What Are Your Characters NOT Saying?

Many writers have trouble writing dialogue. One reason is that they rely on dialogue to dump information on the audience. This results in stilted, unnatural dialogue that sounds like two people vomiting up information rather than actually engaging in a conversation.

Besides dumping exposition on the audience, a second reason writers have trouble writing dialogue is that their dialogue is “on the nose”, which means characters say exactly what they’re thinking, which is unnatural and unrealistic.

In real life and in drama, characters rarely say exactly what they’re thinking. Instead, they often talk about a subject before slowing getting to the point they want to make.

Rather than think of what characters want to say, write dialogue that appears to be anything BUT what the character actually wants to say. Imagine a man and woman meeting in a restaurant. If they’re excited to see each other and in love, they might be hesitate to come right out and tell each other, “I love you.”

Instead, it’s more likely the couple will talk about the weather, their work, the traffic, or anything but actually revealing their true feelings for each other. As an exercise, write dialogue between two passionate lovers who aren’t sure their love will be returned by the other person. Then have them talk about the weather while secretly hinting about their love for each other.

When you can write dialogue that on the surface appears to be about one thing but underneath is really about something else, that’s the subtext you need when writing every scene in your screenplay.

Don’t make characters say exactly what’s on their mind. Have characters say anything BUT what they want to say. With this simple shift, your dialogue will suddenly feel more vivid and alive because of this hidden context behind it.

Now imagine a man and a woman meeting in a restaurant, but this time both are preparing to tell the other they want a divorce. They might talk about the weather, the traffic, their jobs, but ultimately they want to get to the point, which is to say they want a divorce.

Write this dialogue and notice that even though your characters might be talking about the weather, the subtext behind this dialogue is far different than when both people are madly in love but too afraid to show it too soon.

So write dialogue about the weather between a man and a woman who are madly in love with each other but too afraid to show their true feelings.

Then write dialogue about the weather but this time make it between a man and a woman who want to divorce each other.

Notice even though the dialogue about the weather might be the same, the subtext drastically changes the tone. That’s what your own dialogue should be like in your screenplays.

If your dialogue lacks subtext, rewrite it until you know exactly what your characters want to say, then make sure they don’t say it right away. When you force your characters to say anything but what they really want to say, you’ll be surprised at how intriguing their dialogue can suddenly feel and sound.

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