Create Dialogue… From the Outside In by Jackie Blain
Who doesn’t have trouble with dialogue, at least some of the time? It seems like some writers are just born with an ear while the rest of us work hard to develop ours. It used to be that we could go to coffee shops and listen to/make notes about the conversations going on around us, but coffee shops have become the new study hall, and conversations happen via text.
So what’s a writer to do?
One thing we do know is that the best dialogue grows out of character: the way a person talks is a product of their history, their environment, their work, education, family, etc. So we often resort to writing long biographies of our characters largely out of a desperate need to figure out how they sound.
It’s a good impulse, but even then, we often find our characters in our first drafts all sound alike… and they all sound like us!
Actors, of course, have the same problem when they approach a character. Who is this person, and how do they really sound? Many actors start with the bio, then ask “what’s happening to this person now and how do I show that?” Inside-out, if you will.
However, the stage-trained British actors I’ve worked with tell me they’re schooled to work from the outside in. Ian McKellen once said he had no idea how to approach Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. After all, we don’t have a lot of wizards walking around so there’s no way to interview one and do research. But when he put on the hat and the beard and picked up the staff… he had it! Outside-in.
This exercise works just like that (by the way, have fun with it!):
Part one: Create a character
- Pick one hat and one pair of shoes from the picture, and create a character from them. Think about who would wear such a combination: what they do, where they’re from, what their education has been, what their attitude toward life is, what their disappointments have been, what dreams they have, etc.
- Write for 12 minutes, creating a bio for that person so that you get to know them as well as you can.
Part two: Create a two-person dialogue scene
- The two people are 1) the character that you’ve just created… and 2) you! Yes. You.
- The first line is “Is there a problem?” It doesn’t matter which of the two says it.
- Write a complete scene with beginning, middle, and end.
- This is dialogue-centric, so eliminate as much description as you can.
Part three: Get a friend and read it out loud
- Actually, it’s best to get two friends so that you can simply listen.
- Give the friend who’s reading your character some information on who that character is, and what hat and shoe combination you used.
- Now read and/or listen. What do you hear? Do the characters sound alike? Does the character sound the way you thought they would? What worked? What didn’t?
A last word – obviously, since you’ve been having fun with this exercise, your character was probably pretty extreme, so writing character-specific dialogue wasn’t all that hard. But the lesson is the same whether you’re writing The Hulk or a young woman frightened by the night – characters are revealed by their actions, but their words give us our first path into who they are underneath. It’s up to us to give them the dignity of their individuality and to let that individuality shine through how they talk.
Have you ever had issues writing dialogue? Do you have any tricks up your own sleeve?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jackie Blain is a writer, screenwriter, writing teacher and member of the Writers Guild of America who works with dedicated screenwriters and filmmakers to make their work the best it can be… and remember that they got into this writing thing because of passion and fun. She lives in Brooklyn NY with two cats who, she suspects, hate the heat and wish they were still in Oregon. More about Jackie Blain’s courses, consultations, and evaluation services for screenwriters and filmmakers here.