Dialogue & Character: Watch, Listen, Learn

By Ron Moskovitz · October 27, 2011

My past two articles have focused on detailed study of the craft displayed by successful films, but today we’re going to explore two difference exercises to help you improve your characterization. While it’s vitally important that you study successful films and read screenplays in order to develop your screenwriting skills, ultimately, you also have to step away from the movie screen and take a look at real life to take your writing to the next level. Today we’re going to discuss two exercises to improve your characters’ dialogue and characterization.

A lot of students struggle to give their characters unique voices. Their characters all speak in the same patterns, and use the same words. Often, they mimic the voice of the writer.  Alternatively, some developing screenwriters borrow voices from their favorite filmmakers, which makes their work derivative. In either case, the similarity of the characters undercuts our ability to connect with them.

A good way to work on this is to go to a crowded public place – a local coffee shop works great – and eavesdrop. To internalize what you’re listening to, you should write down what you hear people saying. Now here’s the key: you need to write down what they’re saying exactly as they say it and not as you would say it if you were saying the same thing.

If you’re like a lot of students, you’ll find you have a tendency to re-phrase things into the way that you would say them. Don’t! Notice that you’re doing this, but make yourself write down what they’re saying exactly the way they’re saying it. (And it may feel pedantic, but you really do have to write it down to get the benefit of this exercise. Something about the process of writing the words down internalizes the differences).

You may struggle to keep up with their conversation, and that’s okay. You’re not training to be a stenographer. You’re training to hear the subtle differences in the way people speak.

You’ll probably discover that there are dozens of natural ways to say even the simplest things. We all pick different words. And by training your ear in this way, you’ll have a much broader palette to draw from when it comes time to put words in your character’s mouths.

Now, a word of warning. When you do this exercise, you’re going to hear a lot of dialogue that doesn’t work as movie dialogue. You’ll hear people hem and haw, say “um” a lot, backtrack and double back over themselves. When writing dialogue, you’ll want to trim all of that out. Good movie dialogue is tighter than real speech. The ums and ahs aren’t the important part of this exercise – the different word choice and phrasing patterns are.

And while you’re at a coffee shop, here’s another exercise for you. This one’s all about honing your observation skills.

Spend some time watching the people around you. You’re goal is to figure out what you can learn about them from what you see them doing or wearing. Make little storylines in your head about them, for example:

“Those college students studying by the corner. He’s hoping to impress her, but she’s just trying to learn the material.”

“That guy studying alone wishes he were part of the group hanging out at the other table.”

“The older woman at that table is a professor, and the others are all her students.”

It doesn’t matter so much that you’re right – after all, you’ll probably never know – rather, the object is to identify the clues that help you build the story in your head. What about the way they’re dressed, about the way they relate to each other, about where they place their attention, or about any other details that tells you things about who they are and what they do.

You’re building up a library of little details, which you will pepper gently into your scripts, making your characters seem fully alive. When readers see a smart, sharp detail that reveals character, they instantly perk up. They start to think you might have original ideas in your script.

More importantly, they start to trust you.

But you can’t shortcut these things. You have to practice observing people and listening to how people actually talk, and over time those details will begin to seep into your writing. So start today. Do these exercises and see what you discover.