When I was young, writing good dialogue was my weakest skill. Not until I'd been out in the world for a while could I capture the essence of a character by placing a few words in his mouth. After years of people-watching and eavesdropping, I now think dialogue is one of my strengths.
Writing a script is all about delivering a character's motivation, emotion, priorities and background using only speech. All the poetic descriptions and intelligent vocabulary you would use writing a story for the page are gone. What matters is just the stuff inside the quotation marks.
For now, don't dream about writing the next Hollywood block-buster or being this century's Shakespeare. Start small. Focus on a short scene involving a few people.
Start simple. No need to establish a lengthy back-story for each character. Define each one with about three descriptors rather than a complex biography. “Anxious teen who needs a job” or “high-school prom queen growing old with style” are good starts.
Now free-write in each character's voice. Fill up a page writing each one's story, favorite phrases, fears, loves, desires. Get to know them a little. When no one is looking, speak in their cadence and style, ask them questions out loud and get responses. From this brain-storming you should get useful bits of dialogue and a stronger feel for each character.
Your characters will dictate the time and place. Perhaps they are on the same team, go to the same school or work at the same business. Maybe they are different people in the same spot by chance: on the bus together, stuck in an elevator or strangers at the same funeral. Don't spend much time painting the picture of the setting. That's for the director and stage crew. Simply give your actors and readers an idea of where things happen.
What just happened before this scene? Where are the characters going? Do they fear something or are they excited about something? Does one character believe something while another thinks the opposite? Throw a monkey wrench in the works to give reason for the characters to move and talk.
Once you have characters, setting and conflict, you're ready to write.
A Few Things to Keep in Mind
- Keep stage directions minimal. This is not the place to be creative. Give simple instructions for necessary movements, such as “exit stage left” or “hiding behind tree”. You should leave most of this to the director and actors. Very probably they will ignore them and do what they feel is right, anyway.
- Each character's voice should be so distinct that their lines could only belong to them. Rhythm, syntax, diction and grammar should be unique and consistent. Read lines without character names attached and see if the speaker's identity is obvious.
- Resist the urge to add awkward, unnatural-sounding details to the dialogue for the benefit of the audience. “Hello, my sister. How was your day at the dentist office where you have been working for five years?” Find another way to add that background information, if it's necessary. Trust in your audience's imagination to fill in the blanks.
- The things unsaid have power, too. Pause between lines. Understate. Leave a character at a loss for words. Break off a line if…
- Monologue – A lengthy speech delivered to the other characters onstage.
- Soliloquy – A long speech delivered to the audience without other characters listening.
- Aside – A short secret speech delivered to the audience while other characters are speaking.
- Build a character based on three descriptors. Make a second character that is the polar opposite. Put them in a scene together.
- Write a scene that leads to a monologue where one character addresses the others at length with passion.
- Write a soliloquy where the speaker goes through a range of emotions. Go from confident to unsure to frightened. Go from elated to angry to content.
- Go to a public place with your homework. Appear to be studying while listening to conversations. Note what sticks out. What do the words say about each speaker? Take guesses about each person's life, goals, background and future. How do you think the people are connected.
Great Example of Dialogue
From Edward Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Act One.
Martha: H. Christ…
George: For God's sake, Martha, it's two o'clock in the…
Martha: Oh, George!
George: Well, I'm sorry, but…
Martha: What a cluck! What a cluck you are.
George: It's late, you know? Late.
Martha: (Looks around the room. Imitates Bette Davis.) What a dump. Hey, what's that from? “What a dump!”
George: How would I know what…
Martha: Aw, come on! What's it from? You know…
Martha: WHAT'S IT FROM, FOR CHRIST'S SAKE?
George: (wearily) What's what from?
Martha: I just told you; I just did it. “What a dump!” Hunh? What's that from?
George: I haven't the faintest idea what…
Martha: Dumbbell! It's from some goddamn Bette Davis picture. Some goddamn Warner Brothers epic…
George: I can't remember all the pictures that…
Martha: Nobody's asking you to remember every single goddamn Warner Brothers epic… just one! One single little epic! Bette Davis gets peritonitis in the end… she's got this big black fright wig she wears all through the picture and she gets peritonitis, and she's married to Joseph cotton or something…
From the beginning, I get a strong impression how this couple always acts around each other. I feel that this type of conversation happens over and over with them. Frustration and resignation hang on every word.
Character, setting and conflict are apparent from the start.The Bette Davis references put the scene in context. The back-and-forth rhythm and the clipped sentences are natural. And I just love the nonsensicality of the line: “One single little epic.”
Example of a Soliloquy
“Soliloquy of the Spanish Cloister” by Robert Browning.
Gr-r-r—there go, my heart's abhorrence!
Water your damned flower-pots, do!
If hate killed men, Brother Lawrence,
God's blood, would not mine kill you!
What? your myrtle-bush wants trimming?
Oh, that rose has prior claims— Needs its leaden vase filled brimming?
Hell dry you up with its flames!
At the meal we sit together;
Salve tibi! I must hear
Wise talk of the kind of weather,
Sort of season, time of year:
Not a plenteous cork crop: scarcely
Dare we hope oak-galls, I doubt;
What's the Latin name for "parsley"?
What's the Greek name for "swine's snout"?
Whew! We'll have our platter burnished,
Laid with care on our own shelf!
With a fire-new spoon we're furnished,
And a goblet for ourself,
Rinsed like something sacrificial Ere 'tis fit to touch our chaps—
Marked with L. for our initial!
(He-he! There his lily snaps!)
Saint, forsooth! While Brown Dolores
Squats outside the Convent bank
With Sanchicha, telling stories,
Steeping tresses in the tank,
Blue-black, lustrous, thick like horsehairs, —Can't I see his dead eye glow,
Bright as 'twere a Barbary corsair's?
(That is, if he'd let it show!)
When he finishes refection,
Knife and fork he never lays
Cross-wise, to my recollection,
As do I, in Jesu's praise.
I the Trinity illustrate,
Drinking watered orange pulp—
In three sips the Arian frustrate;
While he drains his at one gulp!
Oh, those melons! if he's able
We're to have a feast; so nice!
One goes to the Abbot's table,
All of us get each a slice.
How go on your flowers? None double?
Not one fruit-sort can you spy?
Strange!—And I, too, at such trouble,
Keep them close-nipped on the sly!
There's a great text in Galatians,
Once you trip on it, entails
Twenty-nine distinct damnations,
One sure, if another fails;
If I trip him just a-dying,
Sure of heaven as sure can be,
Spin him round and send him flying
Off to hell, a Manichee?
Or, my scrofulous French novel
On grey paper with blunt type!
Simply glance at it, you grovel
Hand and foot in Belial's gripe;
If I double down its pages
At the woeful sixteenth print, When he gathers his greengages,
Ope a sieve and slip it in't?
Or, there's Satan!—one might venture
Pledge one's soul to him, yet leave
Such a flaw in the indenture
As he'd miss till, past retrieve,
Blasted lay that rose-acacia
We're so proud of! Hy, Zy, Hine…
'St, there's Vespers! Plena gratia
Ave, Virgo! Gr-r-r—you swine!
The speaker passionately describes his hatred for Brother Lawrence, yet poetically uses garden imagery to describe the gardener. This text delivers accurate religious undertone to the voice of a monk. The verse form and rhyme feel quite at home. I often think rhyming lines feel forced, but not in this case.
Editor’s Note: David Klenda, also known as Eighty Six, is a poet, journalist, cook and cocktail maker. He supports his wife and sons with a combination of freelance writing and hospitality. Flexible and adaptable by nature, he accepts all writing challenges. https://eightysixthepoet.blogspot.com
- Photo by Pascal Maramis via Flickr under CC BY 2.0
- Photo by California Cthulhu (Will Hart) via Flickr under CC BY 2.0