As writers, we have all experienced that moment where we read our work aloud and find ourselves thinking - would my character actually say that if they were a real person? Would I ever say that?
It can be a struggle to improve dialogue that just isn’t working, whether its issue is giving too much exposition or it simply sounds bland and cheesy.
Here are 8 tips to incorporate into your day-to-day writing that will make your dialogue more interesting:
1. Nobody Says Anything Unless They Want Something
This is a common rule for screenwriters, but it can be a useful one to apply in general prose and novels. If you’re struggling with using too much exposition in your dialogue, this rule could help you turn that around and make your dialogue more realistic and character-driven.
When writing dialogue for a specific character, think about their goals, needs and wants in that scene or chapter. They shouldn’t be saying anything that doesn’t relate to what they want to achieve - this can be anything from getting a new car, completing a mission, taking down the bad guy, winning over the girl or even just being admired. Take a second to think about what your characters want. Their dialogue should follow.
A dialogue exchange between two characters will immediately become more interesting if these characters differ greatly from each other. Think about a conversation between an educated professor with rich vocabulary and a laid back hippie with conversational slang and no extended vocabulary. This kind of dialogue has the potential to be funnier and way more interesting than one between two characters of the same background and circumstance.
3. Don’t Overwrite
Short, snappy and to-the-point kind of dialogue will keep a reader on their toes. This can be fun to experiment with, and this is typically the kind of dialogue that you would never hear real people using, but in writing and film, it feels a lot more realistic.
Instead of the following:
“Are you free to do dinner tonight?”
“Sorry, I can’t really do tonight.”
“Are you saying you can’t or you don’t want to?”
Try this instead:
“Can’t or won’t?”
The latter example reads a lot easier and gives off the impression that the two characters are close. It feels more laidback, realistic and it’s fun to read.
4. Add Misunderstandings
If you’re striving for more reality in your dialogue, it’s not a rarity for people to misunderstand each other, whether that be hearing the wrong word, missing a crucial piece of information or reading the situation wrong. A good example of a misunderstanding that adds impact to the story could be a situation like the following - a husband and wife are fighting and the husband has been sleeping on the couch for the past few nights as per his wife’s request. One day she approaches him and says “I don’t want you sleeping on the couch anymore.” He takes this to mean that she wants him to come back to their bedroom, and tries to kiss her, but he misunderstood. She wants him to leave the house. The initial misunderstanding makes the blow much harder than if she had just told him to leave in the first place.
5. Individualize Your Character’s Approach
Put a spin on generic lines by adding a little personality into what your character is saying. You might have a character that’s overly positive and can turn any situation into a good thing. You might also have a character that relishes the opportunity to make things all about himself. When you approach these characters with a simple line like: “My dog just died.” - the first character might reply with: “That’s too bad! But hey, now you have space to rescue another poor soul from the shelter.” whilst the second character might say something like: “I know how that feels. My hamster died three years ago, 2017 was a really bad year for me.”
6. Individualize Your Character’s Vocabulary
When building characters, dedicate some time to setting up a specific vocabulary for that person. Take general lines and phrases (even something as simple as yes/no, I don’t know or curse words can work), and think about giving your character their own way of saying these. A character could always say “yup” instead of “yes”, or “I do not know” instead of “I don’t know.”
7. Give Your Character a Catchphrase or Buzzword
We all know that one person who says “like” after every three words. But you can do endless variations on this by adding different phrases to your character’s vocabulary. Some common examples include “you know?”, “well…”, “I mean,” and similar. However, to make the best of this practice, try to think of a phrase that’s unique and coined by your character. In Wes Anderson’s film The Darjeeling Limited, we hear Owen Wilson’s character continuously repeating his reaffirmation phrase: “Can we agree to that?” almost every time he addresses his brothers. He sometimes also begins his lines with “Let’s make another agreement.”
8. Backstory and Influences Matter
When writing dialogue for a specific character, have a good think about why they speak the way they speak and if there is a reason they should be speaking differently. The way people talk is almost always reflected by where and how they grew up and what sort of people they surround themselves with. Humans tend to adapt to people around them and so does their speaking pattern.
Think about how much this person reads, how educated they are, what country they are from and if they have an accent, did they go through a traumatic experience that affects how much they speak or are they just not used to socialising?
Guest post by Tena “Char” Cavric
Tena “Char” Cavric is a recent Filmmaking & Screenwriting graduate from the University of the West of Scotland. She was born in Croatia and moved out to study in Scotland on her own at the age of 17. She is a determined and independent spirit with the goal to become a TV Series’ creator. She probably has more characters in her head than friends in her life.