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Tap Into Your Characters Through Dialogue

Dallas Nicole Woodburn -- January 8, 2009

One of my good friends is an aspiring director, and I recently decided to convert one of my stories into a short movie script. I already had the basic plot, the characters, the action -- piece of cake, right? Um ... not quite.

When writing a movie script, you have to convey all of your characters's feelings and thoughts through their body language and dialogue. For example, in my short story I can tell the reader how my main character feels by writing, "Maria was angry at John." In my script, however, I have to show Maria's anger through her words.

This requires me to really know my characters and have an idea how they will react in different situations. Maybe Maria, normally a very talkative, vivacious person, becomes quiet and curt when she is angry, only answering John with one-word sentences. Or maybe she is the type of person who pretends that everything is okay, but then something small, like John forgetting to take out the trash, causes her to blow over in a wave of emotion: "John, you never do anything I ask you to!" Then again, perhaps Maria prefers open confrontation, and tells John from the get-go that she is upset at him. Which leads to the next question: how does John react to this? Is he defensive, surprised, apologetic, angry himself?

Ah, now I'm getting somewhere. Now I have the beginnings of a movie script: a story told through dialogue.

Even if you're not an aspiring screenwriter, next time you go to the movies, pay attention to how the writers use dialogue to move the story along and give you insights into the characters. Think of your favorite movie -- why do you love it above all others? For me, at least, it's because I am intrigued by the characters, which in turn makes me interested in what happens to them. And how do I "know" the characters? Through what they say -- and also what they don't say. Yes, it's also important to pay attention to the silences, the breaks in dialogue, the little pauses and awkward moments -- often these are what hint at deeper truths underneath the characters's words. Going back to our earlier example, if John asks Maria, "Are you angry at me?" and Maria pauses a moment before saying, "No," it gives us a clue that she is merely pretending everything is fine, when really she is still angry at him.

Feeling adventurous? Think of two characters from a movie, put them in a room together, and write down what they say. What would Captain Jack Sparrow and Shrek think of each other? Superman and the Seven Dwarves? Napoleon Dynamite and Legally Blonde's Elle Woods?

Dialogue is a powerful tool -- use it to give voice and personality to your characters. And, in turn, your characters give voice to your themes and ideas as a writer!

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