Writing Dialogue When English Is Not Your First Language

Picture by Missouri Division of Tourism

Picture by Missouri Division of Tourism

I get often asked how many languages I do speak properly.  Sometimes I am tempted to answer: “None”. Scriptwriting can be confusing when many languages fight for expression from within one’s brain. I am an Italian citizen, and was raised by my Italian speaking parents in the French speaking context of Geneva, Switzerland. I later added English to the mess when attending film schools in Australia and New Zealand. I consider myself fluent in these three languages, even though when writing or speaking from the guts (which I too often seem to do) the mistakes and the cross-languages bastardisations can become obvious to the native reader or speaker.  When writing screenplays (because that is what this post is really about) the language problem can become more evident in dialogue. When struggling with an aspect of the craft it is only normal to pay more attention to its details.

It is usually easier to identify what does not work, as opposed to what does. So, let us start with some popular  ‘do not’s’:

Do not write on the nose dialogue. The kind of dialogue where characters speak their mind.

Do not write generic dialogue. The kind of dialogue that could be said by anyone in any circumstance.

Do not obsess with exposition. Or, using every word to expose your plot and characters trait.

Do not talk when silence will do the trick.

Do not write real life dialogue. Or, dialogue that perfectly reflects real life verbal communication.

Now let us turn this non-exhaustive list of ‘do not’s’ in a list of ‘do’s’.

Do write dialogue that hides the subtext away to some extent. The real motivations and objectives are rarely exposed directly and remember that real people say random things, we do not always understand each other right away. Communication can be messy, playful or sometimes plain insane.

Do write dialogue that is specific to your character. Beware of clichés and refine them. Think about it, you could probably recognise your friends or family members simply by their language, the words they overuse and maybe a few favourite expressions.

Do write from within your characters. The subtext, context and objectives will shape the dialogue, but not reflect it.

Do write dialogue as a complement for the visual narration. So much can be said through action. This is not a radio play.

Do write realistic dialogue, but over the top is sometimes good. In other words, the dialogue needs to feel plausible yet provide that something magic that is not usually that condensed in real life.

Let us write the subtext down onto the page, as a reminder. We can then look at it as a game. How to hide it down between the dialogue and action?  Give your characters an objective, of course,  but also a mental distraction that can be used during the dialogue, if needed.

Everybody has phases where particular words or phrases become overused. I like to assign one or two to each character. The phrases and their personal rhythms will gives them an identity on the page.

I like to separate my scene development sheet vertically in two: one side for the visual and one side for the audio (dialogue and more). I do this as a reminder that these sides need to be balanced.

In the end, having english as my third language,  is neither an advantage nor a disadvantage. We all speak differently, and when writing dialogue we are discovering new languages. For every character we create, it is an entire new version of a language that we need to adapt. Research and observation can be useful as we are not writing directly, we do so through the characters and our own speech should be muted.

One response to “Writing Dialogue When English Is Not Your First Language

  1. Thanks for the tips – really great advice that I need as I’m writing dialogue for my self produced short film. I’m German-born and raised, but the script is in English. Thanks for this great post!

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