How should characters talk?

A post inspired by 'The Meyerowitz Stories' starring Adam Sandler, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson.

How should characters talk?

Have you ever cringed in a film or a play because the words were forced but blamed it on wooden acting?

It's not uncommon, last year I saw 'Against' starring Ben Whishaw which had a fantastic cast with extraordinary performances but the script was so poor, my dad complained and wanted to leave.

If you are familiar with the work of Oscar-winning screenwriter Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, Steve Jobs, Molly's Game), every film he writes is a masterclass in how to write natural dialogue.

Since the completion of my Gold Arts Award, I have moved on to working on my extended project qualification; for which I'm writing a screenplay. I took a course on FutureLearn which gave links to hundreds of Hollywood scripts.

Here is the link to a script of 'Steve Jobs':

If you read even the first 20 pages, already you know, this is a Sorkin film. Characteristically of his work, Sorkin overlaps dialogue, a technique extensively used in Noah Baumbach's 'The Meyerowitz Stories'. This is ingenius. It is real. Which makes 'Steve Jobs' is an easy watch because of this dialogue as it feels like words we would hear everyday people say and people do talk over each other. Sorkin picks up on the verbal mannerisms of human beings and interprets them in his own way and makes his characters relatable and doesn't use dialogue to just move a story along and force it.

In a talk by Robert Wiersema, a Canadian novelist, he says there are four simple rules for creating dialogue:

1.Dialogue is not conversation.

2.Dialogue is not monologue.

3.Dialogue is focused but not forced. It needs to develop.

4. Dialogue is interactive. A process of exchanging ideas. Creating meaning between the speakers.

Let's explore Number 4 comparing 2 films: Big Hero 6 vs Billy Elliot. Let's take the scene where a parent has died. Which one to you seems forced and which natural?



Oh, what would mom and day say?


I don't know, they're gone, they died when I was 3, remember?



Leave it Billy.

 BILLY (pause):

Mum would allow us.

In my opinion Billy Elliot is more powerful. And more natural. Big Hero 6 underestimates the audience's ability to jump to conclusions or work things out for themselves. Billy Elliot uses subtler writing which makes the scene even more heartbreaking.

'The Meyerowitz Stories' are written by Noah Baumbach and he has a very similar style to Sorkin. But he distinctly has an ear for writing dialogue as it really is, whereas Sorkin writes dialogue as it could be. Going beyond overlapping dialogue to entire lines layering up; it captures the rhythm, pace and tone of a conversation and allows us to see a character's personality through this. If you take a look at the image, two characters are talking about how their lives have changed since they last saw each other. The dialogue sounds like it is written in the image despite the actual script not looking like this. If you're interested in further detail about Baumbach's script and the effect of this scene, check out this video essay.: This scene feels like a dialogue I have had with friends and you may also have had. It is extremely clever.

Realism is the new trend in film right now, audiences are fed up of ridiculous storylines and dialogue. Whether your opinion is that it is too realistic or boring or whether you love this genre; you have to admit it is refreshing.

Film really is the ultimate medium at capturing real life conversations and truth, it's just only a few writers out there are truly exploring its potential.


Gigi Downey

Gigi Downey Contributor

I am a third year actor at Rose Bruford College as well as a director, musician and writer. After completing my Gold Arts Award in February 2018 at 16, I joined my Arts Award organisation Babylon Arts as a steward and duty manager and I've done other teaching and facilitation work as well as working in theatre such as guest experience, bartender, box office admin and on the stage. I'm currently in the United States studying musical theatre and preparing to write a dissertation on, in broad terms, how theatre explores consent and desire.

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  • Luke Taylor

    On 8 March 2018, 10:45 Luke Taylor Contributor commented:

    This is so interesting!!

  • Joanna Bailey

    On 19 March 2018, 18:57 Joanna Bailey Local Reporter commented:

    I've also taken the FutureLearn 'An Introduction to Screenwriting' course a while back now -- and it was incredibly interesting. I wish you all the best in the screenplay you're working on :) Great article!

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