Posted by: steveonfilm | October 30, 2010

Characters and Dialog

Something I’ve really concentrated on over the last year or two has been my dialog. When I first started writing screenplays my dialog was about as “on the nose” as you could get. Conversations were little more than question and answer sessions. Basically, it read like anything written by someone who didn’t know what they were doing reads like.

Over time I learned to read my dialog out loud. And in turn, develop a distinct voice for each of my characters. With each script my dialog got better and better, yet I realized I wasn’t actually putting more effort into writing it. It just started to come out better, as if some other problem high up stream was being addressed, and the benefit was better dialog.

I realized that in a round about way, I’d actually been getting better on building my characters. And as my characters got better, the natural output was better dialog. I knew how these people would talk. Their cadence. Their quirks. Reactions. As soon as I wrote a line of dialog, I knew if it actually sounded like the character, or it sounded forced. Would they use that word? That phrase?

I don’t put a lot of emphasis on huge in depth back stories for my characters. I have a general concept of who they are, their world view, ambitions, or lack-thereof, but it’s more of a frame work than a definitive guideline. What I think about most is the relationship characters have with each other. Are they close? Is there friction? Were they ever romantically involved? Why didn’t it work out? These are the kinds of questions that go through my head.

As I answer those, I find that I get a good idea of how these characters thing, how they’d talk to each other. If it’s formal, or relaxed. Is there slang between them? Can you tell their good friends just by how they talk to each other? Or can you tell that there’s tension by their tone? And I’ve come to realize just how much about a character comes across with their dialog.

I’m no expert on crafting great dialog. But I’ll pass along what few tips I know, and use.

1. Read dialog out loud – Don’t trust how it reads on the page. Say it out loud. You might get weird looks from people sitting near you, but get over it. If it sounds good out loud, it’ll look good on the page. But the reverse is not true.

2. Avoid using questions – I’m not saying you have to avoid these all together, but when writing a scene, pay attention to how many you’re asking. Does it come across as part of the natural flow of the conversation, or does it read like an interrogation?

3. Don’t worry about getting it perfect the first time – Typically I end up writing a scene three times. First, I just get the general points of the conversation down. Second, I go through and remove things that aren’t necessary. And third, I make sure the characters are all talking the way I’d expect them to. Sometimes this only takes a few minutes, sometimes this might take a half hour. It’s going to vary, and learn to live with that.

4. Dialog IS NOT realistic – Dialog in a movie is not how people talk in real life. Tape a conversation in real life, then transcribe that onto the page. When you’re done, read it over. It’s HORRIBLE. Good dialog LOOKS like it’s realistic, without actually BEING realistic. It’s a delivery method for information, that doesn’t let the reader/viewer in on that little secret.

Those are a few tips. Like I said, I’m no expert, but I’ve been able to recognize that things have helped my get better, and figured they might help you out as well.

If you have any other tips of suggestions, let me know, I’d love to post them up on the blog.

Until next time, keep writing!
-Steven

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