Episode Five

In this episode of "The Wonderful World of Writing," published playwright and award winning screenwriter, Laura Cotton, discusses the third part of how to successfully begin your novel or screenplay.

Experimenting with dialogue is an excellent way to start your writing project. However, writing effective dialogue is not easy. Think about all the people that you know. Everyone speaks differently. There are three basic factors which influence the way a character communicates: the character's background (age, sex, demographics, education, social status, cultural background, and religious beliefs), the situation the character encounters, and to whom your character is speaking.

When you are writing dialogue, you must first consider your character's background. If your character is a college professor, he or she will speak in a manner very different from a teenager. If your character is a New York businessman, he will speak differently than a Parisian housemaid. Thus, a knowledge of your character's background is crucial to writing realistic dialogue.

The situation your character encounters should also influence the way that he or she talks. For instance, a woman who has been waiting in line for hours at an amusement park would not talk to her children the same way she would if she were at home, enjoying a leisurely afternoon. A man who has just been fired from his job would not speak to his wife the same way he would if he just received a promotion.

Lastly, the person to whom your character is speaking should influence the way he or she communicates. A character who is a teacher would not talk to her class the same way she would speak to her best friend. A mother would not speak to her child the same way she would talk to her therapist.

Writing effective dialogue takes time and practice. Below are some exercises that will help you improve your skills and enable you to successfully begin your writing project.
1) Become a dialogue spy.
Beginning writers often do not realize that each of their characters need to sound unique and different from every other character. You need to make sure that all of your characters have a unique voice – both in what they say and in the way that they say it.

Take a pad of paper or your laptop and go to a place where you can easily hear other people’s conversations. Consider going to a mall, a sports event, a concert, or a café. Sit close near someone who is talking loudly to someone else. Write down what both speakers are saying, doing your best to record exactly what is being said. Make sure you are discreet so that they are not aware of what you are doing! Then try this with another set of speakers. Try to obtain at least three conversations before you go home.
Once you are at home, review your notes. Choose the conversation that you think is most interesting and imagine a story that could come out of it. Who are the characters? What are they really talking about? Remember, sometimes what people say is not reflective of what they really want. Sometimes people are just saying what they think other people want them to say or they are afraid to speak their minds.
2) Rewrite conversations that you have had.  
Think of an important conversation you had recently. Now imagine what would happen if you responded to what the other person said in a completely different way. How do you think the person you were talking to would react? Would he or she have gotten upset? What would the resulting consequences be? How would the relationship between you and this person change?
As an extra part of this exercise, see if you can turn the conversation into an argument about something else. For instance, if you write a dialogue between about a time you were discussing your son’s homework with his teacher, see if you can turn the conversation into a conversation about politics.
3) Create a Conflict Chart. 
When you are prewriting based on dialogue, it is helpful to start in the middle of a significant moment in your story. However, if you have no idea where to start or even what you want to write about, then creating a conflict chart can be helpful.

To create a conflict chart, divide a piece of paper into 3 columns – a topic column, an argument column and a worst time column. In the topic column, create a list of topics. In the argument column, write down an argument that could arise over that topic. In the worst time column, write down what you think would be the worst time to have this argument.
Here is an example of a conflict chart.
Topic                                  Conflict/Argument                                                    Worst Time
Marriage                            Guy wants to get married,                                          Right before their
                                           Girl doesn’t.                                                               trip to Hawaii.
Moving                               Divorced father has to move away                             On his oldest child’s
                                           from his children or his new job.                                 birthday.
A party                              Parents find out that their teenager                             Right after his parents  
                                          had a party while they were away.                              bought him a new car.
4) Write a monologue
One of the best ways to improve your ability to write dialogue is to read plays. Plays are primarily stories about relationships and the way various characters interact with each other. A monologue is a fantastic way to get into the mind of your characters and explore both the way that they talk and the way that they see the world. To write a monologue, imagine your character telling a story about something that recently happened to him or her and what their reaction was. Remember, this is just your character’s view of what happened – it might not be what actually occurred. Now try to tell the same story from another character’s point of view. How are the stories different? On what points do they agree?
Keep in mind that monologues aren’t usually long so try to tell this story in a few paragraphs or a single page.
Assignment Five:
Choose one of these prewriting exercises and try it out with your own story. When you are working on these, try not to worry too much about plot or setting or anything else. Just focus on listening to your character’s voices.