Monday, August 01, 2016

Tips on writing dialogue

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.

18 comments:

VP81955 said...

Some excellent observations. Thanks, and I eagerly await part 2.

MikeN said...

Part 2 spoiler alert


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....

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UNLESS YOU ARE AARON SORKIN.

cd1515 said...

great tips.
and it reminds me of an underrated part of Family Guy--their dialogue often has someone interrupt someone else, 2 people talking at once, someone stumbling over a phrase or pausing during one or struggling to come up with something to say.....all things that happen in real life but you seldom see in scripted TV, where everyone seemingly always waits for 1 person to finish before talking.

Steve Mc said...

Would you agree though, Ken, that characters tend to call each other by name more than we do in real life? (See what I did there, Ken?)

Andrew said...

These tips made me think automatically of Frasier. The characters talk over each other, cut each other off, lose their train of thought, etc. I can't imagine how difficult that is to pull off (both the writing and the acting).

Jim said...

And conversely, when writing for foreign characters then do be grammatical. Some people tell you that foreigners speak English better than native speakers. Not true at all, it's just that spoken language is so irregular and so variable that most foreigners don't even bother trying to learn it, but instead speak as we write. And because we all remember being told off by teachers when we were seven years old for writing how we speak, it's easy think that they are clever not making the same mistakes we made back then.

Anthony said...

Bookmarking this--looking forward to part 2. I have a Fries question as well: what would be the protocol if you're filming a show in front of an audience and someone (or maybe even a significant portion of the crowd) laughs at the wrong moment? Would it make a difference if it's a straight line of dialogue or a climactic emotional scene? I'm not so much thinking of someone deliberately trying to be distracting and rude, but an unintentional loud chuckle of some sort. This recently happened at an improv show I attended, where one audience member guffawed constantly. The performers there eventually had to acknowledge it in the context of the scene, but that's not really an option on a scripted TV show.

Jason said...

Anthony, I'll save Ken the trouble of answering that since I recall he's done it before :)

http://kenlevine.blogspot.com/2011/04/biggest-laugh-you-never-saw-on-cheers.html

BA said...

Speaking of Mike Nichols-one of the things I loved about CATCH 22 was the idle overlapping chatter of the flyboys at rest ("Nobody's trying to kill you, sweetheart. Eat your dessert like a good boy.") or in combat ("I think we got 'em where it hurts!..Hey, I think you caught a little something...")and in Altman's MASH. Altman was great for overlapping conversations.

Anonymous said...

Elmore Leonard -best dialogue writer ever.
George Higgins right up there.

Liggie said...

I avoid Sorkin's work simply because I dislike his dialogue's cadence. Characters beginning their lines a split-second after another character finished his annoys me. That said, Altman's overlapping dialogue never bothered me (maybe because it wasn't in all of his movies).

Shakespeare, of course, is exempt from the "write like people talk" rule.

Kosmo13 said...

Wasn't Howard Hawks the pioneer of overlapping dialogue?

Covarr said...

Yeah, uhh... I'm gonna need you to go ahead and hurry up on that second part. Yeah, if you could go ahead and get that done for me, that'd be terrific. Thanks.

(One of my favorite characters in film has such a distinct style of speaking that I can easily imitate him and likely be recognized by anyone who knows the character, even if my own text is totally original. I love characters like that.)

Joe Blow said...

Covarr
That is fascinating! I definitely recognize that character----just the first sentence is all that was necessary!

Hank Gillette said...

The go off on tangents

Like this?

“Look, having nuclear—my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr. John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart—you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I'm one of the smartest people anywhere in the world—it’s true!—but when you're a conservative Republican they try—oh, do they do a number—that’s why I always start off: Went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune—you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged—but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me—it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are (nuclear is powerful; my uncle explained that to me many, many years ago, the power and that was 35 years ago; he would explain the power of what's going to happen and he was right—who would have thought?), but when you look at what's going on with the four prisoners—now it used to be three, now it’s four—but when it was three and even now, I would have said it's all in the messenger; fellas, and it is fellas because, you know, they don't, they haven’t figured that the women are smarter right now than the men, so, you know, it’s gonna take them about another 150 years—but the Persians are great negotiators, the Iranians are great negotiators, so, and they, they just killed, they just killed us.”

Jake Mabe said...

The late, great Peg Lynch used to have a radio show called "Ethel and Albert" (later "The Couple Next Door"), that was nothing more than 15-minute daily vignettes of an everyday, ordinary starting point (say, spilling coffee) that would turn into a comedy of errors that would come full circle.

Part of what I love about listening to it is that she had an ear for real conversation. She was one of the first to structure the scripts (and she wrote every single one, alone) so that, for example, she and Alan Bunce would talk over one another. Which is what people do.

You are absolutely correct (of course) on that, Ken. If you don't have an ear for real dialog, it's going to sound stilted at best.

Jenn said...

Oh my gosh. Thank you thank you thank you for being one of the only writers who recognizes the important of speech patterns! My absolute biggest pet peeve of television is that all the characters will use the same obscure phrase or the same odd way of explaining something. It always bums me out because it takes me out of the story and reminds me that it's just a show. I always wish that there were a wall in the writers' room with a picture of each character, a bulleted list of important facts established (i.e. "Judy Blume, 4 kids, dead parents, went to Yale), and a couple of expressions that only they use. That would make me so happy!

Jenn said...

P.S. Watch any episode of Scandal. Characters in that show always have long monologues where they're yelling at someone else. Every time I see that, I think, "the other person would have interrupted them 8 times already!" Nobody gets chewed out by their friend for 3 straight minutes without uttering a single line of defense.