This is a lecture I gave a few weeks ago at NYU and one I give every quarter at UCLA. It’s some tips on how to write good dialogue.
Mike Nichols said: There are only three kinds of scenes: a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. Every scene must have a dynamic. It can’t just be people talking to each other. That dynamic is your friend. Constantly ask yourself: What does he want? What is her attitude? (By the way, you can have fights, seductions, and negotiations all at once.)
Forget grammar, forget perfectly formulated sentences. Write the way people speak. Conversational.
Don’t be on the nose. People go out of their way NOT to tell you what they’re really thinking or how they really feel. “I’m really angry at you right now.” They’ll hint, they’ll be passive-aggressive, they’ll use humor, they’ll deflect, they’ll hide their feelings, they’ll assume bravado. Let their actions, behavior, and decisions inform us how they really feel.
Say it in as short a way as you possibly can. Long speeches can always be trimmed.
Dialogue needs to have a flow. We have an expression called “open pages.” Short sentences so the script page isn’t filled with long block speeches. Unless you’re Paddy Chayefsky, readers hate that. For me, writing dialogue is like composing music. It has a rhythm, a flow.
Don’t fall into the trap of making sure every line is letter perfect before going on to the next line. The dialogue will seem stilted.
If a character does have a big speech, try to break it up. Let another character interject something, even if it’s short. Better on the listener’s ear.
Sometimes the best answer is silence.
Drop words. Again, it’s conversational. People often drop the first words in sentences, or pronouns. “Got milk?” “Wondered about that.” “Another minute?” The danger is to overdo it. Then everybody sounds like hillbillies.
Don’t have all your characters sound the same. Although I love his writing, this is a legitimate criticism of Aaron Sorkin.
Dialogue defines characters. Their use of vocabulary, the slang expressions they use, their general tone. Are they curt? Are they arch? Bubbly? Reserved? Do they have odd speech patterns? Are they understated? Do they whine? Is their speech halting? Do they have an accent? Do they use regional expressions? Are they educated? Refined? What is their gender? Do they speak softly? Do they swear? Is English their second language? Is their dialogue age appropriate?
One trick: Give a character a word or expression they use a lot that no other character uses. “Perfect.” “If you ask me.” “Literally.”
Don’t write in “dems” and “doze.” In an attempt to be “street”, be careful your dialogue doesn’t come off racist. Don’t write dialogue phonetically.
A lot of dialogue goes unfinished. Characters interrupt. Or they let sentences trail off. Or speak in sentence fragments.
Characters talk in asides. “I went to San Francisco – God I love that town – and met my sister for dinner.“ They go off on tangents. They sometimes ramble, skip around. They don’t talk in beautifully structured long speeches.
More tips tomorrow.