I started off my writing journey with prose, only starting to write plays when I had to for a class. I found it nearly impossible at first, since I was so used to being able to convey messages through prose and through dialogue, writing scripts felt like writing with one hand behind my back. Though it took me a while (and many failed drafts) to get the hang of it, script writing has become one of my favorite mediums. I thought that I would share some of the tips that have helped me along in my journey into scriptwriting. These tips work if you’re writing for stage, screen, or even podcasts!
This is a piece of advice that a lot of people give, and for good reason. The best place to start honing your dialogue skills is to listen to real life conversations. Listen anywhere, on the bus, at school, in a café, anywhere you can hear people talk. You don’t have to write stuff down if you don’t want to, but just listen and pay attention to the way people talk. What do they say, and how do they say it? How does their manner of speaking change depending on their relationship to the person they’re speaking with? Observe everything. If you feel uncomfortable listening in on other people’s conversations, at least take note of your own. Not only what you say, but what people say to you.
So, listening in to other people’s conversations is just the first step of the learning process. Dialogue in plays/film tends to be slightly different from dialogue in real life. In real life, conversations tend to meander, filled with small talk, tangents, or nonlinear subjects. In script, conversations are usually a little more direct, with most pieces of dialogue serving a purpose. Often a lot tends to be cut out of a script, since it doesn’t push the plot, and to be honest, it isn’t always that interesting. So, watch movies, plays, listen to radio shows, even read books and pay attention to how the dialogue is written, and how it pushes the story along.
Research, Research, Research
Now I’m not saying that you need to become a full-fledged sociolinguist, but doing some research into the speech patterns and slang of your character’s social group can really improve your writing. It’s important to take into account age, region, education, and class. For example, a twelve-year-old girl and a sixty-year-old man typically wouldn’t use the same slang phrases, and a posh, prep-school educated person from England and a public school educated person in rural America will have the same accent or speech patterns. (In addition to this, take into account who someone’s family and friend’s are — people usually pick up on each other's speech patterns and phrases!).
This is especially important if you are writing anything set in the past, even ten years ago. The way people talked in the 1920s will vary greatly from the 1940s, or the 1700s, or the 2000s. It’s important to get to know how people talked in the past if you’re going to be writing about them. What were some popular slang phrases? What references were relevant? What social etiquette rules had to be maintained? Try immersing yourself not only in non-fiction, but also in works of fiction created during this period of time, it will often help broaden your understanding and make it feel more like second nature.
Don’t Fear the Soliloquy!
A soliloquy is similar to a monologue, but it’s where a person shares their deepest, innermost thoughts and feelings, usually directly to the audience, without a care of who’s with them. In film this can be done with a voiceover. Used sparingly, the soliloquy can be a good way to establish a bit of exposition, so that you don’t have to do it awkwardly through dialogue. It’s also a great way to learn a character’s deepest feelings, something that they might not be able to convey in the dialogue.
Work With the Elephant in the Room
With a soliloquy/monologue, or even earlier dialogue, establish your conflict, something that is difficult and uncomfortable for your characters. Don’t be afraid to work with the discomfort, have characters dance around things, leave certain things unsaid. When writing dialogue, the things that go unspoken are just as important as the lines themselves. You can tell a lot about a person and their situation through what they choose to leave out of conversations.
is a young writer from Ottawa, Canada. When he isn’t in school, he enjoys reading, writing, crochet, and playing with his two cats. Their favourite genres are horror and fantasy, and they enjoy all things strange. You can find him on Instagram at @nate_fahmi.