During the pre-production stage of an upcoming video project, I found myself with a question I have come back to time and time again: what can I say? When writing dialogue I have always subscribed to the less is more principle. I generally like characters to speak plainly and be as concise as possible. This works well a lot of the time for simple characters or when I am trying to convey simple information to move the plot along. Where dialogue becomes tricky is when, I don’t know, you want to give a character a distinct voice or make a conversation sound believable. Any time your characters have anything to say that reveals actual emotion or holds something back, you need to be aware of how that character would truly express themselves.
Here are some of the steps I use when writing dialogue.
1. Simply say it. Get it down. What does the character need to say?
2. Action and reaction. Conversations are not a series of soliloquies. In actual conversations, one person will talk and then the other will (hopefully) be listening and processing that information before they reply.
3. Does it sound right? Read the dialogue out loud. Does it sound natural? You will catch a lot of bad dialogue this way.
4. Was it really that simple? What is the subtext? What is the relationship between these two characters? Do the characters know each other, are they meeting for the first time, are they twins? All of this matters.
5. What are they talking about? Does it have to do with a particular field? Jargon between colleagues doesn’t have to be explained amongst themselves. Jargon adds credibility to the characters and the subject matter. At the same time you do not want to go over the head of your audience. Be careful not to go too far one way or the other.
6. What is the situation? You can convey the same information in many different ways depending on the situation. How you would tell someone something during a lazy beach day would be drastically from how you might say the same thing during a medical emergency.
7. Less is more. Can you say the same thing in a more concise way without losing anything? If so, you should.
8. Does it more the story along? If not, lose it. Remember, you are using these characters as a storytelling device. Right?
9. Don’t tell me, show me. This is less of a dialogue tip and more of storytelling tip. Never make your characters explain things that they shouldn’t have to. It’s a crutch. Show me. Television, film, and video are visual mediums. It’s not radio and it’s not print.
These are in no way the definitive rules for writing dialogue. Experts have different opinions on these matters and there are many great books that really dive into the subject. I’m sure that some of the steps I use have come from such books.
I just know a few simple facts. Movies usually have people in them. People tend to talk to each other.
My aim is always to make a every line of dialogue worth hearing.