Tuesday, July 09, 2013
Writing good dialogue
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 clichés, 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.
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.