Writing Emotionally
Layered Dialogue

By David S Freeman

(Note: This article is not one that can be read breezily. I'm going to deconstruct a piece of great dialogue line by line, and label every technique that's employed. There's much to be learned by doing so, but it requires focus. Therefore, if you need Zen or caffeine or both (Zeffeine) to ratchet up your awareness, knock yourself out.)

Writing dialogue that sounds natural and which is emotionally layered seems like it's something that should be easy. In fact, the dialogue written by many new (and even some not-so-new) often sounds flat and wooden.

Below you'll some specific pointers for making your dialogue come alive.

But first, some general remarks:

Beyond Structure Screenwriting Class LondonIntuition

The techniques I'll be discussing and others like them make dialogue, when read aloud in a film, sound like the way people actually speak. We speak this way intuitively, but we don't write this way intuitively.


Techniques like this take up space. Therefore, you're most likely to encounter them in dramas, or in any thriller, fantasy, sci-fi story, or comedy that also has dramatic elements.

In an action movie, an action-thriller, or an action-comedy, the story often moves so quickly that techniques like these can't be squeezed in.

An Option, Not a Requirement

These techniques are optional, not a requirement. But I suppose the heading sort of already says that. Therefore, this particular paragraph is redundant and will now go hide its head in shame.

Sample Techniques For
Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue

For an example to deconstruct, I'm powering up the way-back machine and landing at a TV Series called "Thirtysomething." The creators, Marshall Herskowitz and Ed Zwick, have since gone on to have illustrious careers producing, writing, and directing features. Look them up on IMDB.com for the full scoop.

But some of their best writing was in "Thirtysomething," a show that transformed television. Those with flair for juicy details might note that one of the writers on the series was Paul Haggis, who of late wrote "Million Dollar Baby," and co-wrote and directed "Crash."

In the following scene, Michael (Ken Olin) is a young, powerful advertising executive. Gary (Peter Horton), his old college roommate and best friend, has come to his office.

Gary has been struggling financially. Things haven't been going well lately between he and Michael -- they've been fighting a lot, mostly as a way for Gary to divert his (Gary's) attention away from the humiliation and self-hatred he's been feeling.

These feelings have been triggered by Michael's offer of a sizable gift of money to help out Gary and his family. Gary needs the money -- but his self-esteem has hit the skids because he knows that, in being tempted to accept the gift, he's admitting he's a failure, unable to support his wife and child.

When Gary sees the cold opulence of Michael's office, he looses it.

Techniques we'll see here are:

1. Delayed Answer:

Definition: Person "A" asks a question -- then "A" and "B" talk about other things -- and then "B" answers the question.

2. Interruption

This one is self-explanatory. Interruptions can make dialogue flow faster and give it life.

3. Meaningful Silence

To me, silence is a form of dialogue. There are three ways silence can be used in dialogue. "Meaningful Silence" is (obviously) silence that has meaning in the dialogue. The silence is written right into the dialogue, using one of about seven different standard ways. In this sample, we'll see the use of double dashes (--) to indicate meaningful silences.

4. What the Character is Saying or Feeling Beneath the Surface

Dialogue can give us the feeling that the character has emotional depth when the character's feelings are just hinted at by the words of his or her dialogue (or the way the words are said), but not stated directly. We'll see some of that here.

5. Sentence Fragment

Definition: This is a sentence in which more than one word has been dropped out.

6. Own track

Definition: "A" completely ignores what "B" says and stays on his or her "Own Track" (i.e. his or her previous topic).

The Dialogue From "Thirtysomething"

(The set-up -- Gary steps into Michael's office and surveys its cold, sterile appearance. With its slate and steel, it reeks of money and power. Michael is still smarting from a recent argument between the two of them.)

Gary: What are you doing there? How did all this happen? I'm sorry, I'll try and get to the point...

Michael: (quite composed) No, please. Take all the time you'd like.

Gary: Just -- do me a favor. Don't do that.

Michael: Don't do what?

Gary: Be -- polite like that. It's not --

Michael: Look --

Gary: That's not us.

Michael: You want to know what I'm doing here? Making a living. Making money.

The Dialogue From "Thirtysomething" Deconstructed

(Below, MS means "Meaningful Silence")

Gary: What are you doing there? How did all this happen? I'm sorry, I'll try and get to the point...

Michael: (quite composed) No, please. (Sentence Fragment) Take all the time you'd like. (Beneath the surface, Michael's coolness to his friend says, "I'm pissed at you.")

Gary: Just -- (MS) do me a favor. Don't do that.

Michael: Don't do what?

Gary: Be -- (MS) polite like that. It's not --

Michael: (Interrupting Each Other) Look --

Gary: (Interrupting Each Other) That's not us. (Own Track)

Michael: You want to know what I'm doing here? Making a living. Making money. (Delayed Answer to Gary's original question: "What are you doing there?")


Above you see 6 dialogue techniques used in one short piece of dialogue. If you don't know these dialogue techniques and many others, your writing will be judged inferior to those who master the art of capturing the sound and emotional layers of spoken speech.

There are many, many ways to make dialogue sound natural and to give us a sense that a character has emotional and psychological complexity. Those demonstrated above are just a few of the many such techniques you'll learn in "Beyond Structure."

All of "Beyond Structure" is taught this way -- as techniques without theory. However, the techniques you'll learn go far, far beyond dialogue. In fact, dialogue comprises just a small part of artful writing.

There are techniques to add depth to scenes and plots. There are techniques fore adding depth characters. And there are many more.

"Beyond Structure" is a chance to learn 200 techniques in two intense days. The advanced writer will vastly expand his or her palette; the intermediate writer will become advanced; the new writer will shave years or his or her learning curve.

And that promise comes with a money-back guarantee.

Hope to see you there!

David S Freeman

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About The Author

David has sold or optioned scripts and ideas to Sony Pictures, Columbia Pictures, Paramount Pictures, MGM, Castle Rock Entertainment, Buena Vista Television, Atlas Entertainment, Hearst Entertainment, and many others.  

David’s past students include the writers, directors, producers, and/or key executives behind: the Austin Powers films – Total Recall – The Simpsons – 12 Monkeys – Good Will Hunting – Runaway Bride – Pulp Fiction – Stardust – The Wedding Singer – The Fugitive – Minority Report – E.R. – The X-Files – Law & Order – Buffy the Vampire Slayer – Rush Hour 1 & 2 – American History X – Pleasantville – Roswell – Everybody Loves Raymond – Thirteen Days – Star Trek: Voyager / Deep Space Nine – Legally Blonde – Angels in the Outfield –Sling Blade – Frequency – Private Parts – King of the Hill – Married With Children  – Saturday Night Live – and many other films and TV shows.

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Writing Emotionally Layered Dialogue