Film & TV

Writing Authentic Dialogue

Shonda Rhimes

Lesson time 8:47 min

Shonda shares her tips on how to write realistic and engaging dialogue for your characters.

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Shonda Rhimes
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Well, dialogue is almost everything. I think what a character says and what a character does not say tells you everything you need to know when you're watching something. And so when you're writing something, you really want to be careful about the words you choose. I think a lot of people get lazy about what they let a character say or what they let a character not say. I think that Breaking Bad had some of the best dialogue I've ever seen. I always say the "I am the one who knocks" speech might be one of the best things I've seen in a, long, long, long time. It's lovely. There are wonderful moments in a lot of things. I think there are some shows that I think you should watch for the moments when characters don't say anything. I'm very excited right now about shows where there are scenes in which everything is conveyed but no one has said a word. That might be why I like The Crown so much right now. The West Wing was fantastic with language you really understood the characters based on how smart they were with their language. There's a lot of really good stuff out there right now. I mean, I think you should just watch a bunch of different shows and see how they use dialogue. And pay attention to what feels real and what feels stilted. Pay attention to those moments when you think, my god, everyone's telling me exactly how they feel instead of showing me. And see how that engages you or disengages you from a show. [MUSIC PLAYING] I try really hard to think of my dialogue as being the conversations that real people have. Even more of louder Shakespearean, bigger characters that I have, they speak in a way that those kinds of people would speak, I suppose. A Cyrus Bean who has lots to say, or a Papa Pope, who has more than enough to say. For them, the characterizations of what they say, that's real for them. And then everybody else, I really just try to make it seem like people are having conversations. The kind you would overhear someone having if you were hiding in a closet in their house or something. I think you have to-- if you are looking to make your dialogue sound authentic, if you want your dialogue to have a real quality that doesn't feel cliched or what I call "TV talk." I'm always saying that sounds like TV. If you don't want it to sound like TV, really listen to the conversations of people around you. Become an eavesdropper, just do it. First of all, it's incredibly fun. But second of all, you'll start to hear how people talk. People don't talk in complete sentences, people don't always know exactly what they're going to say, people use the wrong words, people drop out, people talk over one another. And people say some really crazy stuff sometimes. Nobody says all the perfect things at all the perfect times. And when you've heard dialogue before, it's a cliche already. Anything you've ever heard anybody say i...


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This class is not only practical but it is also intellectually challenging enough to inspire one both to think and, more importantly, to write. Thanks

I have learned so much from this class. Being able to go back to the lessons as many times as you need is very helpful. Best thing I have ever done. I have a better understanding on how to write for television and confidence that I can.

The part on series was esp valuable. I've learned a lot plus had some of my ideas validated.

She really breaks down the meaning of her statements, which helps me tremendously.


Comments

EK T.

I am glad Ms. Rhimes addressed the issue of actors wanting to change the dialogue. "I wouldn't tell you how to act. Don't tell me how to write." It is a pain staking process to put together the words in your script.

EK T.

Hand down, the one lesson that cannot be taught. Interesting information though.

Graeme R.

Shonda Rhimes is undoubtedly magnificent, although she may have had some young Miranda Bailey moments in her own youth. What sets her apart in this master class is the deep thought and preparation she has done. It may be entirely true to her character, but it is all our good fortune, and I, for one, feel so grateful.

PAOLO I.

Very precious Lesson! It helps me a lot to think about how to approach dialogues in order to feel them really natural. Thanks Shonda!!

Toni H.

I am the one who writes . . . Will watch Breaking Bad for that speech. Thank you, Shonda. I loved how Shonda clarified and validated the job of the writer and the job of the actor in this lesson. Several years ago, I belonged to the Actors and Screenwriters Assembly. Once a month, actors walked on stage and cold read scenes from submitted writers. This was extrememly helpful for the actor and the writer. Another activity - I would pick a specific resturant that embodied the atmosphere, theme, and personalities of my characters, then I would eat alone and listen to conversations around me.​ Dialogue keeps me up at nights talking in my sleep.

Tsakani 'tk'

So I absolutely loved the notes she gave on Actors and Dialogue. I am a script supervisor and I constantly find myself having to discuss with actors why and how they would want to change dialogue that they have been given. Their argument usually being, "My character would never say something like this." I have found this process to be disrespectful to the writer in assuming that they do not understand the character as well as the actor does. So to choose to edit work, that has been approved by so many other people, when the writer is not on set to defend themselves or approve the changes, is just wrong. So yes I think collaboration and back and forth engaging of dialogue between writer and actor is good and healthy, however I thoroughly agree with Shonda on the fact that, " So while I will never tell you how to act, you will never tell me how to write."

Jonathan S.

In every scene, ask: what do my characters want? They all want something; to be trusted, to get an object or a favor, to be loved, to get even, to be left alone. People very rarely tell the whole truth about anything. They have an agenda, and they need to protect things. Think of detective shows where the cops have to keep going back to people who don't tell the whole truth, not because they're guilty of the crime, but because they've done something they shouldn't have, and it will come out if they tell the truth. I've been with my girlfriend for 18 years, and there's a lot of sub-text that I know very little about. A big thing with her is not to hurt anyone's feelings. A lot of people are that way and won't say what they mean. Use that knowledge when you write dialog.

Gilda B.

Great advice. I need more practice writing dialogue, that shows my characters' personalities in detail, rather than on the surface dialogue. Thanks, Ms. Rhimes.

Donna S.

Great advice for writing dialogue. I usually do pretty well when my characters are having a "normal" conversations. Or if a character in a "professional" field is speaking to a "regular" person--for example if a doctor is speaking to a patient, then I can throw in some general terms people understand, and I keep the conversation short. I also probably would avoid having my main character be a doctor and would check with a doctor if I needed to have a more in-depth conversation take place. Usually I keep my conversations with professionals be in fields I am more familiar with, such as administrative assistants or teaching. I have listened to conversations, but usually pull out a book so it doesn't look like I am listening!

Ryan L.

One of the best shows ever for knowing when to not use dialogue (at least in the first season before the network interference started) was Joan of Arcadia. There are tons of scenes where the characters' facial expressions tell you everything you need, and the writers were smart enough to know that and not force dialogue in. I absolutely try to make dialogue sound naturalistic, and my pre-readers all said it was the best part so apparently it worked, even if it was also the hardest for me to feel like I got it right. So that's a big boost for my confidence going forward.