In general, dialogue should sound like real life… but better. Great screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon capture tones and conversational back-and-forths that feel real while also being some of the most fun, interesting, and dramatic conversations that you’ve never heard. I’ve heard ‘Buffy’ called the show where teens say the quips what you wish you could think of on the spur of the moment.
Real conversations include a lot of uh, umm, repetitions (I find myself often reiterating my point when I talk at work), and pretty common phrases. Of course, in real life, that’s fine — you want to know what your friends felt on their date, how the boss wants the job done, or how much the ice cream costs — contextually the conversation is important. We’re not listening just to amuse ourselves.
When we do listen to amuse ourselves in real life, what we overhear is often dramatic, strange, or oddly intimate. We don’t know these people but there’s something that draws us in.
That perhaps is the three elements of great dialogue — it sounds like real life, interests us as much as a stranger’s confession, and builds and elaborates on the world at hand.
For the beginning writer, the secrets of good dialogue writing is to read a lot, read a lot, and watch plays, TV, and movies. Cartoon strips are a great resource that teaches you much about comedy, brevity, and timing.
Supposing you are already doing that, a few tips on how to make your characters seem real are–
- Remember, There are no ordinary people — and heroes, villains, etc don’t exist as absolutes.
- Don’t make your conversations go right where you need them to go for the plot. Make your characters work for the revelations.
- When writing accents, class differences, historical, and fantasy dialogue, you should blend your research with what excites you — neither is absolute.
- The deeper you go into understanding your characters, the more they will surprise you with unexpected and truly exceptional dialogue.
- When you create a true Work of HeART — writing with passion and purpose — you bring the beauty, magic, fun, and perfection of your characters to life.
Lasty, some times and some writers are not meant for dialogue that sounds real or human.
The stranger characters — from monsters and aliens to madmen and madwomen — all long for a world outside of polite conversation or even sensical understanding.
Lewis Carroll wrote about fixing a pocket watch, ‘“Two days wrong!” sighed the Hatter. “I told you butter wouldn’t suit the works!” he added, looking angrily at the March Hare. “It was the best butter,” the March Hare meekly replied.’
Words are powerful things and there’s no rule that they should be used in any one way; if your character is crazy like a Jack Sparrow, lean into that. If he’s fussy and over educated, you can lean into that too. If writing that way excites you — do it, especially in the first draft.
But try to keep the beating weird heart of that character alive — the mad hatter and the march hare are real, just not from our world. Jack is very much alive — and it’s not the writer’s laziness that makes him seem odd, it’s the discovery of a truly odd man living in a truly odd world of pirates, ghosts, and curses.
The other side of unreal is for the writers who choose to push their all characters outside of reality and into a candy confection of unreality — Quentin Tarantino and Elmore Leonard are two writers who come to mind for this group.
Here the second element, interesting, is argumentatively more important than either realism or storytelling. Those ideas still play a role, but ‘Get Shorty’ seems first and foremost about great, funny, crazy conversations — and plot and realism take a backseat.
From ‘Get Shorty’ —
Chili: So what’re you tellin’ me, you’re never gonna go to sleep again?
Tommy: No, I said I’m never goin’ to bed. There’s a difference. See, the article says most people die in their beds. I figure long as I stay outta bed, I’m safe.
That quote doesn’t sound real but really fun. And belying my whole point — it is real too — because we all know people who talk and think this way! Same as with the Carrol quote — the March Hare’s line almost doesn’t feel like a joke.
‘Pulp Fiction’ doesn’t sound ‘real’ but it connects to fun in a human and very funny way.
You might say in general that drama leans on the humanness, comedy on the interesting, and action on the storytelling/plot side. And most of the best writing captures all three.
When you sit down to write, think about why the line ‘Don’t you think I know that?’ (from Part I) doesn’t really satisfy — and then think about writing more —
- More from the humanness of who you are and how people really communicate
- More funny, sparkling, and surprising dialogue (bonus points if you surprise yourself!)
- And more important storytelling, that connects us to who these people are, where they are living (in time and in space), and why what they are saying matters — both to themselves, each other, and us.
And so we end, with three quotes to sum up the three elements we talked about.
- Dennis Lehane, Mystic River — “We all die alone…… I could have helped her with the dying.”
- Erik Wolpaw, Jay Pinkerton, and Chet Faliszek, Portal 2 — “Most test subjects do experience some, uh, cognitive deterioration after a few months in suspension. Now, you’ve been under for … quite a bit longer, and it’s not out of the question that you might have a very minor case of serious brain damage. But don’t be alarmed, all right? Although, if you do feel alarm, try to hold onto that feeling, because that is the proper reaction to being told you have brain damage.”
- Christopher McQuarrie, Mission: Impossible – Fallout — “You should have killed me, Ethan. The end you’ve always feared is coming. It’s coming. And the blood will be on your hands. The fallout of all your good intentions.”
Good luck on your dialogue and always write what is most interesting to you!