Tuesday, 5 April 2011

D is for Dead-on Dialogue


Dialogue should be fun to read. It should flow easily as a conversation and sound like people are talking right in front of you. But too often it reads stilted and unnatural, like it’s been written down, not spoken. Some people have a natural ear for it, but most don’t.

The most common mistake with dialogue is to be too direct. People say what they mean and give full and frank explanations of themselves. It’s like a bank robbery where everything goes smoothly and everyone gets rich, there’s no fun in that. Dialogue is very flexible and you should take time to bend it. Lying, avoiding the truth (not the same thing), answering a question with a question, changing the subject, these are all ways of  making a conversation interesting.

But my number one tip for improving your dialogue is this:
 
Read good dialogue. 

And the best way to do that is to read plays and screenplays. I’ve included a picture of another shelf in my bookcase for you to see the kinds of texts available, click twice on the photo for a better look. There’s a few odd ones in there (of course).

Plays tend to be better at voice and theme, screenplays are more direct and handle exposition and plot better. You should be careful with screenplays as those you buy as books are often not the original text, but transcripts. Once the screenplay gets director-affected, actor-influenced, filmed and edited, the version up on the screen is the one they transcribe onto the page, with all the actors’ ums, aws, and hesitating pauses, because that’s what the punters are familiar with. Which is fine when you have the actor’s voice in your head, but no good for novels. You’re safer with the big name screenwriters like William Goldman, the Coen Brothers, Tarantino and the like who will insist on their exact words being published. If you find scripts online (there are numerous sites) make sure it’s the ‘shooting script’ you look at.

Read good scripts and see how people say things without saying them. And how they reveal their true nature when talking about something completely unrelated.

Here are some other tips:

Try to give the person talking a purpose in talking.

Try to give the other people in the conversation a different purpose.

Look at the obvious way to respond, and choose another way. Did you kill your husband? Obvious answers are Yes, I did and No, I didn’t. Once you take those two away, what else can you say?

If someone wants something don’t ask for it directly. You want me to give you a lift in my car, say, “Hey, man, you want to go to a party?”

Here’s what not to do:

Don’t add pauses and stammers and repeat words like people do in real life, it will make the dialogue seem amateurish. 

Don’t have question and answer sessions like it’s an interview (even if it is an interview), it’s exhausting to read and very one-note.

Don’t have people just chatting about random stuff in an interesting way unless you are very (and I mean VERY) confident you can pull it off. 

Don’t have people express how they’re feeling (unless they’re lying).

Here’s a scene from Double Indemnity (written by Billie Wilder and Raymond Chandler) where a woman convinces a man to kill her husband, and makes him think it was his idea.

Phyllis has moved over to the window. She stares out through the wet window-pane.

NEFF
     What's the matter now?

PHYLLIS
     I feel as if he was watching me. Not
     that he cares about me. Not any more.
     But he keeps me on a leash. So tight
     I can't breathe. I'm scared.

NEFF
     What of? He's in Long Beach, isn't
     he?

PHYLLIS
     I oughtn't to have come.

NEFF
     Maybe you oughtn't.

PHYLLIS
     You want me to go?

NEFF
     If you want to.

PHYLLIS
     Right now?

NEFF
     Sure. Right now.

By this time, he has hold of her wrist. He draws her to him slowly and kisses her. Her arms tighten around him. After a moment he pulls his head back, still holding her close.

NEFF
     How were you going to do it?

PHYLLIS
     Do what?

NEFF
     Kill him.

PHYLLIS
     Walter, for the last time --

She tries to jerk away but he holds her and kisses her again.

In fact here’s my top tip, get hold of any Billy Wilder script on an Internet near you (even a transcript — actors used to do what they were told back then) and read the hell out of it. Everything you need to know about dialogue, for any genre, will be in there.

32 comments:

Kari Marie said...

Eek. I get to be the first commenter? My knees are knocking! This is an excellent post on dialogue. I'm bookmarking for future reference!

L.G.Smith said...

I've never really studied too many screenplays. But it makes sense that the dialogue would have to be strong in order to carry the scene. Good suggestion.

Alleged Author said...

Reading plays and screenplays is an excellent idea! They focus so much on dialogue and "getting it right." If they don't, then their shows get panned. Great advice!

Lindsey said...

Yep, this is good dialog! I disagree with Here's What Not To Do #1, though. I don't have characters stammer or repeat words often, but I do sometimes if it fits the moment and the character. And sometimes it works!

Botanist said...

Good tips! I especially like the one about removing the obvious answers first.

One obvious thing I'd like to add to the list (and I've read this many times in different places) is to read your own dialogue out loud. It's amazing how differently it sounds compared to your writer's inner voice.

Milo James Fowler said...

I've always found writing dialogue to be easier than narrative, but reading screenplays is a great idea -- and intentionally listening to the conversations around you when you're sitting in a coffee shop. Eavesdropping? Hey, I'm a writer!

Laura Josephsen said...

I hadn't considered reading screenplays for a look at dialogue. Thanks for the suggestion, and all the advice!

Brent Wescott said...

The best dialogue writer on the planet is Aaron Sorkin. He's gotten a lot of press lately, and an Oscar, but he is all that and more. And the chips, too. To learn great dialogue, I study, actually study, The West Wing.

Also, I finally saw The King's Speech and the dialogue in that film is what makes it great. It's clever and fun and never boring.
It Just Got Interesting

Charmaine Clancy said...

Good post, I like to come into the conversation where it gets interesting, just cut out all the start and remember movement to avoid the 'talking heads'. The scripts are a good idea.

Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers

Her highness, Samantha Vérant said...

Dialog also has to remain true to the characters voice!

Madeleine said...

Great tips. I like to read my dialogue aloud to see what it sounds like :O)

Paula Martin said...

Your blog has echoed a lot of the points I have made in mine. Yes, I chose D for Dialogue too!
http://paulamartinpotpourri.blogspot.com

Rachna Chhabria said...

Thanks for the great tips. I have never studied screen plays, but will make sure I read atleast one.

Alison Stevens said...

Excellent post! I never thought of studying screen plays to improve dialogue, but it's a great idea. Another thing I do is read aloud. If it doesn't come out naturally, it's all off.

the writing pad said...

Hi
Great post - as an actress, I learnt, over the years, to find my characters through the words they spoke (and, almost as importantly, the ones they didn't.) I do try to do the same with my writing. Thanks for the post, and the screen play idea, am book-marking it for future ref.
All best
Karla

Mysti said...

Great post! I agree with Botanist about reading it out loud too. It'll help you hear when the conversation is stilted or unnatural.

Ellie said...

A superb post. I agree with everything you've said. I've always found dialogue easy to write but that's probably because I like to talk - alot!

Writers need to listen to how people talk and apply it to their writing. But dialogue must move the plot forward in some way - don't have your characters chat about the boring and mundane things of everyday life!

Ellie Garratt

Brianna said...

Excellent advice!
I really appreciate that you included a specific example to study and learn from.

Keena said...

excellent info thx for the tips.

Elizabeth Mueller said...

Oh, so true! I really enjoyed this post. I know that writing isn't real life, but it needs so sound and feel realistic. Being a writer isn't as easy as most people think.

♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

lesleylsmith said...

Very nice post, mooderino! Good title, too. I agree scripts are great for studying dialogue.
Cheers!

Ben said...

It's a good idea to read stage and screenplays. I didn't think about it. The usual Dialog-Help book goes from crap to very very bad, dried up dog shit.

I think to give purpose to every dialog line, but sometimes it comes off as a little bit overworked. Do you find screenplays in any bookstores?

mooderino said...

@Ben Most bookshops will have a few. if you know what you want then Amazon and ebay are usually the best, or Abebooks. TBH the easiest place is one of the online sites like Drew's Script-o-rama, Joblo.com and various others.

The Writing Goddess said...

Hi Mood! I picked dialogue as my D word, too.

I agree about great screenplays being a great way to learn to write sharp dialogue, but, sometimes a novelist or short story writer needs to learn to insert beats, too, or it comes off too snappy and fast. Think Moonlighting the TV show - which was wonderful, but sometimes quick repartee doesn't serve the characters or scene.

mooderino said...

Hello Goddess,
Pace in dialogue is just as important to screenwriters as it is to novelists or short storyists. Not all scripts are written rat-a-tat like 'His Girl Friday'. A good example is 'Out of Sight' the Clooney/Lopez flick, which has beautifully languid exchanges. You have to expose yourself to a range of styles, and of course you then have to adapt it to your own story needs and preferences.

MM the Queen of English said...

I liked your don'ts. Sometimes, they are more valuable than a big list of do's. Is it okay if I copy and paste them?

MM the Queen of English
queenofenglish.wordpress.com

mooderino said...

Sure thing MM, help yourself.

Shannon Lawrence said...

Great dialog tips! Have you ever heard of the Conversational Shoplifter? Deb Courtney has a blog about that, and also does a class on how to write dialog, and part of her recommendation was also to read good dialog. However, she also listens to people talking in real life and picks up tidbits. I couldn't help but overhear a couple prize winning conversations the other day, and I could totally see using a snippet of real dialog to start a story.

Murees Dupé said...

Great post! Thank you for all the helpful tips. I am currently having a lot of trouble with dialogue, but your post helped me out. Thank you!

Donea Lee said...

Thanks, Mood! This is some great advice. I generally get good feedback on my dialogue, but I have been know to stick those "umms" in there. A habit I should probably kick. I'd love to read some Joss Whedon and Bryan Fuller scripts.... :)

Langley said...

Super post. Off to find some Billy Wilder now...

Halli Gomez said...

Great tips. they will help a lot in the current story I'm writing. I loved that you used Double Indemnity as an example. Dialogue doesn't get any better than that!

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