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Unique Speak

By David Freeman

Our reader Singh from Toronto, asks:
My dialogue sounds flat and indistinguishable between characters. How can I work on writing more engaging dialogue?

David Freeman responds:

Dialogue has long been a problem for writers. The problem is that dialogue needs to serve a variety of functions: (1) make the characters sound different from one another, (2) capture the rhythms and sound of spoken speech, (3) employ "subtext" so that what the characters are saying isn't always what they mean, and (4) reveal all sorts of things about the characters and sometimes their time and place.

When you talk about "indistinguishable characters," you're talking about (1). When you talk about "flat," I suspect you're talking about (3). The techniques used to solve these problems are vastly different. (1) would take a long time to answer, but here's a quick tip about (3); ask yourself: "How can I let the audience know what the character is feeling, without the character telling us?"

So let's say that Shannon is attracted to Richard, who works in her office. How can we know this through her actions and dialogue, without her ever mentioning her attraction directly or indirectly?

Maybe she starts a cute, affectionate fight with him at the office. Maybe she just "happens" to remember his favorite type of Starbucks coffee and she gets him a cup when she's on the way to work.

Maybe, in a conversation, she brings up something he said three months earlier. (If she didn't like him, why would she remember?)

Maybe we learn that an inadvertent comment he made to her, for instance he said that a certain book inspired him, caused her to read that book. (She esteems his opinions.)

By the way, this is REWRITE advice. Don't worry about it on the first draft. And realize that writers' reluctance to employ this advice comes from their fear that audiences are too stupid to get what the characters are implicitly feeling. Trust me, they're not stupid.

Meet the Author: David Freeman

David Freeman is a screenwriter, and teaches screenwriting and script development internationally.

A long-standing member of the Writers Guild of America, he has sold and optioned scripts and ideas to Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM, and other major film and television companies. He works half time for News Corp (which owns 20th Century Fox and television networks around the world), developing television dramas.

He has taught screenwriting and script development not just to writers around the world, but at Pixar, Disney, to many executives of the BBC, at various film studios in China, and to many other film and...