How To Write Naturalistic Dialogue
February 25, 2023
If it’s one thing I’ve seen aspiring screenwriters struggle with most over the years, it’s how to write naturalistic dialogue. Oftentimes their scripts might have good ideas or memorable sequences, but when the characters speak, their dialogue comes across as perfunctory or even stilted. Not only is dialogue one of the primary means of showcasing a writer’s voice and individuality, naturalistic dialogue helps the reader to invest in the reality of the world you’re creating in your screenplay, and the more invested the reader is in this reality, the more emotionally resonating their reading experience will be.
But how does a writer make their dialogue more naturalistic?
First off, listen to the people in your life. How do they speak in certain situations? How do they express themselves when they’re happy or when they’re angry? Also listen to people when you’re in public. Whether it’s a social outing or running an errand, take in the fragments of conversations around you. Take note of how people speak to each other. When you’re a writer, no conversation should be ignored, even if it’s just for a fleeting moment. Think of your brain as a database and always be collecting data for later use. You’ll start to pick up on common traits of how people speak to each other, and you’ll be able to discern naturalistic from stilted dialogue in films.
In real life people don’t speak in perfectly rendered and well-orchestrated soliloquies. Not in most cases anyway. The way we converse with others can vary depending on whom we’re speaking to: if we speak to a employer or authority figure, we’ll be more restrained and selective with our words; if we speak with a friend or family member, we’ll be looser and less selective. Real-life conversations are also sometimes messy and awkward. How many times have you said the wrong thing at the wrong time? How many times did you regret not saying the right thing? Some people even stammer or trip over their words. Our emotions can take over as well, pushing us to become boorish or even vulgar. We’ll talk over each other; shout over each other. Obviously this doesn’t make for good communication, but it’s an honest human flaw. We don’t have screenwriters constructing and penning our words.
From Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network) to Jesse Armstrong and his talented writing staff (Succession), the rhythm and intricacies of human language is often at the forefront of acclaimed dialogue. A writer doesn’t acquire this skill from simply watching movies; once again, they listen to people and how they really speak. They know how people will subtly make a suggestion or evade a pointed question. It’s not always what the character says, but sometimes what they don’t say. The subtext behind their words is another important element; in Succession, nearly half of the exchanges are subtextual. The characters are always jockeying for a more significant position in the Roy family dynasty and very seldom reveal their true agenda to each other (at least not until the big season finale reveal and cliffhanger).
In real life, we’re not always direct with people; we dance around harsh or uncomfortable truths. In a lot of the scripts I’ve read from aspiring screenwriters, there is very little or no subtext at all; the characters often speak too literally and sometimes even telegraph their character arc or the script’s themes. When you talk to someone, do you often telegraph your feelings or your life’s trajectory? Think of the times in which you harbored resentment towards someone, but you didn’t want to address it directly in fear of some potential fallout. Or perhaps you’ve dealt with a passive-aggressive partner, family member or coworker? Many times in life, people mask their feelings, but picking up on subtext gives you a clue to what’s really going on. If you reflect this in certain exchanges in your script, you’ll not only be creating more naturalistic dialogue, you’ll be adding more tension and intrigue.
Of course not all people are subtle and indirect when they speak. Screenwriters like Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) and Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas) dealt largely with working-class or underworld characters who rarely mince words. They often say exactly what’s on their mind, but in a fiery and passionate manner, so it never feels too expository. It also feels true to the characters. This is another thing writers should take into account if they’re trying to make their dialogue more naturalistic: we don’t all talk the same. Yet, in many screenplays I’ve read from aspiring screenwriters, the characters all sound alike regardless of their age, class, background, etc. Not only does this make for a monotonous read, none of the characters distinguish themselves. A writer should think of themselves as an acting ensemble; they’re playing every role in the script and should create a clear voice for each character.
This can sometimes make the difference between a solid screenplay and an exceptional one. For example, Dan O’Bannon’s original draft for Alien (1979), did a great job of establishing the futuristic world, some of the film’s most memorable set-pieces, and the overall mythos, but the Nostromo crew spoke without much distinction and came across as stock Sci-Fi characters. After Walter Hill’s rewrite of the script, however, suddenly the Nostromo crew spoke with far more distinction and a working-class earthiness that made them more relatable. Because of this, Alien ended up being more grounded than a typical Sci-Fi horror film and it has stood the test of time as a film audiences become emotionally invested in; you care about the Nostromo crew as they’re stalked by the Xenomorph because they seem like real people; and they seem like real people because they talk like real people.
Ultimately your goal is emotional investment from the reader. Whether it’s a gritty crime drama or a fantasy adventure, the more people believe in the reality of your world, the greater the emotional investment will be, which will lead to a better read. Naturalistic dialogue is one way to achieve this. It’ll also demonstrate an important skillset and — even if your spec script doesn’t sell — it could lead to you being considered for assignment jobs, including rewrites and polishes.
So the next time you write a line of dialogue, ask yourself:
Does it sound like how this person would really talk?
Written by: Edwin CannistraciEdwin Cannistraci is a professional screenwriter. His comedy specs PIERRE PIERRE and O’GUNN both sold with more than one A-list actor and director attached. In addition, he’s successfully pitched feature scripts, TV pilots and has landed various assignment jobs for Universal, Warner Bros, Paramount and Disney.