Creating Believable Dialogue

What'd you say?!

Unless your film is silent and relies solely on the power of cinematography to speak to its audience, there will probably be words involved. All good stories are backed up with a great script. There is only so much actors can do to carry a poorly written script i.e., Terra Nova.

Unfortunately, the acting in some shows is also lacking, in which case there is nothing you can do, except push the stop button on your remote. It sucks, too, because the plot and setting may be gold, but without a good script to boot, well . . . the show gets the proverbial boot (or it just gets syndicated for seemingly endless seasons and you begin to lose faith in humanity).

So how does one create good dialogue? The key is to write as people speak in real life. Don’t write how you think they speak, actually transcribe it into script form. One simple trick you can try is to close your eyes and listen to people talking in a room; maybe at work, or at school. If your characters sound like the people you encounter from day-to-day, then you’ve at least achieved a realistic tone. Being mindful of that is being mindful of your diction, or better known as your choice of words, and is extremely important.

Be careful not to sound too robotic by using too many words in your sentences to express straightforward thoughts. Even something as simple as, “Okay, Mom, be there in just a sec,” sounds so much better than “All right, Mother, I will be there in just a second.” It’s a small difference, but honestly, how would you say it?

On the same note, if you avoid contractions as in formal essays—words like can’t, won’t, aren’t, and shouldn’t—you risk sounding archaic.  “YOU SHALL NOT PASS!” seems only appropriate in Middle-earth or in stories set during Medieval times.  In a more modern setting, don’t be afraid to shorten your words so they flow as quickly and realistically as possible.

Love your lingo . . .
but make sure you don’t go too crazy. People use text abbreviations in everyday speech these days, but only girls in the seventh grade use it exclusively. I would shy away from using “OMG” in a script, but it’s definitely more permissible than one of your characters saying, “ttyl,” instead of a simple “see you later.”

Remember where your characters come from. Tyrone might be the leader of a notorious gang of ten year-olds in the backstreets of the Bronx, in search of new blood to join his ranks, but he’ll talk vastly different from Walt, who grew up on a chicken farm in Cochran, Georgia. Setting and background afford you a little slack as a writer to be creative with the respective vernaculars.

The important thing to keep in mind is this one truth: Simple patterns of speech will get audiences attached to your story, whereas flowery language only draws attention to the person who is speaking. More often than not, you’ll be focusing on their lips moving rather than the actual plot-advancing or character-enhancing lines.

A final note: Remember that in film, the rule of “Show, don’t tell” is still just as pertinent as it is in writing. The way a character holds his silence, glances away from a pretty girl to avoid detection, smiles shyly, blushes, clenches his fists, smooths the wrinkles in her dress—all of these actions can say infinitely more about a character and what they’re thinking than what they actually say.

Happy writing!

Andy Ainsworth

3 comments on “Creating Believable Dialogue
  1. Avatar of Josiah Clark

    I’m glad you mentioned the “show, don’t tell,” rule. Too often the temptation is to have a character say how they’re feeling, rather than show how they’re feeling. For example: a depressed teenager. It’s so much more effective to show them in their depression, body language and situation working together, than to drop in a voiceover where the character says “I’ve been depressed lately.”

    Additionally, on the topic of contractions and modern speech, everything is about character. Yeah, you want dialogue to sound natural, but as you touched on briefly, what’s even more important is that it sounds natural *for that character*. An example would be that a modern teenager would use slang, contractions, and even occasional abbreviations in their speech, while in the same world, a fuss-budget english teacher would adhere perfectly to the rules of grammar, regardless of how awkward it might sound in everyday speech (which, in and of itself, could be a powerful tool in creating his character.)

  2. Avatar of Andy Ainsworth

    @Josiah, you said it perfectly. Couldn’t agree with you more. The way a character talks is only one part of them, but the way they act and deal with various influences in their life (both negative and positive), therein lies the real meat.

    So, to further the example, that English teacher/grammar Nazi you described might only uphold the rules of grammar with everyone else in his world. But with his lover, who is a cute, ditsy blonde nursing assistant that uses “good” and “well” interchangeably, he just smiles and laughs instead of getting annoyed. Something about her makes him weak and he finds himself acting like a fool and slurring his speech in front of her. She finds this equally attractive. Now there’s a character that I want to follow. It would be neat to see his home life in contrast with his job as, let’s say, an uptight college professor who teaches Victorian era lit.

  3. Avatar of Alex Coulombe

    Great blog post Andy! Similar to your mention of closing your eyes to eavesdrop on people to get a sense of realistic dialogue, there is also a good way to check your script to make sure you’re giving your characters distinct voices consistent with their background: cover their names. A well-written character will never talk like another character, so purely based on the dialogue of what they say, you (and your readers) should be able to identify who is talking. Immediately I think of Joss Whedon’s Firefly– Mal would never talk like Wash, Wash would never talk like Jane, Jane would never talk like Shepherd Book, etc.

    Glad you also brought up removing unnecessary words. When I read other people’s scripts, I can’t tell you how many of sentences start with ‘Well,’ or ‘I mean,’ which, sure, may be how people talk, but it really slows down a scene.

    Two more thoughts:
    1) Another thing that slows a scene down to a standstill is having characters respond to things that don’t need to be responded to. In a scene, almost every question should be viewed as a rhetorical question. If Jane says: “You really hate women, don’t you!?” Dick’s response should almost never be “I do not hate women! How can you say that?” but rather another question: “Hand me the eggs?” a deflection: “Quick! Out the window!” Or even better, just a look. A pause to see the reaction (show don’t tell, again), then move on. But for god’s sake keep the story moving the story forward.

    2) Finally, I’m surprised you didn’t bring up subtext. So much of the importance of a line is in what it ACTUALLY means, versus what it means at face value. To quote Robert McKee in ‘STORY’, if two characters sit across from a candlelit dinner and say “I love you I love you I love you”, the scene is dead ONLY IF the characters say that and mean it. If it’s a Mr. & Mrs. Smith situation, well, at least we’re getting somewhere :)

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