Are You Making These Mistakes in Your Dialogue?

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(Mark Mainolfi) #1

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Mark Mainolfi has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Maryland in English and Creative Writing. He is currently a master’s candidate at Long Island University for Writing and Producing for Television.

Dialogue—it’s that one part of writing that scares the daylight out of most writers. Even the most experienced writers have first drafts of dialogue that are terrible. Luckily, after reading hundreds of short story drafts, and now every week deliberating scripts in a writer’s room, I’ve been able to come up with four of the most common mistakes that young writers make. Here they are:

  • Not realizing that your motivations are different from you characters’
  • Jamming too many words into each line
  • Forgetting how real life works
  • Not letting characters make mistakes

Before we start diving deeper, let’s take a look at an exchange of dialogue that I wrote, trying to make all four of these mistakes.

Frank: Do you really think that will work, John?
John: Do I think this will work? Would I have come all the way here if I wasn’t sure it would work? Trust me, it will work.
Frank: Okay John, I’ll trust you. The only thing that concerns me is that the security matrix is more complicated than we anticipated. Are you going to be able to break through?
John: Of course I’ll be able to break through! This is just like what you do with Anne. You never trust anybody.
Frank: You don’t think I trust people? I trust people. The only reason I sometimes don’t trust Anne is because she has let me down so many times.

If you have ever been forced to sit down and read story drafts, this kind of dialogue is probably all too familiar to you. There are too many words, the characters don’t have their own goals or voice, and everything is way too clean. Now, let’s take a look at how we might start to make this exchange better.

Stop Imposing Your Motivations on Everybody!

If you’re drafting a script, you’ve most likely already outlined the whole thing (at least, I hope so). This is great, because everything you need the scene to do is written down and secure. So now, forget everything you want the scene to do. Instead, you have to see the scene from the perspectives (note: plural) of your characters. Take the above scene. Maybe you want to reveal that Frank has trust issues, or has problems with Anne. Don’t let him get to that so easily! Why isn’t he objecting to the fact that John wants to haggle him about trust issues while they’re pulling off a heist?

Remember, in a scene with two characters, there are two perspectives. They don’t have to even be having the same conversation. John can be going on about trust issues while Frank is babbling about the heist. Your job as a writer is two take these two separate perspectives, and make them organically accomplish what you want the scene to accomplish.

How many words are too many words?

One of the most common mistakes that writers make is to throw too many words into each line. And of course we make that mistake, we’re writers! All we want to do is write words, but that’s not how people speak. Your first instinct on your second draft is to cut down on your word count in your dialogue. And then do it again. When should you stop? Stop right before you betray that character’s voice. Example:

Frank: Okay John, I’ll trust you. The only thing that concerns me is that the security matrix is more complicated than we anticipated. Are you going to be able to break through?
-to-
Frank: The security matrix is more complicated than we anticipated, can you break through?

Is this real life?

I can’t think of a better example about when writer’s forget how real life works than when we write flirting. Let me start by asking you-- do you ever sit around and fantasize about that one celebrity crush you’re obsessing over and how it’ll be if you ever meet them? You’ll be all cool and say something clever, which they will intelligently respond to, and then you throw in that classy pickup line and it’s happily ever after? Guess what—life doesn’t work that way. Real flirting looks more like this:

Roy: Hey, uh… how’s it going?
Kate: I’m good.
Roy: Yeah cool. Me too. So there’s the fall dance.
Kate: Yeah, there’s a fall dance.
Roy: You can go with me… if you want to. It’ll be fun.
Kate: Yeah sure that sounds good.
Roy: Cool, cool. Can’t wait.
Kate: I’ve got class… We’ll text later?
Roy: Cool, cool.

And guess what—that was successful flirting! So often when we want to write a character who successfully flirts with someone, we want to make the whole thing clever and… well, unbelievable. Turns out, people really are just always awkward!

This may seem unimportant, but this is an integral part of engaging with your audience. The more believable, and relatable to their own real life experiences that you can make your dialogue, the easier time you’ll have winning them over.

This works outside of flirting too, it’s all about not turning your scene into exactly what everyone expects it to be. Let the relationship between the characters dictate the pace of the conversation, not what you want the outcome to be. Whether it’s a nervous guy asking out a girl, two successful business partners, a rebellious child and his parents, or whatever else. All conversations are a give and take, it’s not black and white. A flirtatious guy won’t be perfectly smooth and confident, two millionaire businessmen won’t always be a perfect team, and parents disciplining their child won’t always be angry and sure of themselves.

Let Them Mess up!

When two characters are adequately responding to each other all the time, with perfectly logical responses, swiftly getting to a coherent point… it’s usually because some unseen deity is forcing them to. I’m very sorry if I’m the one that has to break this to you, but humans tend not to communicate so well. People are defensive, people like to hear themselves talk, and people often don’t like to listen to what other people are saying.

Let your characters misunderstand something. Let them be lost for words. Remember, they can be trying to talk to each other, but be having completely separate one-sided conversations. Build tension out of confusion and anger. Let people mess up, it shouldn’t be that hard, right? As long as you don’t mess up.

So, with all this knowledge, let’s try to rewrite our scene.

Frank: Do you really think that’ll work?
John: I came all the way here. It’ll work.
Frank: The security matrix is more complicated than we anticipated, can you break through?
John: This again?
Frank: What?
John: You’re all paranoid and everything. Don’t treat me like her.
Frank: Focus. Please.
John: Yup, just like with Anne.
Frank: Is this really the best time to bring this up?
John: You’ve gotta learn to trust in a relationship.
Frank: The matrix John, you need to focus.
John: Yeah yeah, it’s done.


(Herman Wang) #2

Another writing sin that’s easy to avoid is Characters Saying Their Feelings. Instead of “I’m really angry about this!” or “I’m so sad right now”, let the audience figure it out for themselves by what the characters are saying. “He f***ed me over, again!” or “I still keep expecting him to greet me when I come home.”


(Barbara Mc Thomas) #3

There’s a thing in dialogue I call the “As you know, Bob” syndrome. (I think someone else called it that and I just stole it, actually).

Two characters explain a thing they both already know, for the benefit of the audience. “As you know, Bob, today’s my first day at my new job and I’m really nervous.”

“I hear you Fred. You’ve been unemployed for a long time, and owe me a lot of money for rent, so this job is really important to you.”

“Right. And as you also know, I’m really clumsy so I’m worried I will bump into my boss or spill coffee on important papers.”

“That would be bad, since your new boss is really straight laced and doesn’t have a sense of humor, Fred.”

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(Mark Mainolfi) #4

This is true. Various scenes from Star Wars Episode II come to mind.


(Mark Mainolfi) #5

It’s always fun to pay attention to the first line after any commercial break to see examples of this.


(Herman Wang) #6

Some of that dialog is painful