.”

Both openings cover the same details, except one takes place right in the middle—or moments after—the main action, whereas the other starts a few minutes before. Which one grabs your attention more?

Don’t worry about wasting those precious few introductory minutes setting up every detail of the screenplay before you allow action to happen. A little mystery as to what’s going on can create insatiable intrigue and reel the audience in—you can always use flashbacks or other pacing techniques to deliver more exposition after you’ve got them hooked!

In short, always attempt to write with the golden rule in mind:

Show, Don’t Tell.

Happy writing!