For some writers, dialogue is a pretty big challenge. Something I have noticed at table reads and certainly at the Tel Aviv Writer’s Salon, is that when writers read their work aloud and there is dialogue, they tend to sort of act it out, changing their voice and speaking the dialogue the way a person really would. Again, for others, this just does not come naturally.
So here are five ways in toward writing better dialogue
For one whole week, listen to the way people talk. Listen to the way YOU talk. “The thing is never really the thing” as someone wise once said. Literally, be weird for a week and jot down or subtly record the conversations you hear and participate in. Notice the sarcasm, irony and allusions that people make. Most people do not say what they want to say 100% directly. It’s human nature. Really devote one whole week to noticing the way people talk. Listen to our conversation this evening.
2. Listen to Subtext and Emulate Great Writing
Think about the scene in Ordinary People, when Timothy Hutton refuses the french toast his mother has made him. What is he really saying no to? People most often couch what they say in something else. That’s what subtext means. For some insane examples of subtext, watch The Glass Menagerie or How to Marry a Millionaire. Tennessee Williams was a master of subtext.
Films from the 1950s when censors had their pens out and at the ready at all times was a period of time when screenwriters had to pack sexual and other not-so-kosher allusions into what sounds like very normal dialogue. Except it isn’t. Marilyn Monroe in SOME LIKE IT HOT: “I always get the fuzzy end of the lollypop.” HELLO?!
Check out Rear Window, Pillow Talk, To Catch a Thief, just a few examples of brilliant dialogue meant to get by the censors. Literally pause the movie and notice what is really being said. You might blush a shade or two of pink, trust me.
Read produced scripts that are dialogue heavy. Read HIS GIRL FRIDAY and give that rat-a-tat dialogue a go. Read JUNO and revel in the glorious, real, sarcastic, ironic dialogue. Read CHINATOWN, read AMERICAN BEAUTY. Read REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. There are too many great movies with great dialogue to even name here – oh – TOOTSIE, read TOOTSIE – just take a weekend and get ahold of scripts with great dialogue and get a feel for the flow of it, the honesty of it, the subtext of it. See how the greats do it.
3. Subversion: Write On the Nose!
Now this might sound like a weird exercise, but as you are working on your script, write a scene (or rewrite one as the case may be) and write it as on the nose as you humanly can. Write it as if robots are speaking the lines. Do a terrible job. Now read it aloud. See how you cringe? Now go back, apply some of the things you have learned, use props (the waffles), use sarcasm, use playfulness, use subtext and rewrite the scene. How does it sound now?
4. Psychology: Who We are Being
We are all playing a part in any given moment. You are right now. Who is your character trying to BE in that moment? Brave? Sexy? Brash? Smart? Scared? What is their inner motive?
5. Let Go
This sounds like a weird one, right? But what I mean is as you write the dialogue, try not to think. Just write. When you think too much then YOU are writing the dialogue, you are putting words in the mouth of the character. When you can just type as fast as you can and let the characters speak THROUGH you, you will be very surprised how much more irreverent, silly and real they will sound. Let your characters speak through you. Not AS you.
One of my favorite moments of SCATHING dialogue, written by the great Somerset Maugham and spoken by the brilliant Bette Davis.
Books or Movies with GREAT/stylized, subtextual writing:
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (play by Edward Ablee)
Streetcar Named Desire (play by Tennessee Williams)
The Glass Menagerie
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
Some Like it Hot
How to Marry a Millionaire
Silver Linings Playbook
Glengarry Glen Ross
Treat yourself to Just Effing Entertain Me: A Screenwriter’s Atlas