Writing Believable Dialogue
I was recently asked, “How do you write believable dialogue?” As I consider myself to be somewhat of a dialogue architect, I felt I was quite qualified to answer this question. The automatic answer that falls from my lips is, “I just listen to the voices in my head.” Now, if you’re a seasoned writer, you understand that. If you’re just beginning, you’re thinking, “This guy’s lost his nut!”
The first thing you need to do to help you write better dialogue is to understand what believable dialogue sounds like. Go sit in the middle of a busy shopping mall and watch and listen to people as they walk by. Listen to the conversations they have. I guarantee you that it will be quite entertaining. Another thing to do is to listen to your friends talk to each other. Most people base their characters, or least certain characteristics of those characters, on people they know. When you’re writing dialogue for your characters just imagine how your friends would react in those situations. I’ll bet you can even hear their voices inside your head and you didn’t even need to lose a nut to do it. One very important thing to remember is that people do not always say exactly what they’re thinking. Recall some of the conversations with your significant other when you were supposed to infer something from the conversation. She didn’t say what she wanted, but you were supposed to pick up the hint. That’s called subtext. When characters say exactly what’s on their minds, that’s called on-the-nose dialogue. Unless you’re writing comedy, try to avoid it.
Another good exercise is to watch TV or film from some of the great dialogue artists: Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, Joss Whedon, and Andrew W. Marlowe, to name a few. They write great banter between characters and most times it’s even believable. The best dialogue exchange from Sorkin would be any episode of The Newsroom. Tarantino wrote some excellent exchanges in the film True Romance. He didn’t direct that one so you will get a good idea of what it’s like to write dialogue that someone else will direct. Whedon demonstrates crafty dialogue exchange in the television series Firefly and Marlowe’s best exchanges are in the TV show Castle.
I think another way to help you get into a character’s brain and really understand how they might react or what they might say is to study acting. As an actor you need to get into the character’s head and understand what makes them tick. That’s how an actor is able to deliver a line and make it believable; they understand the character inside and out. If you can do that when you’re writing for them, then you’re well on your way to being able to write it believably.
So once you’ve got a good idea of how people really speak to each other, once you’ve observed many hours of verbal exchange, you should be well on your way to having multiple voices talking in your head. You’ll know that you’re getting better when the voices in your head take your conversations in a direction you hadn’t intended. That’s when you know your characters are speaking to each other and you’re not just talking to yourself. Until next week, happy writing.
Special thanks to Maxwell Gold for inspiring this blog.