Monday, March 7, 2011

Reader Question - Dialogue differentiation

Max has a question about dialogue:

I was wondering if you have any thoughts on differentiating dialogue between characters. As a new screenwriter, I don't mind trying to distinguish the "voice" of characters who have very different backgrounds, but I struggle on this issue when the characters are similar to each other. Obviously differentiation just for the sake of differentiation would be a bigger debacle, but in the good scripts you've read, how do they handle this?

I think giving them contrasting points of view helps. Ideally there'll be some conflict in the scene and that will be how you find a way to differentiate the two. The more developed your characters are as people, the more different their dialogue will naturally sound.

Take a look at Seinfeld. George and Jerry are close friends. They grew up together, they share a lot of the same interests and they're both vaguely Jewish. What makes their dialogue different? Attitude. Jerry is far more likely to toss off some dry insult or throwaway snide comment. Told of George's latest antics while working for the Yankees, Jerry says, "That's a helluva an organization they're running over there. I can't imagine why they haven't won a pennant in years." Can you see the same line of dialogue coming out of George's mouth?

How would George express frustration or contempt for that situation? He'd probably just say: "Can you believe this? No WONDER they can't win a pennant!"

Both Jerry and George often say exactly what they think. The difference is that Jerry masks his feelings with sarcasm, where as George will either lay it out there or lie outright in the furtherance of some larger scheme.

Another good example - The Vampire Diaries. Stefan and Damon are both vampires, they both hail from the same era, and to a large extant you could argue they both love Elena in their own way. However, despite the similar backgrounds, they are completely different people. Stefan is more internal and thoughtful. He chooses his words more carefully and rarely goes on the attack in a conversation, save for talking to his brother. Damon, on the other hand, is all about throwing verbal daggers. On top of that, he tries very hard to make it appear that he doesn't give a rat's ass about whatever's being discussed, even when it's clear he does.

Good dialogue comes from point of view, and THAT comes from character. Work that out and you should be fine.


  1. I recently watched the film Juno, and while I enjoyed it, particularly for the twist in character archetypes, I was dismayed that they ALL sounded exactly the same. There is no way every single person would have such an intelligent witty way of expressing themselves, even in the same family.

  2. The family does have very similar dialogue in Juno. I remember that being the odd thing for me when Juno's mother lashes out on the Ultrasound Technician. She just didn't seem like the type of person that would share Juno's wit especially since they aren't even biological.

    But, I think the rest of the people are very different. Juno's friend Leah doesn't speak like Juno at all despite them being in the same grade, into many of the same things and being close friends. And then there's Bleeker. He's in another verbal world.

    That's how I saw it, at least.

  3. Several pros I have discourses with find this very helpful. Maybe you will too.