Write On! Creating Characters and Developing Dialogue
By Stephanie Olivieri
The thing I come across the most, as a reader and script consultant, is trouble with dialogue and more specifically, the way characters speak. There are a lot of books on character development out there, and most writing courses cover it a little bit, but there really aren’t that many resources for how your character should speak, except of course real life.
When you are creating your characters you really have to take into consideration not only the things they would say but also how they would say them. For example: A rich snooty man from an upper class family who graduated from Harvard might possibly say, “Good evening, how are you doing tonight?” While an uneducated, or less educated hipster character would say something like “What’s the haps?” Both characters are saying the same thing but in very different ways. If you think about your friends and how they speak, you will start to see how very different they all are. Ever hear someone say, “Only you would say it that way” about an expression or something you said? This is what I mean.
When writing dialogue, writers often forget that characters speak differently. I’ve read so many scripts where either the characters all sound exactly alike or they have the voice of the writer or they go in and out of character. It doesn’t matter what genre you are writing, your character need to be his or her own person.
It’s understandable how this is missed so often. You’ve read all the great books on screenwriting: Robert McKee, Syd Field, Blake Snyder, etc., and you know that on page 19 “this” must happen and you know all the archetypes of character and you have spent months perfecting your story and then they speak and it all falls apart. This is the same for television. You have taken all the great TV writing course around, you have read all the books, watched countless hours of your favorite shows and even managed to write a few specs, and then your characters speak in your original pilot and they might as well be the same person. This is very common, so don’t feel bad, we have all been there.
There are many ways you can fix this problem.
– First of all, have your script read by other writers and, if they don’t give you character feedback, then ask for it.
– Have your script read out loud; you need to hear how your characters sound.
– Watch both film and television.
– Go to plays.
– Read books.
– Observe people in your every day life and start making note of how they speak and what they say. Does your brother start every sentence with “dude” and, if so, what does that tell us about him?
It is also essential to study great films and read the scripts. There are many resources out there for scripts online, one of my favorites is Simply Scripts. Any screenplays by: Cameron Crowe, the Coen Brothers, Quentin Tarantino, and/or Woody Allen is a good place to start. Their characters have very specific ways of speaking. You can also go to the WGA site and get a list of the greatest films. Most great films have great characters and great characters have great dialogue.
Some outstanding television shows to study for dialogue are: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Grey’s Anatomy, How I Met Your Mother, The Big Bang Theory, and Californication. It’s up to you really what you want to watch, we all have different tastes, but the point is you can find great characters to study all around you.
If you are writing novels, your job is a little bit easier because you have pages to write narrative explaining how the character is feeling, but it’s a trap you don’t want to fall into. You still want your characters to stand on their own when they speak.
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Stephanie Olivieri is a script consultant who lives in Los Angeles. She will be teaching Who Said That? an online character dialogue workshop, starting September 10. Contact Stephanie for rates and details.Tags: Character Development Dialogue Screenwriting Stephanie Olivieri TV Writing Write On!