How to write a book

Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

bookshelvesDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?

If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.

Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.

Today: dialogue

Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.

On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.

They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.

If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:

Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.

Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.

Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.

Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?


23 thoughts on “Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

  1. Roz, I have heard that writing in first person point of view is great for authors. Writing a manuscript is much different from writing a film screen script. You’re right The novel isn’t a movie, but it could maybe turn into one, which is apart from the book. 🙂

    1. Hi Raul! The novel could turn into a movie? Certainly it could, and many of us would be well chuffed if it did.
      And yes, writing in first person is a good way to make you understand the feeling and context you can put into a scene. Although I’ve read manuscripts of first-person novels that were missing this – again because the writer was running a movie in their head. It creates quite an odd impression.

  2. There’s a near-perfect illustration of the difference between books and movies at the very end of the movie Casablanca. My memory of the dialogue isn’t perfect but it goes like this:

    Police chief: “Captain Nazi Guy has been shot. Round up the usual suspects.”

    First filmed with camera just on the police captain it fell flat. When the director called in the scriptwriters they said, in essence, you filmed it all wrong. It should be done like this:

    [Camera on police chief who is looking sharply at Bogart, who shot the Nazi Guy only moments before.]

    “Captain Nazi Guy has been shot.”

    [Camera shifts to Bogart looking at the police chief and obviously thinking, ‘Are you going to arrest me?’ Camera shift back to the police chief, still looking at Bogart.]

    “Round up the usual suspects.”

    It’s the same spoken words, but with a far different impact. Camera shifts work marvelously in film. The writer of novels must come up with a way to create a similar impact with mere words.

    –Michael W. Perry, co-author of Lily’s Ride

    1. I’m missing why that’s an illustration of the difference between novels and movies, but love the idea that any film-maker ever asked a screenwriter how to shoot a scene, lol.

  3. This post hits the nail on the head (excuse the cliche!). Dialogue can be REALLY tricky to write, especially if you’re trying to envision the characters in your heads saying their lines like they’re in a movie. I find a problem I often run into is I’ll be writing some sort of action scene, and my characters start to banter, and then before I know it, it’s four pages later and they’re still bantering and haven’t accomplished a darn thing. Moderation!

    1. Hi Michelle! I know I’ve had that problem – several pages of yammering get written because the characters got talking. But at least you can then trim the flannel so that you get to the good part as fast as possible. In real life, our characters need a warm-up. We don’t have to show it on the page, though.

  4. Thanks for this post. Your tips here are great. Even if you’re not primarily a screenwriter so many of us writing today were raised on movies and TV that it’s hard to separate the thought process for the two. How many people do we hear who say that when they read or write they ‘see’ the movie in their head.

    I had an idea a number years ago that I thought would make a good film. I started to write the screenplay – got a good way into it too – but it just wasn’t working in the format. I’ve returned to this idea now as a premise for a novel and I already feel better about it. This has shown me how different the two mediums are.

    Although I’ve never done it (not deliberately anyway) a good exercise might be to write a scene as prose and then try to write the same scene for the screen/stage and see how the same idea plays out.

    1. Yes, that does sound like an interesting exercise, and a good way to focus on what works for different media. It might be that your screenplay was never a movie story at all. And I think that novels are far more fun. We retain the control over everything. In a movie, you’re writing instructions and you have to give some of the artistic interpretation to the director, sound guy, actors etc.

  5. Good post Roz. The cinema is responsible for so much bad writing in novels these days. It’s interesting though that some great novels are very cinematographic. I’m thinking firstly of the Australian Nobel Prize winner, Patrick White. White’s dialogues are full of the space they are uttered into, with the descriptions of the space itself seeping into the psychology underlying the words, colouring it and bringing it out. This is an important skill in great literature: the ability to detail your reality so that that landscapes or living rooms and the air that your characters are in and breathing become deeply meaningful and an integral part of the work. Joyce is also fond of doing this as was D.H. Lawrence, and there are other great descriptive writers like Flaubert and the first realists who saw landscapes as meaningful.

    1. Hi Paul – I don’t know Patrick White. I’ll have to check him out. I love your description here of the space the words are uttered into. And yes, I agree how the landscape, the environment becomes a living force, like weather blowing through the novel.

  6. The other big difference between dialogue on screen and on the page is that in movies and TV, it’s easy to see who is talking. I come across a lot of manuscripts these days that make the reader work far too hard to figure out who’s speaking. Dialogue tags, used cleverly and judiciously, are key.

  7. Hi, Roz. I’m definitely inspired by the storytelling I see in various movies and television shows. Now that I write fiction, that’s more true than ever. However, I’m still a big reader, and I think that helps me maintain perspective regarding the differences between visual and written media. I haven’t thought much about those differences (having never written a screenplay), but your tips on the subject make a lot of sense.

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