How to Write Better Dialogue

Hey everyone! So I used to have a writing blog where I wrote specifically about the craft of writing. As everyone is getting ready for National Novel Writing Month next month, I thought it was a great time to bring that back here. So today I wanted to talk about something that comes up a lot in the screenwriting class I teach for Southern New Hampshire University: dialogue. 

Dialogue is something I think about a lot. In college and grad school, my main focus was playwriting. Dialogue is your main tool in playwriting. You can’t constantly change locations like you can with film, and you don’t usually have access to the character’s thoughts and feelings like you do with fiction so the story is primarily told in the dialogue. 

But you don’t have to be writing a play or a film to want to write great dialogue. Whatever you’re writing, dialogue is an excellent tool that reveals so much about the characters. Here are a few things to think about. 

Voice 

How does your character speak? How do they phrase things? What kind of words do they choose to use? Do they use a lot of slang? Do they curse a lot? How does your character’s education or cultural background inform the way they speak? 

These are all important things to think about when you are thinking about a character’s voice. It’s also important that you give each of your characters a distinct voice. If you have a plethora of diverse characters with different backgrounds and different personalities, you don’t want them all to have the same voice. 

Subtext 

People rarely say what they mean. Understanding what a character really thinks or feels about a situation may help you to craft the actual conversation that takes place. An interesting exercise is to write a scene where only the honest and direct truth is spoken. Then go back and rewrite the same scene where the lines you wrote first are only subtext. 

Whenever your character has a line of dialogue, it’s good to think about what the underlying feelings, thoughts, and motives are that cause the character to say the line. 

Purpose 

We want dialogue to sound natural and realistic, but we don’t need to go into every mundane detail that might be in a real conversation. Dialogue should have a purpose. It should either further the plot, reveal something about a character, or both. Look at your dialogue in a scene from a recent play, film, or story. Would the scene still make sense or reveal the necessary information about your character if the line were omitted? If so, leave it out. 

Exercises 

Here are a few exercises to help you work on your dialogue. 

Eavesdropping 

Go to a public place like a coffee shop or the mall. (Airports are GREAT for this!) Sit in one place and listen to the way people are speaking as opposed to what they are actually saying. Pay attention to dialect. Do they pronounce certain words differently? What can you infer about them just by listening to the way they speak? 

Playwriting 101 

Try writing a short scene (2 - 4 pages) for the stage with two characters where each person wants something different from the other person. Don't use any stage directions. When you are finished, go back and write out the subtext of each line of dialogue. This exercise will be great for fiction writers, but even if you're an experienced playwright, it's always great to sharpen your tools. 

Get to the Point 

Pick a scene from your latest novel, play, or screenplay. Go through and cross out every line you don’t need. How does it change the scene? Is there a lot of extraneous information you’re getting rid of? With this new version of the scene in mind, put the lines back in that help to serve your story.

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