One of the most challenging aspects of screenwriting is writing dialogue. Ideally, characters should speak like unique individuals, rather than being obviously scripted by the same person. As with any academic subject, however, the theory can often be affronted by practice. So how should characters be given a unique voice in dialogue?
Before this question can be answered, what must first be asked is whether the question is valid – why would you suspect that every character’s dialogue sounds the same? Is unique dialogue not something that happens anyway? If all dialogue is written in the same language, is every line not going to sound inherently similar regardless? The idea that characters’ dialogue is inspired by their personalities isn’t always as true as characters’ personalities inspiring their dialogue. There are some cultural differences that are caused by language barriers – different words are available in different forms, leading to cultures developing different concepts and ideas than cultures that speak another language. Writing dialogue in the same language is a reflection of reality – English-speakers will be able to form the same images in their minds, and at that point, unique dialogue is less significant.So if all dialogue is in the same language, the dialogue will always sound the same in at least some way. What matters is how each character’s dialogue uses the vocabulary available to them in that language. Ultimately, dialogue isn’t even important. Dialogue is just window dressing. In the draft editing stage, the important changes are character decisions, consequences and scene structure. Dialogue only exists to explain those characters’ psychologies to the audience. Generally, I tend to ignore dialogue until after I’ve written it. It’s all in the edit. Another mistake that’s easy to make is the assumption that you understand your characters from the beginning. This is rarely the case. In a three-act structure, the end is the most important, so I often don’t understand who my characters really are until the third act. That means that the first two acts are going to be rewritten anyway, so worrying about what dialogue those characters speak is pointless. Dialogue is one of the only things in written storytelling that is tangible, because the reader cannot enact everything that’s happening, but can say the dialogue. This makes dialogue one of the most commonly-overthought elements of written storytelling. Stop worrying about the dialogue specifically – worry about all of it, but don’t put dialogue on a pedestal that isn’t there.
I will leave with a collected extract of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting:
DIALOGUE is a function of character. If you know your character, your dialogue should flow easily in line with the functioning of the story. But many people worry about their dialogue; it might be awkward and stilted. It probably is. So what? Writing dialogue is a learning process, an act of co-ordination. It gets easier the more you do. It’s okay for the first 60 pages of your first draft to be filled with awkward dialogue. Don’t worry about it. The last 60 pages will be smooth and functional. The more you do, the easier it gets. Then you can go back and smooth out the dialogue in the first part of the screenplay.
Dialogue is related to your character’s need, his hopes and dreams.
It must reveal character. Dialogue must reveal conflicts be-tween and within characters, and dialogue and emotional states and per-sonality quirks of character; dialogue comes out of character.
KNOW YOUR CHARACTER!
At first, your dialogue’s probably not going to be very good.
Remember that dialogue is a function of character.
Your first attempts will probably be stilted, cliched, frag-mented and strained. Writing dialogue is like learning to swim; you’re going to flounder around, but the more you do the easier it gets.
It takes anywhere from 25 to 30 pages before your charac-ters start talking to you. And they do start talking to you. Don’t worry about the dialogue. Just keep writing. Dialogue can always be cleaned up.