by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
Even the most masterful storytellers can bring their narratives to a screeching halt when their dialogue strikes the audience as unnatural. It’s a common misconception that creating dialogue is simply about mastering the way people speak to each other in real life. Our conversations contain nuance and local colloquialisms that work well at the neighborhood watering hole but don’t necessarily draw the reader into the internal and external journeys of the characters on the page.
The way dialogue is most effective in a story greatly depends on the medium. In scripts for film and television, dialogue can be its own art form, but must give each character their own unique voice. Here are three approaches to dialogue that will bring the audience deeper into the story, rather than taking them out of it.
1. KEEP IT SHORT
One of the most common mistakes new writers make is having their characters explain the plot of the story to each other through dialogue. Occasionally, even experienced storytellers fall into this trap. Film and television are visual mediums. The story should be told through the juxtaposition of images, only using dialogue to enhance the visual narrative the audience is seeing. If long blocks of exposition are required, there may be a better medium for the story.
After an initial draft, writers would do well to go through every line of dialogue and ask themselves if it is absolutely necessary and what it gives the audience. Being a hard editor can help you keep sections of dialogue short. Short words, short sentences, and short exchanges keep your audience focused on the unfolding plot and who the characters really are. Certainly, there are exceptions to this principle, and a number of successful screenwriters have built careers by not doing this, but leaning in to concise dialogue usually serves developing writers best.
2. BECOME A LISTENER
Get out of your head. For writers, this can be a tough thing to do. While listening to the exact way people talk might not necessarily work for crafting dialogue, as mentioned above, listening to what people talk about, how they make small talk, and the way they use language to relate to the person they are talking to can be extremely helpful. Observing people is a good practice for a writer to get into, anyway. Listening to people talk helps to create organic interactions between the characters you create. It’s an old adage, but it’s true – most of the time we are waiting for our turn to speak rather than truly listening. While it’s easier to observe when we listen to the conversations of others, paying close attention to our own conversations and the emotions we experience as we speak — as well as when we speak without really thinking — can lead to helpful insights when creating similar interactions for our characters.
3. STUDY SUBTEXT
Eventually, seasoned writers recognize that what is not being said in a scene can be just as powerful as what is given voice. The underlying subtext can give a scene tension, make it humorous, or deeply moving. The small talk a couple makes around the breakfast table as they prepare to discuss custody of their children may appear benign if we only look at the words being spoken. However, the inner angst we know the characters are experiencing can give those words much more meaning and gravitas. Asking what the character speaking is really trying to say, what they really want, and what they are afraid of letting show can be a good starting point for writing dialogue that has substance beyond the content of their words.
Creating subtext is a skill that takes time to master, but an effort well worth the undertaking. Linda Seger’s Writing Subtext: What Lies Beneath is an excellent tool for learning more about what subtext is and how to create it. While not every scene needs subtext, knowing which scenes do and how to get the most from those scenes can mean the difference between a master of the craft and a novice.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.