Thursday, March 21, 2013

Learning to Write Better Dialogue

One of the more common questions I’m asked by students and aspiring writers is how they can write better dialogue. This is one of the things that really seems to split new writers. Some have a natural facility with dialogue, though they can often improve how they use it. Others struggle to write a single line that doesn’t seem wooden and forced.

Writing good dialogue encompasses many things. Good dialogue should be natural, reflect the character, advance the scene, be lean, and depending on the situation may need to be witty, provocative, funny or moving. Of these skills, the inability to write naturalistic dialogue seems to be the most challenging weakness to overcome.

I’m probably not the best person to advise on this because I’ve always been able to write naturalistic dialogue without much effort. I never remember “learning” how to do it and I don’t have any particular tricks for capturing realistic speech while I write. A former agent once said I wrote “smooth” dialogue, meaning it flows nicely and is easy to read (this was actually the set up to some criticism: he said that my ability to write smooth dialogue let me get away with some lazy writing).

But if you don’t have an instinctive ear for naturalistic dialogue, there are a couple techniques that seem to help develop that skill. The first is a variation on the character diary exercise I use to develop character voice. On the first day of my Screenwriting One class, I assign the students to write a diary entry in the voice of someone they know who talks in an unusual way. This turns the exercise into one of listening, rather than creating.

If you want to develop your dialogue writing skills, I would suggest picking someone who speaks very differently than you and writing a fictional diary entry in their voice every morning for a week. Listen to the vocabulary and slang they use. Listen to the rhythms of their speech – do they babble on and on, never finishing a sentence, or speak in short, staccato bursts? Then the next week pick someone else and repeat.

The second exercise is one I was given in my first screenwriting class. We were required to keep a notebook where we jotted down ideas, characters, incidents, and bits of dialogue that we encountered throughout the day. Every week we had to show it to the professor. He didn’t care what was in it, just that we were doing it.

Again, this is an exercise in listening. The cashier at my dorm commissary had a habit of saying, “no joke,” after every other statement. For example, “The stew is really popular today, no joke.” The first week of school I jotted that down in my notebook, and years later I used it for a character in a screenplay. Would I have remembered that if I hadn’t had the notebook assignment? Who knows, but listening and observing is a skill that takes practice.

Of course movie dialogue isn’t actually a realistic representation of normal speech. We cut out all of the “ums” and digressions, false starts, clichés and repetition in the average conversation. But we do want the pared down, heightened form of speech that is movie dialogue to have the rhythms of actual conversation. I believe that if you practice actively listening to the way people use language, you will find it much easier to achieve that.

When it’s time to write a scene, your preparation comes into play. You should have already thought about your characters’ voices – maybe using the character diaries to develop them, as I do. Now, identify what each character in the scene wants. If the characters have conflicting goals that will be best, but not every scene works this way. In any case, you should identify the obstacles the character faces getting what they want.

If you’ve properly thought through these elements the dialogue should be a lot easier to write. Good dialogue is action – it’s the character saying something to achieve their goals. They are doing something when they speak not just talking about something. They may be seducing, lying, threatening, or manipulating but they are active. Your job is to figure out what this particular character would say to achieve their goal, and how they would say it.

Ultimately you shouldn’t be thinking too hard about your dialogue as you write the scene. If you’ve prepared yourself, your characters and your scenes properly, the dialogue will flow without a lot of conscious effort. And then you make it even better when you rewrite!

(For improving dialogue during rewriting, see my post on character passes.)

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