Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Writing good dialogue

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that is worth an entire post.

It’s from Kevin Rubio:

I have often heard actors in interviews take about "dialog having a wonderful rhythm...". And notice that this comment is generally associated with shows that have well known/ respected writers - Sorkin, Whedon, Levine, etc.

Can that type of writing be taught, or is it just innate?

Well, I’m not sure I belong in that category with Sorkin and Whedon, but I appreciate it… unless you’re thinking of another Levine, which is very possible.

Learn to develop an ear for dialogue by being very observant and paying attention to the dialogue that’s all around you every day.

It’s interesting that some of the greatest English dialogue writers grew up speaking another language. Billy Wilder grew up speaking German, so did Mike Nicholls. Larry Gelbart spoke Yiddish. But I think they developed a real appreciation for words, language, and slang.

Make note of interesting expressions, colorful descriptions, usual and unusual speech patterns. Do they use a lot of crutches, are they verbose, inarticulate? Do they answer questions with questions?

People rarely speak in perfectly formed sentences. They trail off, drop pronouns, mangle grammar, spout clich├ęs, repeat themselves, try to impress by using big words (often incorrectly), interrupt each other, stammer, change subjects in mid-sentence, pause at weird times (think Christopher Walken), talk with food in their mouths, sound distracted, and fifty other things. A common mistake writers make is giving each character well-crafted complete sentences.

Students of conversational speech know that people will do anything they can to not say exactly what they mean. So when characters state exactly what they’re thinking or feeling it sounds stilted. “I’m very upset that you never go with me to PTA meetings.” Wouldn’t a better version be – “It’s very hard seeing all the other dads and how much more involved they are in their children’s lives.” Try to avoid “on the nose” dialogue.

Another mistake is making every character sound the same.

Read scripts and plays by writers whose dialogue you admire. There’s a book of Aaron Sorkin’s WEST WING scripts. There are compilations of Neil Simon plays. Check out plays by Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Edward Albee, David Mamet, Lary Gelbart, Paddy Chayefsky, and Tony Kushner. See how the speeches lay out on the page. Analyze them. Determine the intent of each speech and how the writer chooses to convey them. There are probably twenty ways to say the same thing. Why did the author choose that way?

There is a rhythm and flow to good dialogue. What I always suggest is that you read your scripts aloud. Speeches that are clunky or repetitious will become apparent very quickly.

Another thing: I always ask myself – is this how that person would really say that? That was an interesting question when I was writing MANNEQUIN. Would a mannequin really say that?

At the end of the day, there is no secret to writing good dialogue. You need a feel for it, certainly. But you can help yourself immensely by just learning to listen. Really listen.


Anonymous said...

You are under-selling yourself Ken.

"I'd rather have written one episode of 'Cheers' than anything I've written". Kurt Vonnegut

John said...

Its not just dialog but "voice" also. A group of 10 year olds speak differently to each other than 15 year olds or 30 year olds. Mixed ages have a very different pattern. Even on the printed page dialog can have the right voice or feel off. Jk rowling has a great ear for dialog. Writers like amy sherman paladino make unreal dialog their trademark. No one ever spoke like the characters on gilmore girls.

RobertElisberg said...

Interesting tidbit: you mention how some of the greatest English dialogue writers grew up speaking other languages, and then name three. And later, you suggest studying the collections of the best, and even single out Tom Stoppard with a photo. It's worth noting that Tom Stoppard was born in -- the Czech Republic!

Anonymous said...

As anonymous said, you are under selling yourself....but me thinks that is part of your charm.
Good dialouge is consistent to character and the timber of the show. Once we, the audience, buy in, we will believe each character's style as long as the dialouge is consistent to the known character. Lilith speaks like Lilith and we have bought into her regardless if it was "natural".
I mean no one on the planet speaks like Selena Meyer on Veep but I believe every word of it is true to who Selena Meyer is.

Dan Ball said...

I love this post!

One thing that annoys me when it comes to dialogue is that, in the script, I'm just taking notes from the film/episode in my head and the dialogue sounds GREAT. But it sounds a particular way in my head that I'm not always aware of and that tone/manner/nuance never makes it to the page. So when others read it, they think it's really obvious, over-the-top, blunt, etc. I also don't want to litter my script with wrylies, either, so I guess it's something I gotta live with.

But GEEZ, I *HATE* when that happens!

I'd also like to submit William Goldman as another master of dialogue. I'm not totally familiar with all of his works, but BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID was what we studied in school when it came to dialogue. His dialogue for MAVERICK felt like it had the same kind of quick-fire, smart-ass vibe.

C. A. Bridges said...

And Greg Mcdonald (Fletch books, many more). Great with dialogue, to the point where he could leave off "he said" and "she said" for pages and you still knew exactly who said what.

Whedon and his writers were excellent at crafting dialogue for characters. If a line was written that anyone could say, it got dumped for a line only that character would say.

Whedon also was brilliant in Buffy for creating his character's specific slang and style of talking. Rather than trying to emulate what kids were saying then -- which would have sounded dated almost immediately -- his characters had their own, which also served to make them seem more outcast and bound together. Much like, say, teenagers do.

Anonymous said...

When I was in film school, the screenwriting teacher made us keep a notebook of overheard conversations to teach us how to listen. I still remember the words of a tuckered out 5 year old, while standing in a line: "Mom, all the fun has gone out of my body."

Larry said...

"Another mistake is making every character sound the same."

If Aaron Sorkin has a flaw, this is it.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Larry: Quite. Also, Shonda Rhimes - every character in SCANDAL talks the same way. And there are other examples way back to classical Greece of dramas that are highly moving despite having very stylized dialogue.

Rules often exist to be broken in the right way.


MJ said...

This is one of the most vexing aspects of writing... thanks for taking a stab at it. Couldn't agree more though, listen around-- you'll be floored at what you hear. Couldn't have said it better Ken. Just one more bookmark saved...

Zappa the Unholy said...

One could also use the method described in Bob Zmuda's book that was used by Mr. X. Who turned out to be Norman Wexler. Though I wouldn't recommend it.

Jim S said...

Can't go wrong with Elmore Leonard. I was lucky enough to attend a lecture he gave at a Detroit-area public library. He said he learned to write dialogue by listening. Back in the 1970s, The Detroit News gave him an assignment for their Sunday paper. Sort of a day in the life of Detroit homicide. He was supposed to hang out with the murder cops at 1300 Beubien for a couple of days. He ended up staying a month.

He was there so long that the cops let down their guard when talking and came to accept him. He was sitting taking in what was going on, and someone asked what he was doing there. Another cop said to leave Leonard alone, he was listening.

Leonard said cops spoke differently to different suspects. And he listened to suspects and how they justified (No FX show pun intended) their actions.

It must have paid off. His name is now an adjective that is used to describe a kind of dialogue.

Political Film Blog said...

Is it blasphemy to say I find Sorkin's stuff unwatchable?

Mike Schryver said...

I agree with Larry about Aaron Sorkin. All his characters sound like the same person to me. I'm glad for others that they can enjoy his stuff so much, but it rubs me the wrong way.

Bruce said...

Woody Allen has a pretty bad ear. In one of his films, a NYC professor referred to his "pupils", rather than his "students". A few early lines in "To Rome with love" were so glaringly on the nose that I couldn't finish watching the rental.

VincentS said...

As an actor/who has been told he writes good dialogue, I don't think it's a concidence that some of the greatest dramatic writers started out as actors: Shakespeare, Aaron Sorkin, David Mamet, etc. I think that being an actor is helpful to one who wishes to write for actors because it develops the habit of writing lines that you yourself would wish to say.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Unknown: No. So do I, especially THE NEWSROOM, which, my god, is awful.


VP81955 said...

Speaking of writers, it's being reported that Peter/PJ Torokvei, head writer of the original "WKRP in Cincinnati" and later screenwriter for "Back To School" and "Guarding Tess," among others, has passed away at age 62. (Peter made a gender change about a dozen years ago and became PJ, a woman.) An appreciation by Stan Brooks is at http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/remembering-pj-torokvei-comedy-genius-582318. Any recollections of Peter/PJ, Ken?

By Ken Levine said...

Sorry to hear of Peter/PJ's passing. I never met him.

estiv said...

I know not everyone will agree, but I'd also add Kevin Smith. Like some of the others mentioned, there's nothing realistic about his dialogue, but it doesn't really matter. It can just pull you into his world. That said, he eventually got very...unfocused is the best word I can come up with. His dialogue stayed fairly sharp but his sense of overall structure just dissolved. I'll still watch Clerks, but Dogma...meh.

JCpenney coupons said...

Super post, loved it.

magical_m said...

You have no idea how timely this post was for me... I'm struggling with dialogue in a piece I'm writing and although what you're saying is not anything I haven't heard before, I'm hearing it again at just the right time!

Thank you!

PS - I agree with Anonymous 1 & 2 - you're totally under-selling yourself!

Kevin Rubio said...

Thanks Ken.

cadavra said...

It's not necessarily bad if characters sound alike. After all, kindred spirits tend to hang around with each other and thus would have similar speech patterns (see the Carnegie Deli scenes in BROADWAY DANNY ROSE as an obvious example). And when you're as uniquely talented as Aaron Sorkin, you can make it work.

And THE NEWSROOM is the best show currently on TV. So there.

Michael Rae said...

Ken, I have a question for an aspiring TV writer like me. What is the best college program that I could take that can relate to television writing?

Andrew Wickliffe said...

"That was an interesting question when I was writing MANNEQUIN. Would a mannequin really say that"


Kelly Sedinger said...

Sorkin: Meh. I used to be a huge fan, but the more of his stuff I watched, the more I realized that he recycles an enormous amount of his own material from one project to the next, so all his characters pretty much sound identical to all the others, and often-times the dramatic situations repeat themselves, too. Take that opening scene of the first episode of THE NEWSROOM: how many times has Sorkin given one of his characters a show-stopping speech, complete with everyone in the room staring in slack-jawed amazement?

I've actually been re-watching THE WEST WING of late; I'm almost through the third season and I'm finding it far more of a mixed bag than I remember before. I'm noticing how much filler there is -- just characters sitting around hashing out "issues of the week", with no dramatic import whatsoever, often to the point that you could often literally just swap characters entirely in an episode (give all Toby's scenes to Sam and vice versa), with zero change in the episode's content.

No, I'm not a Sorkin fan anymore. He has written some very great stuff, but nowhere near as much as many think.

Anthony1956 said...

Always had trouble with dialogue, every character always spoke perfect English - sounded like the Queen was playing every part!
Managed to get around this, at least to some degree, by writing the story entirely through dialogue then editing the inane chatter so it became narrative.
Works with short stories - but for longer works?