Imagine a Chair

#03 -- Writing Unique Dialogue

Dialogue, amiright? There’s a lot to say about it – especially in comics. Subtext and text. The playful tension you can create between word and image. Writing dialogue that is both terse and meaningful. But before all that, I want to address one of the most common problems I see in the scripts I read: all of the characters speaking in the exact same voice. And, usually? Not the most interesting voice.

The most common pattern is for characters to all speak in simple, blunt and declarative sentences. To avoid subtext or colloquialism. They avoid wordplay and never intentionally obfuscate. Other times, characters will all speak in the same hip, quirky way, with identical slang and diction. And so the leads – who are often meant, ostensibly, to contrast greatly, instead end up feeling completely interchangeable. I sometimes have to keep flipping back to the beginning of the script, to remember who is who.

The solution to this is simple, but not easy. You need to give serious, conscious thought to the factors that shape our communication styles, and how those factors would come into play with your characters. I urge you to think of these factors on your own, and develop your own unique toolbox for shaping your characters’ speech patterns. But here’s some ideas to get your started.

Background and demographics

  • Region. What part of the country or world does your character come from? Be warned, though, that a bit of regional patois goes a very long way.
  • Role models. What were their parents or guardians like? How did they communicate?
  • Gender and race. These things obviously don’t determine communication styles in their entirety, but it plays a factor.
  • Religion. This can shape not just our way of thinking, our attitudes and beliefs, but also the basic words that come out of our mouths. The other day a day-job coworker was called into our boss’ office. I threw out a casual “be not afraid.” That was my Catholic upbringing shining through.
  • Education. This is a pretty big and pretty obvious one. It effects (not “dictates,” but “effects”) our vocabulary, our grammar, who we quote and how we think. How far did they get in school? What did they study? Is English their second (or third or fourth) language, and if so when in life did they learn it?

Emotions and Personality

  • Confidence level. Confident people tend to say what they mean, delivering complete thoughts. Less confident folks will mumble, break their sentences off. Test the water to see how others react before diving too deeply into a conversation or a point.
  • Mental health/sobriety. Altered minds can lead to altered speech.
  • Emotional state. How composed or out of control is your character, either in general or in that moment? Are they tightly monitoring their words, or blurting out things they know they’ll regret?

Situational factors (Yes, these categories somewhat overlap. Sorry)

  • Relationships. Who are they talking to? What’s their relationship like? How much respect, affection or revulsion do they have for that person? Think of how you talk to your grandmother versus your boss versus your best friend. Think of how Spike in Buffy the Vampire Slayer would talk to Drusilla versus other vampires.
  • Motivations. And in addition to who they’re talking to, what do they want? Are they trying to woo or impress? Are they being duplicitous? Do they honestly care about the conversation, or are their thoughts elsewhere? Are they mainly focused on listening or on talking?
  • Image projection. What kind of image are they trying to give off? Are they trying to dominate the conversation, or trying to fit in? Are they code switching, or trying to pass as educated, as straight, as “just folks?”

I could go on, but those are some ideas to get you started. And here is a very important point: when developing a character, do not just use one of these factors! It is extremely common for even established writers to do this, and painfully obvious when it happens. A character’s entire personality is determined by how well-educated she is, or what part of the country she’s from. But you need to think about a lot of these factors, and think about how they intersect and bounce off of each other. Not just “this character is from rural Kentucky,” but “this character is from rural Kentucky, has a Master’s in Social Work and loves to boss around his coworkers.”

Remember Frasier? That show set up a stark contrast between Frasier, his brother Niles and their father. But the truth is, those three characters had a tremendous amount in common. They all had the same sardonic, biting sense of humor. They were all quick to judge. They were all emotional, volatile, passionate. But those similar factors intersected with different ones: a different educational background. The influence of the Crane boys’ cultured mother, from a young age. A career in psychology vs. law enforcement. The combination of all these things set the characters apart, despite their many similarities. These intersections help you to build a richer, more interesting cast.

But – and this is very important – even after doing all of this work, the results may not be immediately apparent. Good dialogue doesn’t always (or often, in my case) come naturally. Instead it must be crafted, through careful revision, with thought given to each line. It can be tedious sometimes, and fun other times, but either way, it adds tremendously to the strength of your writing, and can help separate the work of a professional from that of a very talented amateur.

Okay, some quick examples. First, watch some Coen Brothers movies; they are absolutely brilliant at giving each of their characters unique voices that tell us a lot about who they are. Here’s a link to a scene from The Big Lebowski. Heads up – there’s a lot of swearing in this.

The Big Lebowski

These three characters all have radically different ways of speaking: The Dude (Bridges)’s speech is fragmented, exasperated. And the more exasperated he gets, the worse he becomes at communicating. He wants life to be simple, and he doesn’t understand why it isn’t. Walter (Goodman) is constantly explaining things to people, outlining reasons and providing lists. He sees the world in a certain way, and much of his communication style is centered around trying to make others see it in the same way. That’s’ what motivates him. He’s also patronizing and mocking, and he swings wildly from emotional outbursts (which he seems to love) to restraint (which he seems to desire). Donnie (Buscemi) is far more even-keeled than either of them, and his speech pattern reveals his natural curiosity about the world (and the fact that he’s not too bright); throughout this scene and most of the movie, the majority of his dialogue comes in the form of a question rather than a statement. And all of these things come across only through the way they talk, even without paying attention to what they’re talking about. They could be having a conversation about politics or their favorite movies or the proper way to make a quiche and it would still come through, because it all stems from character.

That’s obviously an example of extreme differences. But I also want to give an example of characters who are far more similar. So Look at this great scene from The Conversation (you can stop it when Stan leaves):

The Conversation

You have two streams of dialogue going: Harry Caul and Stan, and the couple on the recording. All four characters are using roughly the same level of vocabulary, they're all white New Yorkers, and both couples seem to have about the same level of education. But the differences shine through, in both conversations, and you could tell who's saying what even from a nameless transcript.

See you next week.

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This column is written by Paul Allor. You can find out more about him here.
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