I don’t know about you, but for me, writing dialogue is torture. I can describe action, setting, create characters and structure, but when it comes to writing the words that come out of people’s mouths, I freeze.
Some writers are brilliant at getting their characters talking. It’s their secret ninja talent. Their people sound specific and unique, and once they speak, we fall in love with them.
Here’s a gem from the Jeffrey Eugenides novel, Middlesex.
‘Well, the way you pretend to be blind is you just, sort of, stumble around a lot. But the thing is, this blind man down in Bermuda, he never stumbles. He stands up really straight and he knows where everything is. And his ears are always focusing in on stuff.’
I turned my face away.
‘See, you’re mad!’
‘I’m being blind,’ I said. ‘I’m looking at you with my ear.’
‘Oh. That’s good. Yeah, like that. That’s really good.’
Without letting go of my hand, she leaned closer and I heard, felt, very softly, her hot breath in my ear. ‘Hi, Tiresias,’ she said, giggling. ‘It’s me. Antigone.’
So how do you write great dialogue like this?
Know your character. If you’re struggling with a character’s dialogue, it’s probably because you don’t know them well enough. Stop, flesh out this person. What do they they love? What do they hate? What do they fear? How do they think and see the world?
Know what your character WANTS. How can he or she try to get this thing through dialogue? How can they use different strategies to achieve their goals? In this excerpt from Middlesex, what is the person who is pretending to be blind, trying to get from the other person? Intimacy? There’s an objective underneath the words.
Know the conflict. If there’s no conflict in the scene, the dialogue’s going to ramble and feel pointless. Create conflict and use dialogue to escalate it. Notice the conflict in the Middlesex dialogue? “See, you’re mad.” “I’m not.” “You are.”
Be specific! Having someone say, “This blind man down in Bermuda…” is so much better than, “There’s this blind man….” The more specifically your character speaks, the more authentic he/she will feel, and the better we will know him/her.
Cut the chit chat! No “Hello, how are you, nice to see you, isn’t the weather terrific?” Dialogue in books and films isn’t like dialogue in real life. It has to be purposeful, spare and move the story forward.
Less is more. Not just for screenwriters, but for fiction and memoir writers too. An action or visual is much more powerful than having a long dialogue run. Just test this the next time you watch a great movie or read a terrific book. During the best moments, people aren’t usually doing too much talking.
Subtext wins! People rarely say exactly what they’re thinking– “I want to go to bed with you.” They say things like, “I’ll never be loved.” Or “We shouldn’t go to bed.” Or “I don’t find you attractive.” People use STRATEGIES to get what they want. What’s underneath the words? Use subtext to make your dialogue interesting.
Take Action! If you struggle with dialogue, do you know your characters well enough? Are they specific? Do they use their words in service of getting what they want? Have you cut the chit-chat? Does your dialogue escalate the conflict in the scene? Could you ditch the talking and use action and visuals instead? How can you use subtext to make your conversations more interesting?
Happy Dialogue Writing!
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Here’s an example of great film dialogue written by Sean Baker (and improvised by his cast) for THE FLORIDA PROJECT. Notice how they embrace all of the tips above…