On Dialogue


Film is a visual medium.  But the ideas expressed in a movie come from the characters.  And characters are defined by what they do and what they say.  What a character says is the thing that gives his or her actions context.

Know Who Your Characters Are

Language and speech patterns are influenced by many things: upbringing, region, family structure, education, class, etc.  How a character was raised, what kind of experiences he or she has had in his or her life, in what part of the world they were raised and how they see themselves will affect the language they use.  The more you understand the backstory of your characters, the more specific the dialogue will be for your characters.

Know What Your Characters Want

Every character in a scene – no matter how small the part or number of lines – wants something out of that interaction. This is a character’s objective.  It is what he or she hopes to get out of this interaction.  This is his or her external objective.  In every scene, someone should achieve that goal in order to move the plot of your story forward.  If not, the scene does not work or, possibly, is not necessary.

Every character has an emotional need that he or she is trying to fulfill.  This is their internal objective.  This need will dictate how they approach another, how they will try to achieve their external goal and how they will react to what they hear.

Usually, as in real life, a character is loath to admit what they really want.  If they do admit this need out loud, it should come under some form of duress and be presented as a reveal that drives the scene forward.

A character should also have a subconscious need.  This should be something that the character is not even aware of needing.  It should be born out of the character’s psychology and reflect how the character sees him or herself in the world.  It should be an aspect of what changes within the character from the beginning to the end of his or her journey.  Though rarely stated, it should drive your character to interact in the ways that s/he does in every scene.

Dialogue Reveals What Characters Hide

Equally as important as what characters say is what they don’t.  People naturally try to conceal themselves from others to protect themselves.  Everyone is always trying to hide something.  People often don’t realize that their conversations are not about truth or communication but advancing their own mythologies.  You can show this through dialogue by deciding what your characters will say to another and what they won’t admit out loud.

Natural Dialogue Is Boring

Dramatic writing is the art of verisimilitude.  When writing dialogue what you are doing is creating an unnatural construct that feels natural.  When people talk in real life, they are rambling and unfocused; people interject; conversation often does not advance or change the dynamic.  In written drama, the language has to feel reel; but every line is advancing an agenda and driving the scene toward a resolution.

Listen to What’s Around You

Listen to people very carefully. Listen to what they’re saying and what they’re not saying with equal interest.  Listen to their rhythms.  How they interact with each other.  What kind of language and tone they use.  Do they listen to each other?  Do they interrupt?  Do they look at each other or stare away?  Do they touch each other when they speak?  If so, when and why?  Think about the people in your life.  How do they speak, what kinds of speech patterns do they use?  Don’t be afraid to model your characters after people you know or speech you have experienced in one way or another.

How do you apply the techniques of dialogue in your scripts?  Over the next few blogs we’ll look at ways that you can think about your dialogue and how to improve it.  Feel free to add your thoughts to the conversation and share your writing tips on dialogue with the others who read this blog!

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