A Pocket Guide to Writing Dialogue

Pocket Guides

We often get a lot of queries about writing dialogue and creating authentic voices. James Fritz has written this brilliant pocket guide on how you can master this skill with some brilliant recommendations! 

I think it’s important to set out right from the start – there is no one way to write ‘good’ dialogue. It can be fast paced and sparse, or incredibly poetic. It can consist of wall-to-wall witticisms or be no more a series of grunts. It doesn’t have to be beautiful to be effective.

What’s more – the idea of ‘good dialogue’ is completely subjective. One person’s great dialogue can feel clunky or false to someone else’s ear. With that in mind, instead of trying to stick to a prescribed formula I often think best thing that I think we, as writers, can do, is ask ourselves the following questions:

Question One: What world is this?

Writers often talk a lot about dialogue that ‘sounds right’. For me, that’s not always about making it sound as much like real-world speech as possible (although that can sometimes be a useful exercise).

That’s because the characters in my play don’t exist in the real world – they exist in their world, and the way that they speak should feel right for that world, not ours.

The characters in The West Wing speak completely different to the characters in The Wire who speak different to the characters in a Caryl Churchill play who speak different to the characters in Succession. All of these writers write great dialogue, because their dialogue feels right for each of those worlds.

You don’t have many tools at your disposal to build the world of your story on the page – characters’ shared language, and the way they use that language, is one of the most important. A few opening lines can tell us that a drama will be comedic, or tragic, or naturalistic, or set in the USA, or in the past, or on an alien planet.

The world of your play – and the form that world takes on the page  – should inform the dialogue you write as much as anything else.

Question Two: Who is the character and who are they talking to?

Once the world – and the tone – of your dialogue has been established, it’s time to think about who is speaking.

The way that a character talks tells us so much about who they are. When writing a character’s dialogue think about what you want to demonstrate about them.

What’s their level of education? Where were they born? Where were they raised? Are they the sort of person that speaks before they think? Do they tell jokes? Do they use few words to say a lot or a lot of words to say very little? Are they prone to exaggeration?

Of course dialogue, by definition, is about more than one person speaking. So now turn to the other person in the scene. Ask the same questions, and then think about how the answers for the second character – and the potential similarities and differences – might affect the way that the first character speaks to them.

In my play Lava¸ the main character Vin is mute. He is in every scene but doesn’t have any lines of dialogue. To compensate for this, I made his best friend Rach incredibly talkative – she won’t use one word when six will do. This contrast helps drive the play, and makes Vin’s mutism feel much more pronounced – and lonely – than if he shared the stage with someone who said very little.

Question Three: How is each character’s voice unique?

The great writer and teacher Stephen Jeffreys had an exercise that I’ve started to use in all my writing. When he finished writing a scene, he would cover up the characters names along the margin and see if he could tell the difference between them from their dialogue alone. If he couldn’t he would go back and and make sure that each of their distinctive voices came through.

Every person on the planet has their own totally unique relationship to language – it is like our fingerprints, or dental records. People might speak similarly, use the same phrases and idioms, but no two people have the exact same rhythm, same syntax, same pauses.

The same should go for your characters. Even if you have five characters, of similar type, from similar backgrounds, each of those five will use the same linguistic tools in subtly different ways.

Giving your characters unique voices helps add texture and depth to your dialogue, and can make a scene and a world feel properly lived in.

Question Four: What is this dialogue doing?

Dialogue is often described as ‘The things characters say to each other in a drama’

Which, to me, is not quite right. Rather I think it’s better to think of it as:

‘The moments when characters use words to do something in a drama’.

I find that keeping this distinction in mind as I’m writing helps me to keep my dialogue clear and effective. It particularly helps me during rewrites – why is this character saying this, now? Why am I making my audience listen to it?

Conflict helps. Writing a scene where your characters disagree with each other is often far easier to make interesting than one in which they are getting along famously.

But your characters don’t have to be in conflict to create good dialogue. They just have to be telling us something: about themselves, about their relationship, about the world of the play or film, about the story. Moving the audience’s experience forward in some way.

Each line of dialogue in your play must be doing something. It must be there for a reason.

It’s not enough to have your characters sit around and have a witty conversation, or tell a story of what they had for breakfast. That breakfast story has to be doing something to someone else: another character, or the audience, or – ideally -both.

I have cut some of my favourite lines down the years because, as much as I loved the turn of phrase or the anecdote – it wasn’t affecting anything.

Question Five: What is the rhythm of the scene?

Finally, the most unquantifiable, and yet perhaps the most important question.

There is a wonderful feeling that can sometimes happen when you are writing a scene, where it feels like your characters are taking over from you – that they are speaking independently, and your fingers are struggling to keep up. That feeling, to me, is all about rhythm. Like a great piece of music, every word just feels right, just feels like it is propelling the scene forward naturally without feeling forced. When you find this feeling – trust it.

Conflict, context, character – all of these things are incredibly important and should be paid attention to. But sometimes, sometimes, it’s great to just write a line just because it feels great. It’s in these moments that great dialogue stops being purely functional and start to feel musical.

So, trust in the rhythm of your dialogue. Relax and let the characters do the heavy lifting. If something feels like it belongs, it probably does.

 What to read/watch next

For more insight on writing dialogue, do check out the below…

  • Stephen Jeffreys’ book Playwriting is a brilliant resource, and has some incredible exercises and tips for writing great dialogue.

  • Watch The Gilmore Girls. Seriously. I might just be saying this because it’s been one of my lockdown binges but take any scene in the Gilmore Girls and watch how much has attention has been paid not just to character, story and exposition but also to rhythm and musicality, and the world of the show. Nobody talks in real life like they do in The Gilmore Girls, but it doesn’t matter. The scenes are so satisfying to watch.

  • The first scene of Orphans by Dennis Kelly is a fantastic example of how information and exposition can be parsed out in great dialogue.

  • The Beauty Queen Of Leenane by Martin McDonagh, and particularly the opening, is one of the best examples of how dialogue can be used set up two characters, what their relationship is and what matters to them within a few pages.

  • If you want to see how dialogue can be used to build a whole world and take you back in time, go read The Welkin by Lucy Kirkwood.

  • The Bruntwood Prize website – https://www.writeaplay.co.uk– has an incredible resource of building blocks on how to write a play, including a great one on character, journey and dialogue by Rachel Delahay.

 James Fritz is a multi-award-winning writer from South London, whose plays for stage and radio include Four Minutes Twelve Seconds, Parliament Square, Ross & Rachel, Start Swimming, The Fall, Comment Is Free, Death of A Cosmonaut, Lava and Eight Point Nine Nine. He has won the Critics Circle Theatre Award for Most Promising Playwright, a Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting and the Imison and Tinniswood BBC Audio Drama Awards, the first time a writer has won both in the same year.

Published 9 December 2020