Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Writing Dialogue

CL script pageAs a screenwriter, I had no choice but to learn a thing or fifty about writing dialogue. Scripts are 50% dialogue. The other half is physical action. That’s it. There are no other ways to express the story in a screenplay – no inner monologues, no poetic descriptions, and no narrated explanations. Only dialogue and action.

But just because novelists have more tools at their disposal doesn’t mean they can slack off in the dialogue department. It still has to be good. I’m not the only person on the planet who can’t stand reading a novel with stilted, unrealistic, on-the-nose dialogue. But these problems are easy to fix…


Tip #1 – Read your dialogue out loud. Does it sound fake? Is your tongue tripping over the words? Are you running out of breath? Change it so none of those things happen, especially the last one. Be careful not make your characters say ridiculously long sentences no one would ever utter in real life.

Tip #2 – Get someone else to read your dialogue. Sometimes if it’s your voice, you can convince yourself a person would actually say that. Plus, you know the words. Someone who doesn’t is more likely to stumble over awkward wording. This is also the best test for identifying dialogue that sounds fake.

That takes care of stilted and unrealistic dialogue. The next is on-the-nose dialogue, which essentially means that the characters always say exactly what they mean. Not only is this unlikely, but it’s boring. Readers love looking for the subtext.

Tip #3 – Write what your character is really thinking, then write what your character would actually say out loud. This is a great way to force you to think of the subtext in the scene. And if this is one of those rare instances where a character says exactly what they’re thinking, you can make light of that too.

Now we’re going to move on to a more challenging dialogue problem: all your characters sound the same. This is a criticism a lot of writers receive. How do you know if this is happening in your novel?

Tip #4 – Remove dialogue tags. Then give the scene to a friend to read. Can they tell who is saying what? And not just because the characters take turns speaking. The reader should be able to tell the difference between the voices. Even harder, take one line of dialogue and ask, “Which character would say this?” If it could be any of your characters, they all sound the same.

I’ve been guilty of this too. When a writing professor pointed out that all my characters’ voices were the same, I replied that of course they were because they all grew up in the same small town and had kindred lives. It’s normal that they’d use similar sentence structure, dialects, expressions and slang. That may be true, but I was missing the point – everyone is different somehow. Here are some tips to make even characters with similar backgrounds have different voices:

Tip #5 – Figure out your character’s POV. Everyone sees the world differently. A pessimist will not respond the same way as an optimist. For example, if one character says, “Have a good day!” the optimist may reply, “Thank you, I will!” But the pessimist will scoff, “Unlikely.”

Tip #6 – Use personality to vary language. Nerdy characters probably use proper grammar. Thoughtful characters pause and consider their words carefully. Shy characters won’t divulge personal information. Impatient characters speak in short, clipped sentences. This way you can reveal character and keep the dialogue varied!

And lastly…

Tip #7 – Do not phonetically spell accents. Not only is this annoying to read, it’s a lazy way to try to make your characters sound different. In screenwriting, we let the actor add the accent. In novel writing, let the readers add the accent in their minds.

So there are the 7 Screenwriter Tips to Make Sure Your Dialogue Doesn’t Suck. Now go forth and write fabulous dialogue!


Next Up from Heather… I confess why I haven’t finished my novel and what I plan to do about that.


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Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

4 thoughts on “Screenwriter Tips for Novelists: Writing Dialogue”

  1. And the thing is, they’re always telling us less is more. I find myself trimming my dialogue out of fear that one of my old professors from NYU will come along with a red pen and mark it up if I don’t. 🙂

    1. I think that’s such common advice because most novelists tend to over-write the dialogue, so the professors simply tell the students to cut. But hopefully Tip #1 gets to the heart of that problem – if you run out of breath while reading the dialogue, then it’s too long! But Tip #3 – would the character really say all that out loud? – also applies.

  2. I write plays, and I took up that format specifically so I could sharpen my dialogue in novels. I think it works as critiquers routinely say I do dialogue well. And, some of my plays have been produced! I am a big believer in exploring other formats so you can transfer skill sets. But, umm, poetry? I know learning to write poetry would improve succinctness in my novels–every word in a poem is platinum–, but I can’t jumpstart that one! lol Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. You’re welcome, Sharon! Interesting that you took up playwriting as a means to improve your novel writing. That should be Tip #8! 😉 And I used to write poetry as a pre-teen (who didn’t?), but haven’t written anything in verse as an adult. Perhaps I should. Thanks for that thought!

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