A common refrain I hear from emerging screenwriters and novelists is “I'm great at writing dialogue.” While many writers admit to struggling with story structure and character development, very few believe they need to improve their dialogue-writing skills. So it would would appear that writing dialogue joins driving and making love in the category of “Things everyone thinks they’re great at but aren’t.”
When I ask these writers why they feel they have a natural ability at writing dialogue, the usual answer is something like “I can write the way people talk.” Herein lies the problem. Writing great dialogue is not about writing the way people talk. People talk in banal chitchat, sentence fragments, and they will often change their train of thought mid sentence. You have to write better than how people talk. And that takes experience and technique.
Here are five tips to help you write better dialogue.
1) Less is More
One of the biggest issues with dialogue is simply that there is too much of it. Writers love to hear their characters talk but that can be a detriment to the piece if it becomes too talky. Sometimes this happens when writers feel they have to open a scene with the small talk that the social conventions of real life require. For example:
“Hey, what’s up?”
“Nothin much, how about you?”
“You know, hangin in there.”
“I hear that!”
This type of chit-chat is the way people actually talk but it will kill the pacing of any scene in a screenplay or novel. So a good rule of thumb is to start the conversation as late as you possibly can and exit as early as you possibly can and still have it make sense for the reader/viewer. So if the reader already knows that Character A is approaching Character B to borrow money to get out of trouble due to gambling debts, you don’t have to start with Character A’s whole pitch. We already know what he’s going say and why. You can start the scene with Character B’s response and take it from there.
Here is a challenge you should undertake if you want to improve the dialogue in your piece. When you are finished with your draft and have it exactly as you want it, go through it again and cut out 40% of your dialogue. You’ll want to throw up your hands and say I’m insane because every word you wrote is gold is there is no way to cut that much out. And you should say all that. And then you should cut 40% of your dialogue. Here’s why – all first drafts are over-written, even yours. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
2) Write with Subtext
If you don’t take anything else from this piece, write this down and tape it on the wall wherever you like to write – It’s not what your characters are saying, it’s what their not saying. This is subtext. A more common way to define it is reading between the lines of what your characters are saying.
We use subtext every day in almost every situation. When that dinner party guest won’t leave even though it’s well after midnight we don’t say “You have to leave my house now.” Instead we say “Wow, look at the time, you must have an early morning tomorrow.” Or when we meet an attractive member of the opposite sex in a bar, almost every word out of our mouths is subtext. We will verbally poke and prod to see if there is any interest. Nobody ever walks up to someone and says “You’re very attractive, would you like to have intimate relations?”
While these are terrible ham-fisted examples of subtext, I will point you to Earl W. Wallace and William Kelley’s Oscar winning screenplay for the 1985 Harrison Ford movie Witness. One of the more memorable scenes is when Ford, who plays a Philadelphia Cop hiding out in Amish country, is about to physically confronts some local bullies who are harassing the Amish. As Ford is about to step out of the buggy, the Amish patriarch says “It’s not our way.” Ford’s John Book replies “But it’s my way.”
Not only does this fall under ‘less is more’ but it also is great subtext for the realization that John Book is still a stranger in a strange land. He is among them but not one of them. This is key because at the end of the movie when Book has to go back home, the last thing the Amish patriarch says is “You be careful out there amongst them English.” One sentence that acknowledges that Book is now more like one of them than he is like the English. There could have been whole a speech about “When you first came here I didn’t give you any chance to fit it but you really surprised us and now…” This speech would be too long and on-the-nose and nowhere as effective as well-executed subtext.
More tips will be posted in Tony's next article.