“You clearly don’t know who you’re talking to, so let me clue you in. I am not in danger, Skyler. I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot, and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks.” — Walter White, Breaking Bad, Season 4, episode 06.
There are a million different ways to write effective dialogue. You can choose to write something precise and intense like Vince Gilligan writing Walter White’s above quote, mumblecore à la the Duplass Brothers, or overly verbose intelligent teenagers like Dawson Leary. What all of these voices have in common is they’re distinct and memorable. So how do you get there? You start by casting your characters before you go off to shoot, when the words are just being put on the page.
A great way to learn how to write great dialogue is to spec an existing show. Not only is this because the characters are established, but it’s also because you are writing to specific actors. These are actors you’ve seen on screen—their voices, speech patterns, catchphrases, mannerisms, bad habits, and wardrobe are all at your disposal. Use them. Feel what it’s like to write to specific actors so you know what it feels like to nail it in your own pilot. When choosing what show to spec, pick one that’s similar to the pilot you’d like to write in terms of humor, time period, and network. Doing this will help you nail down the tone of your own pilot later on.. After you’ve gotten the hang of this in a spec, it’s time to write your pilot.
Choose any actor you like, and imagine them saying something you think is funny. For example, would it not be hilarious to hear Ted Danson give you directions to his favorite IHOP? Or Jane Lynch to discuss why she doesn’t trust zookeepers? The key to creating specific characters is writing to specific voices. The reader isn’t going to know you wrote to Mr. Danson or Ms. Lynch, but they will notice all those verbal ticks and turn of phrases and feel that you’ve created a fully realized character.
Ted Hanson and Kristen Bell in Michael Schur‘s The Good Place
And I’m not talking about with the camera. Your characters should have a clear view on the world, have convictions about things they’d never do, and opinions on everything as small as why they love kitschy salt and pepper shakers and as large as why they resent their grandparents. In The Office, we know how Michael Scott feels about his HR rep, Toby Flenderson; we know that it’s difficult for Pam Beesly to tell people how she feels; and we know that Kelly Kapoor is in love with Ryan Howard. Let your characters tell you how they feel.
Casting Marilyn Monroe to explain the theory of relativity would be bizarre, unless it’s for an absurdist adultswim animated science comedy. Then that would be very, very cool. Who wouldn’t want to watch that? But most of what you write will not be absurdist science cartoons, so it’s important that match up your casting with the content you’re creating and its intended audience.
I’m not saying you should avoid being like Charlie Kaufman, but rather that you should avoid the issue his protagonist Michael Stone faces in Anomolisa: every character he meets sounds the same. His anxiety comes from being unable to differentiate from one character’s voice to the next. This gives me anxiety, too. It happens when your voice and point of view start to crowd out your characters’ unique point of views. A super easy way to get off the track of only hearing your voice is to cast your characters! You might use “um” and “like” to make your dialogue sound more like yourself, but would someone as intense as John Malkovich use filler? Probably not! Get out of your head and into John Malkovich’s. Charlie Kaufman paragraph over.
Think about Friends. They have the idealist, the Lothario, the rich girl, the neat freak, the jokester, and whatever Ross was. If you are using these archetypes, the next step is subverting smaller expectations about them. For example, let’s say you use the Friends template. Take the Lothario archetype, and make them an older waitress. Expectations in scripts for older waitresses tend to make them curmudgeonly. Instead, it would be more memorable to make her a Lothario waitress who loves her job. Can’t get enough of it. Maybe she even picks up patrons. The best part is, there’s no wrong choice.
David Thewlis voicing Michael Stone in Charlie Kaufman’s Anomalisa
Whether ‘tis nobler in the script…you get it. This is all to ask if Friends would be as iconic without Joey saying “How you doin’?” or Big Bang Theory as memorable without Sheldon saying “Bazinga!” Probably, but the key here is in their specific, tailored-to-each-character dialogue. Their dialogue, with or without their fun catchphrases, are distinctive enough that you can tell a Joey line from a Sheldon line without seeing their names on the page. The goal should be to have characters embody a signature catchphrase that they don’t always have to verbalize. Joey Tribiani embodies a how you doin’ mindset with how he talks to people, picks up women, and his general air. Sheldon Cooper embodies a bazinga mindset with his clever retorts and fooled you sense of humor. To catchphrase or not to catchphrase it totally up to you, just make sure you have distinctive enough characters so you can give yourself the option.
While the casting technique might not always work, it’s a great hack to hear your dialogue performed differently, to generate new ideas, and to give you permission to let your perspective rest. If it doesn’t work out casting actors, you can always cast yourself.