How to Write Great Dialogue

Via Theatrefolk Weblog – a wonderful resource.

Character Specific
The first step to making your dialogue leap off the page is to focus on how your characters speak. You can enrich your dialogue by making it character-specific. Each character must have their own unique way of speaking. Be aware of the language they use, their background, their education, their occupation, their location, their age, their environment. All of these things lend to character-specific dialogue. This is particularly important to keep in mind when you have characters of a similar age and background (e.g. a group of friends, all of whom are the same gender.) What makes each character’s dialogue unique and specific?

In Their Element
Nothing tips an audience off faster to fake dialogue than characters who speak out of their element. A pompous brain surgeon has to sound like a pompous brain surgeon. A young New York rich socialite must sound at home on 5th avenue. Do characters speak out of their element? Sure, all the time. You can have a surfer dude who is also a doctor. But it must be purposeful and there must be a reason. As long as there’s a reason you can do anything! But when just starting out, strive to create characters who speak within their element. Follow the rules before you break them.

Exercise:
A: I had my first meeting with him yesterday. He was….different.

Take the above line of dialogue and re-write it so that it sounds like it comes from the following character types. Be very specific with each type. Use words that they would use. Use slang that they would use. Would they use contractions? Create the image of each character type through the way they would say the line.

•A fifteen-year-old cheerleader.
•A seventy-year-old cattle farmer.
•A five-year-old child.
•A twenty-year-old New York socialite.
•A forty-year-old math professor.
•A sixty-year-old pompous brain surgeon.

Three Dimensions
Writing character-specific dialogue is more than writing to certain types. You don’t want to fall into the trap of creating stereotypes. Audiences want to connect to the people they see on stage (whether to love them, hate them, laugh at them) and in order for that to happen, your characters have to be three-dimensional.

The best way to ensure multi-dimensional characters is to create character profiles for them. Fill the profiles with the small details about your characters: who are the members of their family, likes/dislikes, favourite foods, fears, secrets, memories. Human beings are made up of little things, a multitude of tiny details. Think about what’s important to you in the day-to-day. What you can’t live without. What you’d never eat. Give these elements to your characters and they will become real to you. And that’s when you can really get into writing specifically for them!

It’s especially important not to treat the character profile like a joke – if you’re writing a comedy it’s tempting to write a ‘funny’ character profile. This doesn’t help create dimension, it enforces a stereotype. Always strive to create a real human being.

Exercise:
You’re going to write a scene between two characters: A high status character and a low status character. Put them in a specific location. Before you write the scene, create the following profile for each. How does learning about the characters help to write the scene? How does the profile make the character’s dialogue specific?

•Name/Age/Gender
•Who is in their immediate family?
•Where and how do they live?
•Where did this character live as a child? Does this character love or hate where they come from?
•What’s under their bed?What’s in their bedside table?
•What does this character fear?
•What does this character love to do more than anything else?
•What would this character’s dream job be?
•They have to make dinner for someone, what do they do?
• What’s in this character’s ipod right now? If they don’t have one, why not?
•Name their favourite movie.
•Who does this character respect?Who does this character hate?
•Describe their favourite memory.
•Describe their least favourite memory.

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