So you don’t want your dialogue to just sound like blah blah blah. You want it to be as rich, engaging, and true to form as possible. A good approach to dialogue throughout the writing process is to remember that it directly correlates to character. And as we all know by now, character is story. Dialogue is not story, though, just to clarify, but it does enrich the way you tell it. Just think, even now I am exercising this muscle as I talk as if to you. How did I decide on this laid back approach to academics? That’s just the way I am. And it will be easy for you to know how your characters would speak to you or anyone else once you have a firm grasp on who they are. If you’ve done your Character Detective Work you might be ahead of the pack on this next exercise, but you can always write up a quick character bio for any new character as well. When thinking about how your characters speak, and also the type of information that would go into their bio it is helpful to keep these factors that determine/defines how people speak in mind:
(in no particular order)
- region of origin
- political leanings
- state of mind
- who talking to*
- where they are talking (setting/environment)*
- time period
- what they want (motivations)*
- if they are on any substances
The ones with asterisks are, of course, perhaps the most important to keep in mind.
Okay, cool. Moving on. Once we know how are characters speak we have to give them something to talk about. On the most basic level, language is about communicating information. In screenwriting we refer to the information needed to understand the story as exposition. Here’s an example of how exposition works in a screenplay. Read the following scene, then write down at least 10 things you learned about these characters.
Note: this excerpt is from an early and scrapped draft of one of my screenplays. You’ll surely notice that it’s not very good, but that can be explained with one word: pipe. Early drafts tend to be “pipey” when a writer is unsure of what is the most relevant information to present and the most clean and concise way to present it. That’s fine. Figuring all that stuff out is what drafting is for.
Okay, so for your homework, pick a script any script. Read the first 10 pages, and jot down 10 things you learned about these characters from the dialogue. Just the dialogue. Take note of how the information was presented (humorously? in a heated moment? off-hand? etc.), how it fit the scene, and how the characters react to the information. Your homework assignment is to write 5 – 10 pages of heavy exposition without it being clunky or obvious that that is what you’re doing. This might be the most difficult thing you do all year.