Tuesday, August 02, 2016

More tips on writing dialogue

Yesterday was part one. Today is part two.

Hitchcock said a “good story was life with the dull parts taken out.” Same for dialogue. Don’t waste time with hellos, how you doing?, etc. Get in a scene as late as you can, and get out as early as you can.

Take great pains in writing the opposite sex. There is a tendency to make the opposite sex generic or stereotypical. If you’re unsure how a member of the opposite sex would act in a certain situation or what they’d say, ASK a few of them.

LISTEN. Eavesdrop. Make your dialogue as authentic as you possibly can. Make note of expressions. (If your show centers in a high school, don’t just assume the kids today will use the same expressions or act the exact same way that you did.) RESEARCH. Scour Netflix for documentaries that might contain characters similar to yours. See how the talking heads in the documentary speak.

Remember that real people have to say these lines. Actors will question things. Be careful with insults.

Take the side of every character. If there’s an argument, fight equally hard for both sides. Even if you personally disagree with one of those sides.

Always play your characters to the top of their intelligence. Don’t sacrifice your character for a joke.

It’s okay for your characters to have the perfect comeback. Creative license will let you have that one.

For exposition, don’t have characters tell other characters things they already know. “You’ve been working at this precinct for 16 years.” This happens a lot in procedurals. “When the blood coagulates like this and is exposed to air it turns a shade of purple.” “I’ve been in forensics for twenty years, I know that!”

Avoid alliteration.

Don’t make sentences so long an actor can’t say them in one breath.

Use profanity very sparingly. Even if you’re allowed. The words have no impact if overused.

Avoid using the same word in back to back sentences. “I’m interested in politics. I’m also interested in science.” Better: “I’m interested in politics. Also science.

A stylized trick in pilot writing is saying the name of the character you’re talking to (more than occurs in real life). “Hey Alice, how was your day?” “Fred, you can’t keep showing up late.” “I’m telling you Cindy, he was standing in the rain.” This device is helpful in teaching the audience just who these characters are. (Once they do, by week four or five, cut down the use of names waaaaay down. Like I said, people don’t generally speak that way. If you ever say the name of someone it’s usually because you’re pissed at them.)

How do you punctuate? If you want a pause you can put … or (beat). The writer’s best friend. When you want a character to switch to another topic or train of thought within the same speech use (then). For asides I use --.

Have your characters doing something in a scene. Not just talking heads.

And here’s a very important one. Read the scene out loud. Maybe gather a few friends to sit around the table and read the script. You’ll instantly see what’s difficult to say, what’s clunky, overly long, confusing, etc. If you take only one tip from these past two days it is that one.

As always, best of luck!

18 comments:

Blake said...

Really great advice!

Markus said...

I get all of this (not that I'm a writer...), but wouldn't you agree that some of it isn't necessarily just part of the writer's job, but also up to the actors how they interpret their character within the shape that the script provides? I would think that in writing a scene, the writer draws the outline of a character, then hands a bunch of crayons to the actor to fill in the colors, and at best keeps some oversight so that they don't make the pants neon green and the skin dark purple or some such...

Mitchell Hundred said...

I would take that point about writing the opposite sex, and extend it to writing different races, gender identities, and sexual orientations. Basically anyone who has a substantially different life experience than you.

dan o said...

i think there are limits to how "real" dialogue can be. in actual conversations, people wander off topic. they often don't hear things and say, "excuse me?" and words are repeated. people sneeze and other people say bless you. they yawn. they take long pauses, they say "um" a lot. in a script, no one sneezes or yawns unless it's a plot point. repeated sentences are wasted page space. the trick, i guess, is to make it real enough to fool everyone.

Glenn said...

Mike Nichols said scenes "can't just be people talking to each other", but Tarantino has gotten tons of mileage out of exactly that.

Todd Everett said...

For exposition, don’t have characters tell other characters things they already know. “You’ve been working at this precinct for 16 years.” This happens a lot in procedurals. “When the blood coagulates like this and is exposed to air it turns a shade of purple.” “I’ve been in forensics for twenty years, I know that!”

My favorite has always been "as your attorney [or accountant, dentist, art history professor, etc.], I must advise you..."

I'd also like to give aspiring screenwriters a list of thing for parents to call their children in place of the ubiquitous "sweetie."

And for that matter: when someone offers a large amount of money, let him or her name it, rather than writing it on a piece of paper.

John Nixon said...

In the radio business advertisers constantly insist on writing their own copy and have us read stuff like "don festive apparel and feast on fabulous cuisine and delicious libations while engaging in lively banter..." Then when nobody shows up at their business they conclude that radio doesn't work. If you try to help them by writing more engaging, conversational copy the sales people get upset because they think we're getting in the way of putting the money on the books and the advertiser often gets offended feeling that we have ruined their fine masterpiece. And that's one of the reasons why so many radio, and probably television, commercials sound so bad.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Todd EVerett: I suspect one reason writer don't do that is to save lengthy discussions about what sum of money the number should be. I remember reading that THE GOOD WIFE writers took a lot of argument to decide on $8,000 for the hotel room Alicia and Will grabbed at the end of season 2. Besides the fact that money numbers probably date a show quicker than almost anything else except old computers.

wg

Earl Boebert said...

Glenn said...
Mike Nichols said scenes "can't just be people talking to each other", but Tarantino has gotten tons of mileage out of exactly that.

So did Chandler.

Igor said...

If I were writing a Trump biopic, it'd be a challenge to cut down his dialogue yet depict his tendency to be repetitious.

TRUMP
I’ve never been there with John McCain because I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets. He has not done a good job for the vets and I’ve always felt that he should have done a much better job for the vets. So I’ve always had a difficult time with John for that reason, because our vets are not being treated properly. They’re not being treated fairly.

Igor said...

I forgot to mention: The Trump "dialogue" I posted above is something he really said today, verbatim.

Donald Benson said...

"Mansplaining" seems a neat way to cloak exposition as comedy:
-- "Now you've been here for ten years, Agnes."
-- "Really?"
-- "Yes, really. And I don't have to tell you how important the Watson account is to the firm."
-- "No, you don't. In fact I briefed you on it ..."
-- "Watson accounts for ten percent of our total revenues ..." (Agnes is mouthing the words along with him whenever he looks away)

Andy Rose said...

@John Nixon:
Beyond bad wording, radio commercials also suffer from way *too much* wording. Advertisers can't seem to comprehend that six sentences spoken at a normal pace have a lot more impact than ten sentences read at Mach 8 to squeeze it all into :30.

Everyone with a stake in the commercial has their own sacred cow that they think is the most important thing to say in an ad, and nobody has the authority (or courage) to make cuts. If you've ever had the experience of being on a committee trying to write a mission statement, you probably know what it's like when everyone has their own idea of what mission is most important. What's supposed to be a boiled-down, easy to follow concept quickly becomes a Frankenstein's Monster of buzzwords.

Tom said...

Too many novelists also have people calling other characters by their names WAY too often. I keep waiting for a character to reply "I know what my name is for, Christ's sake! That's the seventh time in this conversation you've used it." I have paid attention to how often people use each other's names in real life conversations, and the answer is hardly ever.

Gary said...

One of the worst examples of characters calling each-other by name was "Rhoda." The two sisters said their names constantly, in almost every sentence. And often they said it TWICE: "But Brenda, Brenda..." "Wait Rhoda, Rhoda..." Once I started noticing this it almost ruined the whole series for me.

Stuart Best said...

Friday Question: When have you broken any of these rules, and what was the reason or rationale?

Johnny Walker said...

Great tips! I'm finding that improv covers a lot of the same things. Working in front of an audience (even just the class) quickly gets you thinking about the right things: Who are these people, and what's interesting about them.

WizarDru said...

True story: the most shocking curse I ever heard on TV or Film was on M*A*S*H*, at least in terms of viewer impact. I don't recall the exact episode, but Hawkeye was full of moral outrage at a a soldier (iirc, he was having Hawkeye nurse someone back to health so he could then be taken to be executed).

Ah, found it. It was episode 172, "Guerrilla my Dreams". Mako plays a South Koren soldier taking a North Korean woman into custody, almost certainly to torture her for intelligence. When their 'wacky hijinks' fails, Hawkeye calls Park (Mako) a SON OF A BITCH in righteous fury. This was 1979 on TV. I'd heard the curse, obviously, but Hawkeye saying it? It was like a slap in the face. I might have gasped, even. And then, of course, the moral ambiguity of that episode was kind of amazing. Mako was the villain, but he wasn't necessarily wrong.