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Tips on Writing Dialogue That's Truthful

Susan Kouguell, award-winning screenwriter and filmmaker and screenwriting teacher at SUNY College at Purchase gives advice on writing dialogue that's truthful.

By Susan Kouguell

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writing dialogue

(to Riggan. A derisive laugh)
You’re no actor. You’re a celebrity.
Let’s be clear on that.

Tabitha rises from her seat and grabs her things.

I’m going to kill your play.

In Birdman, (directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, screenplay by Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris Jr. and Armando Bo) theatre critic Tabitha is despicable. She knows it. Protagonist Riggin knows it. And what makes matters worse is that in these four lines, Riggan knows in his very soul that Tabitha is telling the truth. The truth hurts. Riggin is struggling with his celebrity and all that comes with this label. He wants to be respected as an actor, not for his celebrity.

The words flowing from your characters’ mouths should be true to who they are. Whether your characters are telling the truth or lying, or believe they are being accurate or not, when you, the screenwriter, have a deep understanding of your characters’ motivations and behaviors, the more believable your dialogue will be. Good dialogue clearly conveys emotions, attitudes, strengths, vulnerabilities, and so on, while revealing the details of your plot and advancing your narrative.

Ten Top Tips to Writing Truthful Dialogue

  1. Make every word of dialogue count. Often less is more and the less said can be more poignant.
  2. Readers should be able to identify who is speaking without needing to read each character heading. Characters’ voices must be distinctive and not interchangeable with other characters.
  3. Consider the silences and pauses your characters use, or another character’s interruptions, to further convey tensions, actions, moods, and emotions.
  4. How your characters listen or don’t listen to each other and respond or don’t respond to each other will enhance your dialogue.
  5. Dialogue must not sound wooden or stilted. In real life, most people do not always speak with flawless grammar in complete, formal sentences.
  6. Use contractions, colloquialisms, slang, and so on, when true to your characters.
  7. Characters can speak in verbal shorthand and finish each other’s sentences and thoughts, such as with family members and best friends.
  8. Watch out for on-the-nose dialogue. In real life, people don’t always say exactly what’s on their mind or say what they mean and neither should your characters.
  9. Do your research. If your character is discussing medical issues, for example, or if you’re writing a period film, accuracy is essential.
  10. Writing character biographies for all of your characters will not only enable you to learn more about who they are and what makes them tick, it will help you to determine their specific word choices and language usages, such as slang, speech patterns, and rhythms.

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