I’m often asked by clients how to improve dialogue. The thing is, it’s not as easy as just typing it out just like you would say it in real life. Sure, it may sound genuine to you, but often this results in EVERY character sounding like the writer. And that’s off-putting. Furthermore, exposition or repetition can creep in. So what can we do to write distinctive dialogue?
1. Avoid our own voices
Make sure your own way of speaking – be it dialect, slang or habits – doesn’t pollute characters’ dialogues. For example, I like to use the word “lush”, and a friend of mine often says “to be fair”. Grammar slip ups, too, like saying “you was talking in your sleep”. These are great, distinctive elements of dialogue… if they apply to ONE character. If they ALL talk like that? Alarm bells!
2. Use individualism to your advantage
Whilst we want to avoid over-saturation of individual ways of talking across characters in a script, you could turn individualism to your advantage by taking the time to really consider how each and every character behaves and speaks. Shy character? Think about how they might hesitate when speaking, or seek approval for everything. What about the difference between a teenager and a businessman? No need to necessarily resort to stereotype, but consider their personalities and how that might affect their speech. Teenager struggles to be heard and listened to? They might talk loudly, repeat questions or seek approval in some way, “Oi?” “D’you know what I mean?” “Yeah?” Whereas a businessman might be used to using business jargon or barking orders, and might accidentally do so outside of work out of habit. “What the hell is that school thinking? You should be doing innovative projects. Those teachers need to think outside the box. You’re giving it 110%, aren’t you?” Poor kid!
3. Avoid over-explaining
Exposition and repetition can creep in when writers *think* they’re writing realistically. In real life, we repeat stuff. A friend walks into the pub late? We explain what we were just talking about, even if it means our other friends have to hear the story again. In a script, this can prove tiresome for the reader/audience. Characters that “explain it all” can also sound really dull and flat. “What’s going on here?” says the cop. To which our dull character replies, “Well…” and proceeds to describe everything we’ve already seen. Where’s the drama?
4. Show don’t tell
Don’t forget that behaviours, actions, expressions and atmosphere can all say a lot. Cinematic storytelling is often described as “what you don’t show” and this can equally apply to “what you don’t say” when it comes to improving dialogue. When people say they’re fine, do they really mean it? Not often, no. You can often tell that they’re not really alright too, by seeing this in the way they behave. If someone needs to find out something sensitive, do they come straight out and ask it? Not likely – they’ll skirt around the subject. Again, this links to personalities as well as plot. Think about how your character’s personality affects their reactions, and how these reactions will help move the plot along in a dynamic way.
Don’t forget those dialogue habits or phrases that can catch on and help identify popular characters instantly. When judging competition scripts, we often look out for elements that will help market the script, such as potentially iconic character traits, merchandise-friendly characters and words/phrases that will help define a script. For example, if I say “I’ll be back”, you think Arnie, right? If I say “This one time…” You think Michelle in American Pie. If I say “I don’t believe it!” you think Victor Meldrew, right? Don’t believe how iconic these distinctive ways of talking can be? Google those three phrases and see what comes up! We all have our habits.
Really think about each of your characters and how they are defined by not only their personality but the way they react, how they speak and how their individualism carves a certain path for them in the story. Put Drop Dead Fred in John McClane’s position in Die Hard? TOTALLY DIFFERENT MOVIE, and possibly a different genre too! Play games with your characters – give them situations and think… How would they react to that? Really make them an entity in their own right, instead of just a device to get your story across.