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How To Improve Your Characters' Dialogue

By Marilyn Horowitz

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Most of the writers I work with struggle with dialogue at some point in the writing process. Here's one way to improve your craft fast.

In most American films the characters speak in their own version of the English language, which reflects the special world they live in. Within that world, each character's speech is unique, as he or she uses words and references specific not only to the general arena of the script, but also to their upbringing, education and intellectual interests. The most primary source of how people speak is what they first heard, usually what was said at home.

One of the things that I work on as a coach when trying to help other writers improve their dialogue is to explore this aspect of their characters' backgrounds.

In The Godfather, Michael's speech is always somewhat formal as if English were not his first language. He sounds very much like his father, who first spoke in Italian. If you look at the film again, notice the similarities not only in content but also in word choice and arrangement. There is no doubt that Michael is his "father's son", in more ways than one!

Another example is in the film, Moonstruck, where both father and daughter respond to verbal confrontations by saying, "I don't want to talk about it," and later in the movie, the mother tells the daughter, "you're just like your father."

So, the one key question to ask yourself is: How did my character's parents speak and how did that affect my character's speech?

How to do the exercise:

Step 1: Set a timer for fifteen minutes.

Step 2: Writing as if you are your main character or the obstacle or villain, write continuously about childhood experiences such as favorite and least favorite meal and clothes, first pet, first school day, first bike, birth of siblings, etc.

Step 3: When you're done, take a highlighter and note any unusual or repetitive words or phrases.

Step 4: Write a brief description of the first time the character ever heard that special word or phrase, keeping the example from Moonstruck in mind. For example, if that were your character, you would write about when the first time she ever heard her father say, "I don't want to talk about it."

Doing this exercise will open your imagination to other conversations in the early life of your characters, and will help you improve your characters’ dialogue right away.

About Marilyn Horowitz

Marilyn Horowitz is an award-winning New York University professor, author, producer, and Manhattan-based writing consultant, who works with successful novelists, produced screenwriters, and award-winning filmmakers. She has a passion for helping novices get started. Since 1998 she has taught thousands of aspiring screenwriters to complete a feature length screenplay using her method. She is also a judge for the Fulbright Scholarship Program for film and media students. In 2004 she received the coveted New York University Award for Teaching Excellence.

Professor Horowitz has created a revolutionary system that yields a new, more effective way of writing. She is the author of six books that help the writer learn her trademarked writing system, including editions for college, high school, and middle school. The college version is a required text at New York University and the University of California, Long Beach.

Professor Horowitz has written several feature-length screenplays. Her production credits include the feature films And Then Came Love (2007). Her new novel, The Book of Zev is available on Amazon.

Screenwriting Article by Marilyn Horowitz

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