On Writing Dialogue

One of my favorite things to do when I’m rewatching movies and tv shows (such as we’re currently doing with Star Wars: Rebels) is to listen to the dialogue. When I watch something for the first time, I’m usually paying more attention to how the plot is unfolding than I am with what’s being said, so I may miss out on a few clues here and there. But that’s okay…the repeated watching is where I pay more attention.

Part of that is because I now know what’s going to happen in the plot. This gives me more time to listen to the nuances of the dialogue. A character that might hint that they’re not who they seem. A line reading that might have been mundane at first listen, but reveals a major clue to a scene that happens later on, maybe even two or three chapters or episodes (or even a full season!) from that point.

Another part of that is I get to listen to the word choice and the delivery, and how it makes each character unique. As with SW:Rebels, Kanan is often gruff, conservative and overly anxious, especially towards Ezra. Ezra, on the other hand, goes through an interesting metamorphosis from a plucky and erratic kid to a cranky and highly irritable teenager. And my all-time favorite character from the show, the pirate Hondo Ohnaka, has a quick and often hilarious wit that keeps everyone slightly off-course:

It took me several years to figure out how to write dialogue correctly. As with most young writers just starting out, I tended to imprint my own voice and mannerisms onto every character, which meant that there were far too many me-isms like bad puns, music references and wild shifting of subjects. It took me some time to realize I was doing it the wrong way: what I had to do was figure out who that particular character was and make their words unique to them.

Now? It’s one of my favorite parts of writing projects and exercises. One fun 750Words exercise of mine is to tell a short story that consists only of dialogue without any dialogue tags. This forces me to think about the story in a different way: how to evoke action and emotion only using someone’s words. Things like word choice, the flow of the dialogue and the delivery are shifted front and center.

When writing Diwa and Kaffi, I knew that each character had to have a unique voice, not only because they’re different in certain ways, but because they’re all different beings. The human Diwa is part Filipino and slips into Tagalog whenever he’s emotional or with his family. The dragon-like tintrite Kaffi speaks in slow, measured sentences but eases up considerably when he talks with Diwa. The bird/reptilian-like Anna-Nassi is often relentlessly happy and often talks too loud. The psychic-vampire Cole talks quietly but his sentences get choppy when he gets anxious or overexcited.

I wanted to let the characters tell me who they were, and I let a lot of these dialogue tics and come naturally. I would give them just a few rules: Cole, for instance, suffers from a kind of syndrome that occasionally affects his energy consumption and retention. A flare-up would cause his speech patterns to seize up. This, in turn, would inform the direction and the pacing of the plot arcs; Cole’s personal arc in this story becomes his learning how to work past this physical handicap, alone and with the help of his friends.

This is the reason why writing dialogue is so much fun for me: I get to learn who these characters are, quite often without any planning ahead of time. In turn, they give me insight on how they would react when I place them in certain situations important to the overall story arc. I’m always pleasantly surprised when this happens, because it makes the story unique, sometimes unexpectedly so.

2 thoughts on “On Writing Dialogue”

  1. Hi. This is an interesting post. As a writer, I often get distracted and/or annoyed because I can figure out plotlines and twists in movies, but you put a different spin on that ability (or hazard of our trade). Instead, I can focus on other things, like dialogue. Great idea.

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