Excel In Your Dialogue Writing By Taking Advantage of Any Situation

It’s Margarita Monday in Northridge, California.

Here I am sitting at the bar…alone, drinking a poorly blended, heavily salted peach margarita and ravenously eating from a big basin of stale tortilla chips.

Hypertension anyone?

It’s the middle of the day, and my only class that so happens to fall on Margarita Monday has been canceled, which means I have no choice but to take full advantage of this inebriated institution.  

I live on campus because it’s the cheapest place I could find while I finish film school, and Margaritas plus Mondays are extremely compatible with abject poverty and the burdens of being a struggling student/artist.

Seated to my left, are two young women.

They both go to Cal State Northridge, which is just a mile up the road from my school. As the two women chat ad nauseam about their lives, one of them looks over at me, checking to see if I’m eavesdropping on their conversation.

I shoot back an angry look, thinking to myself, “I have better things to do than to listen in on your conversation about why one of you is thinking about moving to Chicago to follow your boyfriend.” The other one crying about how bitter cold it is there and both of you whining about dying alone…”

Ok… you got me, I was totally eavesdropping.

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So, I try to play coy for the duration of the sob story, because I’m not just listening to their conversation, I’m jotting down notes and recording every word that freely falls from these two women’s mouths.

You would think actual crumbs littered the floor with the way I was lapping up every other word.

I know I sound like a total creep, and you’re probably wondering why I’m so intrigued. But there is a method to my madness.

After the twosome finish their 2 hour and 35 minute conversation, I get the check and walk back to my apartment.

Without even thinking, like some sort of pre-programmed reflex, I simultaneously open my phone notes and screenwriting software, Final Draft.

It’s time to write… what I just overheard.

This is the secret sauce you’ve been waiting for; and confirmation that I’m really not a stalker but a brazen, aspiring, Hollywood writer.

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Just let me go on public record by saying, I don’t randomly crash Mexican restaurants and oddly listen to random conversations and hijack them for posterity.

The previous week I was given an assignment by my TV Comedy Writing professor to actually listen in on a conversation between total strangers and do some dialogue writing and write a script based on their conversation, verbatim.

At first, I didn’t understand the point of the assignment and to be honest, I thought I had mistakenly signed up for Writing Noir Thriller instead. Nevertheless, two days after (we’ll call it) “Margaritagate”, I showed up in class with my script about two friends, who for the first time in their lives, would be separated by more than just distance.

Well, that’s my version anyway of their story.

The second part of the assignment was to take what had actually happened with the girls and re-write a fictionalized, comedic account with a story arch.

A week later, I had the first ten pages completed of Nomads, a somewhat dramedy about the awkward, yet loveable friendship between two drifters.

I got an “A” on the assignment, but the script never went anywhere. It wasn’t until a year later while writing my senior year thesis script that the purpose of that assignment revealed itself.

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I was writing a comedy about a single father pursuing a career as a chef and needed a strong female character to be the yin to his yang.

Sometimes it’s hard for men to write strong, relatable, three-dimensional female characters. Some say we only write about what we know, and this was the case with me.

We can have a tendency to bring our own stereotypes and biases into the script and more times than I’d like to confess, it just doesn’t read authentic.

You have to know your character and grasp the situation they’re faced with and only then can you find their voice.

I reached back to Nomads and inserted one of the female characters (based on my Margarita-induced eavesdropping) into my script and after just one re-write, I had my first readable screenplay.

I didn’t change anything regarding the existing plot and characters, but the addition of this new, identifiable female character gave the script the balance it needed with bona fide “girl talk” and drew female readers in far more than my previous drafts.  

Here’s an excerpt from Nomads:

INT. BATHROOM – DAY
Monica and Kerry brush their teeth in a dirty mirror. They take turns with a single toothbrush, and a swab of toothpaste. Suddenly the door handle turns, as someone tries to enter.

KERRY
All full here gal!

We hear loud KNOCKING.

MONICA
Take off!

KERRY
Go piss on yourselves!

The knocking ends, and the girls return to their hygiene.

KERRY (CONT’D)
We’re going to need to lift more toiletries before we head down the coast.

MONICA
You don’t get it, do you?

KERRY
Get what?

MONICA
That I’m–

KERRY
A horrible friend, that would leave the person they grew up with because they’re a scared little b–

MONICA
Back up!

KERRY
Yeah I get it.

MONICA
I can’t live like this anymore.

KERRY
And I can’t live without you, so if you go to Chicago, you should know that you’re committing murder Monica!

Now was this luck, or some type of miracle?

Not at all.

The reason why the character became real is because the inspiration for my dialogue writing came from a real world setting. The words she spoke weren’t words that I thought she would say, they were words – lines – that her character would actually deliver because she was based on that perpetual single girl who couldn’t stand the thought of her best friend actually obtaining love.

Things may have not worked out for them, but they most certainly did for me.

Believable dialogue writing is, as I had mentioned, grounded in authenticity and much easier once you learn how to take advantage of the resources surrounding you.

Listen to how your friends, family, strangers, and even how you talk. You’ll need a recorder for the latter but why not capture your next conversation and then analyze how you and your inner-circle communicate?

As you’re writing dialogue, consider if people actually say what’s on their minds, or do they filter their own inner-dialogue based on personality, intention and possible repercussions. I would say the latter. Filtered dialogue is more often believable dialogue, and in a screenplay, your dialogue should never tell the story, or explain things to the audience.

When people talk to each other, they talk in subtext, they cut each other off, they cut themselves off, they speak in slang, mispronounce words, and hide intentions. We’re not robots and even Siri somehow decodes what I really intended on saying.  

When dialogue writing for your characters, ask always yourself this primary question, “Would this character really say that?” If you can’t answer that question with a definitive “yes” or “no,” then it’s time to go back to character development.  Remember, your characters should read as two people that you’ve had the pleasure (or displeasure) of meeting before.

For years, writing believable dialogue was my main priority as a screenwriter because not only is it my favorite aspect of the writing process, but I believe it is the determining factor when distinguishing a good screenplay from a great one.

Writing believable dialogue writing is pretty simple. Study people and listen…listen for the intent between words and then start stripping back the layers to find the true meaning that turns a the flat surface of a script into a recognizable object that we all can grasp and relate to.

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So next time, don’t ignore that “crazy” guy in line at Starbucks, or the “weird” crazy coupon lady holding up the register at the supermarket…because that guy and that lady could be your next unforgettable character in the movie that gives you a screenwriting credit.

Happy eavesdropping… I mean, writing! 

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