I think my biggest writing challenge is creating good dialog that helps define and develop my characters.  How do you approach writing dialog and what methods have you found to be effective to help develop a character’s voice?  Do you read your dialog with someone else, or do you prefer to work it through by yourself?  Do you have specific actors in mind when you write dialog?  How much is changed or influenced during the production process?

–Doug
Orange, CA

Doug wrote “dialog” instead of “dialogue,” which prompted me to look up what the real difference is between these words. It turns out they’re equally valid, though the short version makes me bristle for some reason. I guess I associate it with HyperCard “dialog boxes,” rather than things actual people say.

However you spell it, dialogue is what most people think of when you say screenwriting. It’s certainly the most apparent of all screenwriting attributes; bad dialogue is always noticed.

To me, movie dialogue is what real people would say if they could take a few seconds to think between lines. It’s faster, more direct, with much less filler than normal speech.

There’s actually quite a range to what counts as good movie dialogue. The quippy and clever banter in a romantic comedy would sound terrible in Lord of the Rings, while that movie’s stoic speechifying would be deadly in a modern drama. What matters is that there’s a consistency within the movie. In more than one recent film, I could tell when one screenwriter wrote some lines, and another the rest. It bumps.

The most important thing to keep in mind when writing any dialogue is that someone has to say it. Just because a line looks great on paper, that doesn’t mean it will work in an actor’s mouth. So it’s important to speak it aloud, both as you’re reading it and afterwards. As a rule, I won’t write any line of dialogue without speaking it several times to make sure it flows. Even as I’m typing this answer, I’m talking under my breath to listen for the rhythm of the sentence.

If I know which actor is playing a given role, I certainly tailor the dialogue to suit his strengths — at least as I perceive them. For instance, I did a few days work on The Rundown specifically so I could write things for Christopher Walken to say. A lot of times, you worry about going over-the-top, but with Christopher Walken, there is no top. It’s quite liberating.

You have to expect that some dialogue will change during production. Almost always, the line the actor comes up with will be worse than the one you wrote. But the end result is better than having an actor trying to say a line he really doesn’t feel or understand.