The question is... How can you write good dialogue?
It’s one of the areas writers struggle with most. But starting today, you’ll begin your journey to stronger dialogue writing.
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Here Are the Basics
This tip, or some iteration of it, is everywhere…
Cover up character names. You should be able to tell which character is talking without reading their name.
That's great. It's true. But it doesn't do much good in terms of actionable steps you can take to improve your dialogue writing.
And that’s the problem with most dialogue writing techniques. They teach you to recognize bad dialogue, without discussing any real solutions.
Or they provide obvious tips, like “Don’t be repetitive,” or “Don’t provide too much information at once,” without addressing the heart of dialogue: How to write characters that talk and interact like REAL PEOPLE.
But good dialogue writing is a skill that can be developed and sharpened with careful practice and thoughtful writing.
But just eavesdropping isn’t nearly enough. If you want to use your observations about real-life dialogue to improve your writing, you need to eavesdrop better.
Take an active role in the listening process, and you'll see results fast.
Here's what you should be listening for...
1) Power dynamics
In every conversation, the way people talk to each other tells you everything you need to know about them. Their individual back stories, their relationship with one another, and most importantly - - which person has the real power in the conversation.
Pay careful attention to conversations where one person wants something from someone else. Who's doing most of the talking? What transitional phrases are being used? How direct or indirect is each person being?
All of these things will reveal worlds of information about the power dynamic, while giving you a head start on writing your next important scene.
Everyone you know speaks with their own speed and rhythm. Take note of that, and pay particular attention to what vocal ticks they use to speed up or slow down their speaking.
Slow talkers might fill in the gaps with inane information, for instance. Fast talkers might bridge these gaps with lots of connecting phrases like, “In all fairness…” Or “To that end…”
Don't simply pepper your dialogue with fillers and "ums" and "uhs," but pick out which phrases have real purpose, and think about how you might be able to use them in your own writing.
You don’t need to buy into stereotypes to illustrate where a character is from. I’ll use Americans as an example here, but the same applies all over the world.
Pay attention to subtleties, and you’ll communicate a regional dialect. Don’t change WHAT a character says, just alter how they say it.
Chelsea, for instance, would say “I’m going to set over by the TV and wait.” She’s from Ohio. I would say, “I’m going to sit over by the TV and wait.” I’m from New York.
Neither sentence is overblown in any way, but Chelsea’s version in particular reveals something about where she grew up.
These small regional flourishes can add a good layer of authenticity to your writing, in a way you could be overlooking. If your characters are from different parts of the country, they should sound like it.
This goes back to power dynamics a bit, but I think it deserves its own number because it’s so important.
When you’re eavesdropping, try to pick up on how each person knows the other.
Too often, writers connote familiarity with simple, easy tricks. They'll have characters reminisce about the past, for instance, to illustrate how long their friendship goes back.
The classic "How long have we known each other, Bob?" is a great example of this. In real life, people rarely ask questions like that, because each party already knows the answer.
Another common crutch is the reliance on nicknames or terms of endearment. Sure, long friends might have nicknames for each other, but that's not saying nearly as much as it could be about the history there might be between these people.
Often, the biggest signifier of familiarity will be the lack of the two techniques described above.
People just sitting down for a meal and talking about how their feet hurt or the lady at the cash register was a bitch. That’s what denotes familiarity.
They may not be the best examples, but they skip the pleasantries that burden unfamiliar conversation. This is why the dialogue in TV shows like “Cheers,” for instance, works so well.
Characters that have a history together are comfortable with each other. Get this across in dialogue, and you'll have achieved what a nickname never could.
Subtext is tricky. Most writers understand what it is, but it can be really difficult to implement in your writing.
When you’re eavesdropping, though, you’ll start to hear subtext very clearly. Every time someone speaks, ask yourself, “What did they mean by that?”
Very often, the meaning will be something other than what they actually said. Here’s a HUGE signal that there’s some real subtext is going on.
If person A says something, Person B will very often respond to the SUBTEXT of that first statement, not the statement itself. For example:
Matt: I definitely want to see Hotel Transylvania. But how about we go this weekend instead of tonight?
Chelsea: So I guess we’re not seeing Hotel Transylvania then.
Chelsea knows me. She knows I don't love animated movies. That's why, when I make a statement like the one above, she immediately reads the subtext, without even having to think twice.
She takes what subtle suggestion that maybe we see the movie later tonight to mean, "I don't ever want to see that movie," and that is the statement that she responds to, not what I actually said.
When dialogue doesn't contain any subtext, it's usually referred to as "On the Nose."
But truly great dialogue uses subtext so artfully that dialogue isn't on the nose, on the face, or even on the head.
To be clear: Sometimes direct, specific, on the nose dialogue is exactly what you need. An over reliance on subtext can cause confusion and alienate the reader.
But when used tastefully and naturally, subtext will enrich any screenplay quite a bit.
In real life, dialogue is riddled with imperfections. All languages, especially English, are incredibly contradictory and confusing, and you could build entire movies around the misunderstandings inherent in our language.
Use these imperfections in your writing! They will imbue your dialogue with the realism that bad dialogue is missing, and bring your writing to the next level.
Here's a brief list of some of the ways people speak imperfectly. Use them judiciously and you'll see big improvements in your writing.
- Real people interrupt each other
- They repeat themselves
- They’re confusing
- They don’t say what they mean
- Real conversation is circuitous (this can be very handy in comedy writing)
- Real people make assumptions
- They jump to conclusions
- They get their feelings hurt
- They’re defensive
- They’re prideful
- They’re promoting an image of themselves that might not be exactly who they are
- They lie
- They cheat
- They manipulate each other
Then go home, and simply transcribe that conversation in screenplay format.
Look for the things they say that reflect any of the six points discussed above, make a note of them and store them away for your next writing session.
Rinse and repeat with everyone you know. Or don’t know. With or without the tape recorder.
Apply these lessons to your dialogue writing, and you’ll see big improvements on your next script.
But here’s the thing… You have to actually do the work for these tips to have any real effect on your writing. Just thinking about this stuff is not going to help you.
Do the work, and you’ll get the results.
How do you think people talk? What important dialogue tips are missing from this article? What are you having for dinner tonight?