As a writer, I draw inspiration from many places and try to absorb as much storytelling content as I can. (Something I recommend for everyone, by the way.) One of the largest sources of stories, aside from books, is the world of television. Despite the fact that written works and serial visual entertainment are fundamentally different forms of storytelling, TV shows have a lot that they can teach writers.
One of the most important lessons that TV can teach is how to write good dialogue.
Good dialogue is vital for television shows as that's how a lot of the story is told. It also helps an audience to become invested in the characters on the screen. As a result, television writers become masters of dialogue; its pace, its tone, subtext, and making sure that a character’s dialogue is consistent with their personality. This is especially true because they have to produce multiple episodes in a single season!
All of these aspects of dialogue are important for story writers to bear in mind as well. Dialogue is especially valuable for story writers because it's a window into who your character is and demonstrates the relationships that they have with other characters. Just like in filmed entertainment, dialogue can help endear your characters to your audience.
My own personal challenge in writing dialogue is the pacing. Spoken interactions between characters can be lengthy and having a realistic dialogue pace can help readers to navigate them smoothly.
Whenever I begin to write my dialogue, I have a few favorite television shows that I go to for help and inspiration:
The first is Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Even though the characters’ verbal mannerisms are quirky and unique to that show, the dialogue is fast. Not only does this reflect the quality of the actors involved in Buffy, but it also shows how well the pace of the written dialogue came across to them as they read their scripts. The dialogue is also consistent with the characters’ personalities. You never catch Willow saying something in the same way that Buffy says something, and vice versa.
The second is ABC’s Castle. Not only is the dialogue paced well in this show, the chemistry between the characters is palpable in their interactions. The relationship between the two main characters, Castle and Beckett, consists largely of verbal sparring. If that dialogue were not engaging, those sparring sessions would be tedious to sit through as opposed to being charming and funny.
The third is BBC’s Sherlock. The dialogue is both fast and packed with information. In my opinion, the dialogue manages to deliver that information without losing the pace (also in part due to all of the wonderful performances on that show). This is also an important aspect of dialogue for writers to bear in mind, as exposition can be revealed through characters’ interactions. If there isn’t enough balance between the amount of information and the pacing of the dialogue, the reader can get lost in all of the details.
There are many more shows on my list, but they all contain the same important aspects of good dialogue I have mentioned above. Keep an ear out for the qualities of dialogue in some of your own favorite television shows!
The skill of writing good and engaging dialogue is one that is learned not only by doing but by listening.
About the Author: Samantha Friedlander is a recent graduate of Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, PA. She is currently a student of the Columbia Publishing Course and hopes to become an editor. When she’s not writing, she can usually be found curled up with a good book and a cup of tea.