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.
Mine say things like, “I love you mommy.” (I’m not kidding, I just pulled that from the first draft I’m working on.)
Here’s a gem from Stephen King. His character Glen Bateman speaks these lines in The Stand.
“Are you afraid? Are you so afraid of him you don’t dare speak his name? Very well, I’ll say it for you. His name is Randall Flagg, also known as the Dark Man, also known as the Tall Man, also known as the Walkin’ Dude. Don’t some of you call him that? Call him Beelzebub because that’s his name, too. Call him Nyarlathotep and Ahaz and Astaroth. Call him R’yelah and Seti and Anubis. His name is Legion and he’s an apostate of Hell and you men kiss his ass. Just thought we ought to have that up front.”
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?
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 Glen Bateman’s speech, his agenda is to confront the people he’s speaking to with the fact that they worship someone who is bad. He has a goal and uses his words to achieve this objective.
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. Bateman is clearly in opposition to these men.
Be specific! Having someone say, “Call him Nyarlathotep and Ahaz and Astaroth” is so much better than, “Call him the devil.” 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?
Here’s an example of great dialogue written by Aaron Sorkin in THE SOCIAL NETWORK. Notice how he embraces all of the tips above…
Happy Dialogue Writing!
Sign up here for my free weekly writing tips and inspiration!