When it comes to creating a unique character voice, everything I know about human interaction seems to fly out the window. Sometimes, I don’t even know how I would say something, let alone how the fictional people that exist only in my head would say it.
As someone who reads a lot of scripts, I can tell you that this is a common problem. It’s easy to write the bulk of a screenplay and then realize all too late that every one of your characters sounds exactly the same. Or, worse yet, exactly like you.
It can also be difficult to find the line between explanation and subtext. The focus is often on getting the entire plot out onto the page that it’s easy to forget that character voices – what they say and how they say it – are what bring them to life and make them real to our audiences.
There’s a tool on WriterDuet that helps with this: the Dialogue Filter. I’d never used this before writing this post, but I honestly wish I had found it sooner.
WriterDuet’s Dialogue Filter allows you to isolate specific characters’ dialogue in your screenplay. With it, you can choose to view individual dialogue lines to make sure they’re consistent, realistic, engaging and unique. You can use it to track character development, too: does your protagonist start out meek and learn to assert themselves by the end of your screenplay? The Dialogue Filter will let you follow this trajectory and see exactly where changes should take place.
I found that viewing dialogue out of context in this way tricked my brain into thinking I was reading my script for the first time. I was able to find every instance where a character blurted out verbatim what they were thinking, or what was happening in the story, and fix it without having to comb through the entirety of the screenplay.
Take the below example of a dialogue exchange between two people. It feels very two dimensional; the characters’ voices are essentially the same and aren’t conveying tone so much as explaining exactly what’s going on and how they feel.
If we filter the dialogue down to Sabrina, we notice that she over-explains what’s happening, which doesn’t allow viewers to use critical thinking. This makes the exchange boring to witness.
Now, let’s isolate Jessica’s dialogue. Everything she says is reactionary – she has no substance or personality because, like Sabrina, she over-explains everything she’s thinking. There’s no tension and the characters feel interchangeable.
Now, I’m going to write the scene with specific character voices: I’ve decided Sabrina is a bit of a brat, because she’s excited about her birthday, while Jessica is more withholding and cynical. This creates a better friendship dynamic between the two, as their personalities are conflicting, and allows their dialogue to feel more realistic. Note that subtext is also used here to make viewers connect the dots themselves; when Sabrina is explicit about their relationship at the end, her sarcasm makes it feel organic. In the first draft, it felt forced.
The Dialogue Filter is a simple, but helpful, tool. It’s so easy to implement it into your everyday writing process. With it, you can double-check your dialogue for your own peace of mind and ensure it’s tactful in its ambiguity (or lack thereof). Let your characters’ voices speak for themselves!
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