Are writers born with a special gift for writing dialogue? Does having an “ear for dialogue” really exist? Some people say there are writers that simply possess a knack for writing dialogue in the same way a basketball player is blessed with height, like winning a genetic lottery or a quirk of fate.
Writing good dialogue is not a gift that some receive and some do not. Do some writers naturally appear to write better dialogue? Yes. Does it come more easily to them and not to others? Perhaps. But this is not because they have something others never will. It can be learned.
Remembering How People Speak
Writing good dialogue is an act of memory. The way our characters speak resembles people we know. When faced with a scene, good writers try to recall similar things that have happened to them in the past. Bad writers might recall what they heard a character say on a television show or a movie.
Often times, we don’t remember where we heard something. We might not think we have even heard it at all. But when we use our life experiences, we write good dialogue.
Why is dialogue bad? Usually, people don’t like dialogue when it doesn’t sound natural. When a character speaks in a way we don’t find realistic, we stop emotionally identifying with the story. We don’t recognize our life experiences. And if characters speak in ways we don’t believe, we ultimately will not care about the story. The dialogue is “bad” because it pushes the audience away from the story.
How does a writer come to write dialogue that sounds awkward coming out of a character’s mouth? Often times, writers write based on dialogue they have seen in other movies. And perhaps the writer of that movie wrote their own dialogue based on memories of certain movies. Essentially, a copy of a copy.
Write Good Dialogue Now!
What’s the quickest way to get away from writing dialogue derived from your memory of another writer’s dialogue?
- Write a monologue of what you would say to someone you resent. Is there anything you want to get off your chest? What would you say to that person? Take ten minutes and write this. Read it out loud.
- Write a letter to someone you want to apologize to. Take ten more minutes. Read it out loud.
- Write a speech telling someone you love something you’ve always wanted to say, or might want to say again. Read it out loud.
These exercises force you to listen to your own words. And because it’s your voice, the dialogue will be authentic. But this is you, not your characters. How does this translate into writing dialogue for your characters?
Hearing How People Speak
We hear people speak every day. So we know what authentic speech sounds like, but why doesn’t this always translate to good dialogue?
Because often times, it’s painful. We don’t want to remember. Were we even paying attention? Maybe we didn’t want to.
Consider this. To write good dialogue is to fluently express our human experiences. If we have no intimacy with our own lives, we will often take the easy way out and just copy dialogue from things we’ve watched before. But to write good dialogue is to recall our life experiences: painful, joyous or something in between.
Writing is a personal process. Our expertise in character and story comes from our lives. Look to your own experiences and try to see if you can remember exactly what happened and what was said. From there, begin the conversation.