My professional hero Blake Snyder gave me a rule that I've been having trouble implementing in my work: "In a good script, every character must speak differently. Every character must have a unique way of saying even the most mundane 'Hi How are you I'm fine' kind of chat" (Save the Cat! 154).

I've found similar advice in at least two other books, and I think it's a good strategy no matter whether you're writing a script, a book, or something else. The problem is, nobody seems to have much to say about how to give your characters unique ways of speaking. Once in a while, it's easy. For example, I had a lot of fun writing a guy in several screenplays who never said more than five words at a time because I'd arbitrarily assigned him the core personality trait of "silent." But that was just one character. How do you come up with enough verbal rules for an entire movie's or book's worth of characters?

Surprisingly, my online searches for lists of verbal rules have been almost completely fruitless. Nobody in Internet Land seems to be talking about it. So, for all you other writers out there who've been having this same problem, here are some verbal rules I've come up with, including some stolen from books and movies I've encountered.

This character . . .

  • Uses big words

  • Uses jargon

  • Uses slang

  • Explains

  • Questions

  • Never says more than X number of words at a time

  • Speaks only in present tense

  • Speaks only in past tense

  • Speaks in third person (Jenny: "Jenny is just confused now. All she wanted was directions to the library!")

  • Mixes languages ("Ja, ja, I get it.")

  • Has a thick accent

  • Gives orders

  • Always relates the conversation to a certain topic

  • Condescends

  • Fawns

  • Deflects conversation away from him- or herself

  • Doesn't talk!

  • Defers to another speaker in the conversation

  • Uses a catchphrase

  • Misuses words or phrases

  • Whines

  • Thinks aloud

  • Mutters

  • Yells

  • Doesn't understand

  • Makes analogies

  • Uses analogies/examples from a certain profession or hobby

  • Speaks a certain variety of English (RP, surfer, Ebonics, etc.)

  • Impersonates

  • Jokes

  • Teases

  • Never takes anything seriously

  • Takes everything (too) seriously

  • Never says what he/she means

  • Uses literally translated figures of speech from another language (e.g., "you're breaking my feet" [from French] instead of "you're driving me crazy")

  • Hesitates

  • Hedges

  • Speaks his/her mind

  • Goes off on tangents

  • Always brings the conversation back to a certain topic

  • Talks in a different register than the audience expects from him/her (e.g., the Impressive Clergyman from The Princess Bride, a kid who talks like an adult)

  • Uses speech that's too formal for the situation

  • Uses speech that's too informal for the situation

  • Has a speech impediment (e.g., the Impressive Clergyman, Kahmunrah from Night at the Museum 2)

  • Drops subjects or helping verbs at the beginning of sentences ("Never wanted to go anyway"; "You ever learn people's names?")

  • Uses incorrect grammar

  • Is a nonnative speaker of the language he/she's trying to use

  • Never gets the joke (e.g., Captain America in Avengers)

  • Uses archaic language (e.g., "Forsooth! Let us away!" instead of "All right! Let's go!")

And for even more ideas, check out this amazing blog post I stumbled across in my search. 

Write on,


P.S. What's the number-one thing stopping you from finishing your story? Let me know in the comments so I can address those blocks in future posts!

(Thanks to Carlos Gil for sharing their work on Unsplash.)