I was chatting with a fellow writer the other day and she mentioned how difficult she found writing dialogue. It was easy to empathise with her as it was an area I struggled with for years.
Great dialogue comes with practice. There are numerous ways you can learn how to write authentic dialogue and what follows is just one way. I’m not claiming it’s the best, just that it worked for me and might help some of you to improve your dialogue and even your characters.
The best way to learn most things is by observing them in progress. Dialogue is no exception. Regularly go to public places – a coffee shop or a pub are the best – get yourself a drink, sit down with a notebook and listen to people talking and make notes. Yes, I am suggesting you eavesdrop on others and record not only how they speak but the language they use and the topics they discuss. The more you can do this the greater diversity of voices you’ll learn to recognise.
Listen out and take note of the following…
- RHYTHM OF SPEECH – How fast or slow do people speak? Do they speed up or slow down when talking about different subjects? Do they slow down or speed up during a sentence and why?
- VOLUME – Do they speak loudly or do they talk in hushed tones? Are there certain words they whisper or shout? What does the volume your character talks at say about them, their background and their job?
- PAUSES and SILENCE – Where do the pauses and the silence come and why are they used? Sometimes silences are more powerful than any words.
- MISSING/FAVOURITE WORDS – What words do people drop from their sentences? What words do they favour or overuse?
- ACCENTS – How do accents affect speech?
- REACTIONS – The words that are spoken are important but so are people’s reactions to what is being said, how they listen or don’t, how they move or don’t as they speak.
- CONFLICT – Where does the conflict arise in the conversation and how do others react to it? Do their voices get higher or lower? Who wins the conversations or are they drawn?
- EMOTION – What emotions are your characters showing through their dialogue?
- CROSS-PURPOSES – Not the same as subtext (see below) but where characters think they are talking about the same thing but their perspectives and goals clash so they’re actually talking about different things and don’t realise it.
- SUBTEXT – What are they discussing and what are they REALLY discussing?
Here’s a great exercise to help you practice what you’ve learned above.
Take two characters from one of your screenplays and stick them in a lift/elevator together, stuck between floors so they can’t escape. Then give them a topic to discuss – for example; the state of the National Health Service – and then have them talk about it for three pages. It helps if you choose characters that have different viewpoints but you don’t have to do this. Two people who on paper might agree can disagree in real life. For example, they might agree on the destination but not how to get there.
Who came out on top in your exercise?
Try this with a few different characters and you’ll notice you’ll get different outcomes, with each new character’s perceptions taking the conversation in a different direction.
Now start again but remove the top-ten words related to the topic, making sure your characters aren’t allowed to use them. For the above example, those words would most likely be; NHS, government, doctors, nurses, medicine, hospitals, health, illness, beds and wards. It’s going to be a difficult task but it will help you think more about the words you do use and help you to avoid cliche. Your writing will become richer because of it.
This exercise is harder still. Here you’ll choose a second subject – let’s say divorce – and you’ll use the first topic to discuss the new one, without actually mentioning the new topic at all. This will help you practice SUBTEXT, possibly the most difficult skill to master concerning dialogue.
Keep practising all the above, over and over, even when your dialogue improves.