Crafting compelling dramatic dialogue is crucial for an effective play. Well-written dialogue can animate your characters, propel your story forward, and engage your audience…or it can cause audience members to secretly check their phones.
Here are some tips to help you write more dramatic dialogue:
1) Give each character a unique voice.
If you cover up the characters’ names in your script, can you still tell whose line is whose?
If not, that’s a sign that you need to work harder to make each characters’ dialogue sound more unique.
Dialogue should sound natural and reflect the character’s background, personality, and current emotional state.
Use things like dialect, jargon, or idiosyncratic phrases to help differentiate characters, but remember not to sacrifice clarity. While you should strive for authenticity, remember that real conversations with their ums, uhs, and non-sequiturs can often be confusing or boring. You’re writing real-sounding dialogue, not transcribing actual speech.
2) Build in subtext.
Subtext is what your characters really mean–but don’t say.
Make a note of every line in your play in which a character says exactly what they mean. Ask yourself if those lines are working hard enough. Can you rewrite them to disguise the character’s true meaning in a more interesting way?
Subtext adds depth to the dialogue, giving audience members the thrill of discovery when they figure out what’s really going on. The most memorable lines often carry significant subtext.
3) Don’t be afraid to inject conflict and tension.
Drama thrives on conflict.
Are there moments in your play in which everyone is getting along just fine, with no tension whatsoever?
If so, look for ways to build conflict through dialogue.
You want your dialogue to echo the tensions, the unsaid, the stakes at hand. You want the audience to feel the undercurrents, the foreshadows of the storm brewing.
4) Be economical.
Each line of dialogue should serve at least one purpose, and preferably two.
Does it reveal character, advance the plot, or provide necessary information?
Don’t feel bad about overwriting in a first draft, but as your play nears its final form, become more and more ruthless in cutting superfluous dialogue.
5) Listen to how people talk.
Pay attention to how people talk in different situations. Watch plays, movies, listen to the dialogues, analyze them, and learn.
Plus, pay attention to the nonverbal aspects of dialogue–the pauses, the silences, the hesitations.
Anytime you hear someone with an especially unique way of speaking, consider using them as inspiration for one of your characters. Many writers write their characters with a specific actor in mind, for instance.
So there you have it! Mastering dramatic dialogue requires practice, feedback, and revision. Keep these tips in mind as you write (and rewrite) to help craft more drama into your dialogue.
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