For me, the hardest part about being a screenwriter, besides actually getting my words on the screen, has always been getting the right dialogue. Screenplays are not that difficult to write, just ask anyone that has never written one, but writing a screenplay and writing a good screenplay are completely different.
The key to good dialogue is to separate yourself from the character you’re writing about. If your character is a southern aristocrat, you don’t want her to sound like a 35-year-old Midwestern pauper. Yeah, I’m a writer, so I’m a pauper.
Where a person is born and the events that have shaped their lives, from education to personal interactions, have a major influence on how a person talks. A person that grew up in opulence and has an ivy league education has a different way of speaking than the guy who left school at the age of 15 to raise crops on the farm.
If your character is a highly educated scientist who has spent his life alone with only his books and research, then how would he respond to “Do you believe in love?”
“Love! Love is a chemical reaction and nothing more. There’s no magic or little naked cherubs with arrows aiming for my rear end. Talk to me about love when I become a doddering, old fool, sitting in the park and watching the birds.
Now, if you asked the same question of someone who has lived life and experienced love and loss, the response may look more like this.
“Her name was Sarah. She was at the county fair down in Gypsum, showing off her prize winning cucumbers and eggplants. I’ve never seen anyone so beautiful. That afternoon we shared corn dogs under the bleachers, and I stole my first kiss while the crowd cheered overhead. Oh yes, I believe in love and hope to find it again some day.”
Experience shapes the way we feel, and how we feel shapes how we react to questions and conversations. The answer to “Do you believe in love?” might be very different for a woman that has been beaten by her husband for 30 years. A man who’s been happily married for 20 years will most likely give completely different answers from a man who’s had a miserable marriage for 20 years.
If you want to create dialogue that is believable, then you need to know as much as you can about the characters. You need to go beyond the confines of the storyline and actually map out the character’s lives. You need to know why your antagonist talks down to women or why your hero becomes evasive when talking about his past.
When you know how your character feels and what has transpired throughout his life, then you will know and understand how he talks and reacts to questions and conversations. Without it, the dialogue can become flat because it’s coming from your perspective and not theirs.