The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

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  • The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

    For Mother's Day, my daughter bought me the book. A Gentleman In Moscow by Amor Towles. There have been announcements that it's being adapted for a limited TV series starring Kenneth Branaugh. Which makes sense since the story spans 30-plus years. IMDB states it's still in development.

    Though I enjoyed it, the novel may not be for everyone - the author employs a lush, detailed style that echoes back to past centuries in its use of language. However, all of the glowing reviews rave about the richly-drawn characters and dialogue. And, for me, it's the dialogue - differentiated from character to character -- that adds to that richness.

    Since so many iconic films, memorable characters and quotable lines, have been adapted from novels, I have to wonder why I rarely see dialogue given much weight in all the how-to screenwriting advice I've read over the years.

    I think dialogue is a tool that screenwriters can use to more effectively to build individualized, compelling characters. The question is how?

    I stumbled upon an answer when people gave me feedback on my first script. It was an adaptation of my unfinished novel and the exercise was a huge learning experience. There was one rather short scene I created for the script alone: the main character visits her grandfather in the hospital. And I literally transcribed near verbatim a conversation I once had with my grandfather when he was in the hospital.

    Everyone raved about that character, "I love grandpa.- Yet not much else was raved about. It was a head scratcher because, action wise it's a static scene. He's in the bed, she's sitting in a chair beside the bed, and they're talking. Then it hit me - everything one needed to know about who my grandfather was as a person was reflected in how he spoke - his word choices, his point of view, the way his mind works.

    I find the dialogue lacking in some (too many?) of the films and TV shows I watch these days - far too many characters sound alike when they speak. Perhaps it's less important in heavily plot-driven movies but taking the effort to differentiate these characters through dialogue can only be a plus, in my opinion.

    In the midst of the COVID lockdown I was indulging my fascination for true crime documentaries and my teen confessed she finds serial killers really interesting. When I mentioned Silence of the Lambs, she said, "Let's watch it.-

    Since I'd seen the film more than once, I found myself concentrating on the dialogue - especially in the scene when Lector and Clarice first meet. Another static scene, action wise, but it's the dialogue - and how each character's dialogue contrasts the other's - that lets us know who these people are.

    I found a free PDF download of the novel and read that scene. The film boiled down their exchange yet a lot of dialogue was picked up verbatim from the novel. The polished, erudite way Lector speaks, including flashes of his cruelty, establishes the character immediately. Contrasted with Clarice's dialogue style, we know who she is and how she's chosen to interact with Lector. All without any physical action.

    I think the trick is listening to the way people speak - people you know, people you overhear, to catch the differences in cadence and word choices, and then amp it up several notches for the screen.

    I've been an eavesdropper since I was a kid because I find people fascinating and it's amazing how much dialogue material you can gather by listening to people. On occasion, I've used lines I've overheard from strangers in my prose fiction and scripts.

    It's also helps to watch films and shows that excel with dialogue. For me, the series Billions is a prime example. I watch that show mainly because I'm mesmerized by how the dialogue is unique to each character. There are also some political commentator/talking heads who - though I don't agree with their POV on politics - teach me a lot about writing richer dialogue that reflects character.

    Just wanted to throw this out there for discussion. On the topic of dialogue, what say you? (A pun?)
    Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

  • #2
    Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

    Funny I love Billions and Brian K -- but to me it's such a writers show in that every character talks the way Brian and David I assume in real life in that they make pop culture and sports references -- no matter how obscure and everyone gets them. Every one.

    I'm a huge pop culture geek and sometimes I have to look stuff up, yet -- no one is like "What the hell is that?" Maybe once... so it's good dialogue, but also it's the type that I call Sorkin-esque in that it's amazing, but also you notice these things that every character does -- and not their voice -- but this general blanket -- every lead character in this show will make pop culture references.

    In West Wing -- the leads -- almost all of them figure out an issue separately and then they all come running to say "What about X" and they all find a smarter way to say "yup just thought about that." Never a dumb character who doesn't get it. But of course they have their own unique character voices, but there is also this overall creator voice you see in every character if that makes sense.

    Quentin of course has this.

    I mean it's great, but it's also very interesting that way. I'd say it's very hard to have characters sound different when you have a writer with this unique voice and it sort of over powers everything they do.

    Like Diablo Cody Juno is an example.

    I'm probably not making sense, but it makes sense in my dumb head.

    Comment


    • #3
      Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

      sc111: I think hearing different voices for different characters in your head definitely sets writers apart. (Although Sorkin has done well writing one voice for all his characters - I guess if that's what you do, make it an interesting one.)

      I think you're on to the way to do it. Find a model for your characters - be it someone in your life, or interviews with a celebrity, or novels or movies or tv shows or whatever, and try to lock it in.

      Comment


      • #4
        Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

        Bono:

        I understand what you're saying. However, sports analogies and pop references aside, I hear distinct differences in the way Bobby, Wags and Chuck speak. Character-wise, they're all Type A personalities with a killer instinct, but they express themselves differently.

        It's clear Chuck and Bobby are two sides of the same coin. But since Chuck prides himself on his intelligence, his dialogue is infused with all sorts of Ivy League references and wordplay while Bobby, the working class kid who became a billionaire, his dialogue echoes his streetwise roots.

        The irony is -- on a psychological level they're the same guy. They want to win and will show no quarter to their enemies.

        Jeff:

        Agree 100%.

        The only "school" training I had in writing was in prose fiction and poetry. One thing professors said consistently was to observe real life situations, people, conversations, and bring it into our work.

        I recall one assignment where we were required to observe anything -- people in line at a grocery store or at a bank -- then describe what we'd heard and seen in writing. It was a great skill to develop.

        Personally, I have never seen such advice offered by screenwriting gurus or even basic how-to advice on dialogue, specifically, other than, perhaps, "make sure your characters don't sound like the same person" -- yet there isn't much guidance on how one accomplishes that task.

        In the book, On Becoming A Novelist by author James Gardner (not the James Bond author, the lesser known one), he stresses observation should become second nature for a writer. To illustrate this, he relates how, when stopping to assist people in a car accident, he automatically observed how the blood on a head wound trailed down the face, and other details of the accident, even as he was helping the victims. Eerie yet cool.

        I highly recommend his novel Mickelsson's Ghosts (the last he wrote before he died) -- the writing is awesome. It would make a great film, too.
        Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

        Comment


        • #5
          Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

          “Writers—the good ones anyway—are keen observers of human nature and they capture it in their characters and storytelling. They show the behaviors, the thought processes, and the ways people make meaning out of their experiences and events and turn these into provoking entertainment.”— from “ How to Use Psychology to Write Amazing Stories ,” by Joslyn Chase
          “Nothing is what rocks dream about” ― Aristotle

          Comment


          • #6
            Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

            Originally posted by TigerFang View Post
            "Writers-the good ones anyway-are keen observers of human nature and they capture it in their characters and storytelling. They show the behaviors, the thought processes, and the ways people make meaning out of their experiences and events and turn these into provoking entertainment.-- from " How to Use Psychology to Write Amazing Stories ,- by Joslyn Chase
            This reminded me of a comment I heard when eavesdropping at a friend's party. A guy was talking to a woman about something he read in Psychology Today Magazine.

            She responded: "Everything I need to know about psychology I learned from reading novels."

            That impressed me so much I committed it to memory. And when you think about it, people had been writing fiction before Siggy Freud was born.

            Shakespeare, the best example.
            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

            Comment


            • #7
              Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

              Art imitates Life. - "Plato's Theory of Mimesis and Aristotle's Defence-
              “Nothing is what rocks dream about” ― Aristotle

              Comment


              • #8
                Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                Originally posted by sc111 View Post
                Bono:

                I understand what you're saying. However, sports analogies and pop references aside, I hear distinct differences in the way Bobby, Wags and Chuck speak. Character-wise, they're all Type A personalities with a killer instinct, but they express themselves differently.

                It's clear Chuck and Bobby are two sides of the same coin. But since Chuck prides himself on his intelligence, his dialogue is infused with all sorts of Ivy League references and wordplay while Bobby, the working class kid who became a billionaire, his dialogue echoes his streetwise roots.

                The irony is -- on a psychological level they're the same guy. They want to win and will show no quarter to their enemies.

                Jeff:

                Agree 100%.

                The only "school" training I had in writing was in prose fiction and poetry. One thing professors said consistently was to observe real life situations, people, conversations, and bring it into our work.

                I recall one assignment where we were required to observe anything -- people in line at a grocery store or at a bank -- then describe what we'd heard and seen in writing. It was a great skill to develop.

                Personally, I have never seen such advice offered by screenwriting gurus or even basic how-to advice on dialogue, specifically, other than, perhaps, "make sure your characters don't sound like the same person" -- yet there isn't much guidance on how one accomplishes that task.

                In the book, On Becoming A Novelist by author James Gardner (not the James Bond author, the lesser known one), he stresses observation should become second nature for a writer. To illustrate this, he relates how, when stopping to assist people in a car accident, he automatically observed how the blood on a head wound trailed down the face, and other details of the accident, even as he was helping the victims. Eerie yet cool.

                I highly recommend his novel Mickelsson's Ghosts (the last he wrote before he died) -- the writing is awesome. It would make a great film, too.
                Sucking up to Jeff I see. Again. Wait, I'm not Cyfress. My bad. Sorry.

                Comment


                • #9
                  Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                  Long post, sorry-- keep on moving if it's too much.

                  SC111, I think you might like Karl Iglesias' "Writing for Emotional Impact." He speaks to the facets of screenwriting outside structure alone. Maybe you're already familiar with his book.

                  General comments....
                  Listening and recalling dialogue can be a great way to give color to the way a character speaks, but the writer KNOWING a character is what results in good dialogue. Using that character's specific lens, filter, POV, perspective, is when and where, good dialogue is written.

                  Listening provides an immediate "surface" expression to the WAY a character speaks which can enrich characterization on the page. But it's the deeper motivation and world view in a character that reveals who they are, and more importantly what they want, imo.

                  Character can be revealed by what they do and do not say as much as by their physical actions and choices.CONFLICT.The differences in us create conflict, and conflict advances story in a more interesting way. Conflict can be, but is not always, fighting. Many times it is about the differences in values, experiences, wounds, and world views.

                  Hiding truth below the surface is a defense mechanism, a way to keep emotional pain at bay. Defining what one character would say and differentiating that from another character with a different background, is a technique to make character dialogue unique.

                  For example. Three young women.

                  -- One is the daughter of a Baptist preacher who grew up in the bible belt.
                  -- One is the daughter of a hipster marijuana farm owner out west.
                  -- One is an urban city girl from NYC

                  You can well imagine the different ways these women might speak, right? From dialects and regional aspects to speed and cadence. They probably all believe in equal rights and equal pay for women, right? Sure, so their on the same page most of the time and this is where they connect.

                  Where they're from sets up some expectations in the readers mind. We form assumptions, sometimes unfairly, about who these women are until we learn more about them through their actions, the way they speak, and what they choose to reveal through dialogue and action. We can imagine which might be pro life and which might be pro choice, but we don't really know until they speak or react to the topic.

                  It's not just about how a character responds, it's also about whether they respond. These are all tools we can use to amplify dialogue to have deeper meaning.

                  But let's say one of them was violently raped their first year at university. We don't know which one. Their conversation turns to abortion and a woman's right to choose. Or a conversation about dealing with depression and mental health?

                  This is where you can reveal a lot about a character. Where you can subvert assumptions and expectations. Where you can surprise the audience and use the conversation to build up to a story revelation in an interesting and entertaining way.

                  Imagine one character saying, "They must be lying, why would they wait ten years to come out and report they were raped?" Can you imagine that they might feel differently?

                  Or let's say the topic is assisted suicide? If one character watched their mother suffer for months until she was a skeletal shell of the person she once knew-- that woman's POV might be different in respect to assisted suicide than a woman who has never experienced watching someone they love suffer.

                  It's not only experiences but traits that separate us and skew our POV and our dialogue. Think about pitting a disorganized, fly by the seat of you pants type up against an OCD neat freak. A priest and an atheist. A die hard southern gun owner and a father whose child was murdered at Sandy Hook. A person who has nothing and a person that has everything.

                  The key is that you don't have to know everything about your characters, you just have to KNOW the RIGHT stuff about your characters to create interesting, compelling characters.

                  Okay, rant done. I've gone on far too long. Sorry.
                  "Reserving rights to comment and make changes."
                  Hollywood producer

                  Comment


                  • #10
                    Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                    Also these boards have many distinct voices. I think if given just the text I could guess the poster handle/name. At least top posters.

                    So I like to write characters with the actor in mind or real life person. In real life most people talk in specific ways that you notice. But getting that on paper just using your own voice in your head is very hard. So cheat.

                    Comment


                    • #11
                      Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                      Originally posted by sc111 View Post
                      On the topic of dialogue, what say you? (A pun?)
                      No, not a pun. Sorry, carry on.
                      Know this: I'm a lazy amateur, so trust not a word what I write.
                      "The ugly can be beautiful. The pretty, never." ~ Oscar Wilde

                      Comment


                      • #12
                        Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        Long post, sorry-- keep on moving if it's too much.

                        SC111, I think you might like Karl Iglesias' "Writing for Emotional Impact." He speaks to the facets of screenwriting outside structure alone. Maybe you're already familiar with his book.
                        I'll check it out.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        General comments....
                        Listening and recalling dialogue can be a great way to give color to the way a character speaks, but the writer KNOWING a character is what results in good dialogue. Using that character's specific lens, filter, POV, perspective, is when and where, good dialogue is written.
                        I don't disagree with any of this and I certainly wasn't saying giving color is all one has to do. To clarify, of course it's crucial for the writer to know a character's point of view -- what they say -- and their back story experiences -- why they say it. I'm adding a factor: how they say it. And the only way to effectively develop how they say it is to first have a strong sense of the what and the why.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        Listening provides an immediate "surface" expression to the WAY a character speaks which can enrich characterization on the page. But it's the deeper motivation and world view in a character that reveals who they are, and more importantly what they want, imo.

                        Character can be revealed by what they do and do not say as much as by their physical actions and choices.
                        Again -- you're referencing what they say and why they say it and, yes, what they want must be fused in as well. Yet a writer can hit all of those benchmarks with two characters going back and forth yet still end up with dialogue that sounds similar: like one person having a debate with himself/herself.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        CONFLICT.The differences in us create conflict, and conflict advances story in a more interesting way. Conflict can be, but is not always, fighting. Many times it is about the differences in values, experiences, wounds, and world views.

                        Hiding truth below the surface is a defense mechanism, a way to keep emotional pain at bay. Defining what one character would say and differentiating that from another character with a different background, is a technique to make character dialogue unique.
                        Don't disagree with any of this either. I'm sorry if I gave the impression that suggesting listening to how people talk is all one has to do to write good dialogue.

                        However, using this Lector verses Clarice scene as an example: a less skilled writer could establish all of the same conflict you describe -- including the snipe about her shoes and bag -- without refining how Lector said it.

                        The way it was written (in both the novel and film) it's as if he's a snake weaving in and out of their discussion -- politely, seemingly harmless -- then he suddenly strikes, fangs bared. That's the "how" I'm talking about. It has nothing to to do with Lector's background or regional accent.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post

                        For example. Three young women.

                        -- One is the daughter of a Baptist preacher who grew up in the bible belt.
                        -- One is the daughter of a hipster marijuana farm owner out west.
                        -- One is an urban city girl from NYC

                        You can well imagine the different ways these women might speak, right? From dialects and regional aspects to speed and cadence.
                        Again, I'm not talking about this type of regional differentiation. One can do that but it's a bit of a cheat in my opinion.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post

                        They probably all believe in equal rights and equal pay for women, right? Sure, so their on the same page most of the time and this is where they connect.

                        Where they're from sets up some expectations in the readers mind. We form assumptions, sometimes unfairly, about who these women are until we learn more about them through their actions, the way they speak, and what they choose to reveal through dialogue and action. We can imagine which might be pro life and which might be pro choice, but we don't really know until they speak or react to the topic.

                        It's not just about how a character responds, it's also about whether they respond. These are all tools we can use to amplify dialogue to have deeper meaning.

                        But let's say one of them was violently raped their first year at university. We don't know which one. Their conversation turns to abortion and a woman's right to choose. Or a conversation about dealing with depression and mental health?

                        This is where you can reveal a lot about a character. Where you can subvert assumptions and expectations. Where you can surprise the audience and use the conversation to build up to a story revelation in an interesting and entertaining way.

                        Imagine one character saying, "They must be lying, why would they wait ten years to come out and report they were raped?" Can you imagine that they might feel differently?
                        Again, I don't disagree with any of this. However, what if all three of these young women were from NYC and had the same fast-taking delivery and regional accent?

                        Real life example: my best friend and I are both born and raised in Queens NY yet we hold different positions on some topics. We have the same regional accent yet when we debate our points of view, we express ourselves differently because -- setting similarities aside -- we're still different people.


                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        Or let's say the topic is assisted suicide? If one character watched their mother suffer for months until she was a skeletal shell of the person she once knew-- that woman's POV might be different in respect to assisted suicide than a woman who has never experienced watching someone they love suffer.

                        It's not only experiences but traits that separate us and skew our POV and our dialogue.
                        Re boldface: Now you're touching on my point! And a person's traits extend beyond regional accents or even life experiences. As evidenced by two siblings from the same family who -- other than their accent -- evolve into two totally different people who present differently.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        Think about pitting a disorganized, fly by the seat of you pants type up against an OCD neat freak. A priest and an atheist. A die hard southern gun owner and a father whose child was murdered at Sandy Hook. A person who has nothing and a person that has everything.
                        I hate to be a pain in the butt -- again -- I think that's a cheat way to differentiate characters. It's pitting stereotypes against one another.

                        Lector or Clarice were not stereotypes in any way.

                        Originally posted by finalact4 View Post
                        The key is that you don't have to know everything about your characters, you just have to KNOW the RIGHT stuff about your characters to create interesting, compelling characters.

                        Okay, rant done. I've gone on far too long. Sorry.
                        I like rants.
                        Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

                        Comment


                        • #13
                          Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                          Dialogue is something that will separate you from 90% of the scripts out there. It's worth investing time into mastering it.

                          As far as how, I think it's clear by your posts you already have all the information you need. Time to execute theory.

                          Comment


                          • #14
                            Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                            we all believe that what we've written will somehow reveal the Canterville ghost, but objectively we need to understand that we are creating something new and devoid of anything from the past...

                            the dialog should be pertinent of the character and that's what most gurus are relating to the protege writer elites

                            all discretionary point aside--

                            We all know good dialog when we hear it, it's affects us emotionally, it promotes change, creates criticism... most important, it's what the audience wishes they could say in that situation...

                            are you relying on the setup and situation to dictate characters to the audience? the dialog should come from that prebuilt conflict and reveal characterization

                            Example:
                            A father tells his wife that he's going to down to the car dealership where the man that's dating his daughter works. He's never met him and his daughter is not prone to bring him around because of some drama that recently occurred, but he wants to know for himself. Now the audience is going to feel a certain way, based on previous scenes, and want the father to confront the boyfriend, this allows to you have a dramatic scene with the important dialog that the audience wants to hear.
                            Ricky Slade: Listen to me, I intentionally make this gun look that way because I am smart.

                            Comment


                            • #15
                              Re: The Use of Dialogue in Character Development

                              Originally posted by Julysses View Post
                              we all believe that what we've written will somehow reveal the Canterville ghost, but objectively we need to understand that we are creating something new and devoid of anything from the past...

                              the dialog should be pertinent of the character and that's what most gurus are relating to the protege writer elites

                              all discretionary point aside--

                              We all know good dialog when we hear it, it's affects us emotionally, it promotes change, creates criticism... most important, it's what the audience wishes they could say in that situation...

                              are you relying on the setup and situation to dictate characters to the audience? the dialog should come from that prebuilt conflict and reveal characterization

                              Example:
                              Your example would be a cool exercise. Depending on the genre, the father lurking the daughter's boyfriend could be written several different ways.
                              Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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