May 16th, 2012


Learning to Write Dialogue

Happy day. I got my favorite checker at the grocery store, the one who sings along with the Motown songs on the in-store sound system while he checks out groceries and gets me to groove along with him. We have way too much fun (and I think he remembers me as the customer he can do that with).

I had a reader question about writing dialogue that flows without sounding stilted and awkward. I'm not sure I can just tell you how to write dialogue, but I can tell a little about how I learned to write dialogue and give some exercises that might help you develop your ear.

What you want to do in writing dialogue is write it so that it sounds like the way we think people really talk. You don't want to write the way people really talk because it would drive you nuts. Real human talk is full of filler words, things like "um" and "uh," repetitions and half statements that get sidetracked. You just don't notice these things unless they get really, really awful because your brain automatically edits them out. You might not even notice if you recorded a conversation among your friends and played it back, but if you transcribed that conversation, it might read like pointless drivel. I've seen a similar effect in amateur blogger/journalists who get the chance to interview someone or participate in one of those group conference call interviews, and then their post from that interview is a direct transcription. Even a very articulate person who's used to working with the media comes across as something of an idiot if you transcribe every word he says, exactly the way he says it. In writing fictional dialogue, you want to write it to sound the way we hear people talk -- the edited version.

I think the biggest help for me in getting an ear for dialogue was going to journalism school. You get the information for an article by interviewing people, so you really have to listen to what they say, and the article is also largely made up of quotes, so you have to capture the way the person talks while getting the gist of the info in what they're saying. Most people don't speak in soundbites, so this can really require some work. You may not actually quote someone word-for-word, since a lot of that would be useless words, but you want to convey the sense of what they said in a way that they would say it, using the words they actually said. In taking notes from an interview, you only write down the real content that matters, not the extraneous stuff. If you do it right, the person you interviewed can read the article and think that's exactly what they said because it's what they meant to say, even if in reality there was some meandering along the way. Do this enough, and you get used to capturing people's speech patterns.

Beyond that, I was a broadcast journalism major and did a lot of work in radio news. I even interned at a bureau for a radio news network. A radio news story generally contains a story the anchor reads with a clip or two from the interview with the subject speaking. Because of the fact that there are hesitations, repetitions and useless words in the way people normally speak, there's no time in the story to just run a clip verbatim (about the only people you can do that with are politicians working from a script). You have to edit the tape to the point that it will sound to listeners like what they'd hear anyway, since we mentally edit out that stuff. I spent a lot of time editing tape the old-fashioned way, rocking the reels on a reel-to-reel deck back and forth to find the start/stop points, marking with a grease pencil, then cutting out the bad part with a razor blade and then splicing the tape back together again. Then in the scripts we sent to the network, I had to transcribe the clips. Sometimes I also had to transcribe an interview for the correspondent so he could pick the clips he wanted. All of that taught me to really listen to the way people talk and also get an ear for the way they talk without the excess stuff.

(Incidentally, it's more challenging with TV because you can't edit within a clip without it being obvious. TV reporters are more likely to ask the same question in multiple ways throughout an interview, so by the end of the interview the subject will have had a chance to think about the answer and phrase it better, and then there will be a usable clip. That's also why people tend to come across as kind of stupid in TV interviews, because the reporter can't clean them up. And it's why TV sound bites are so very, very short -- they have to find the few seconds of footage that contain good content without insertions or digressions)

A good way to get a sense of the way we think people naturally talk, look for a TV show or movie that strikes you as having good, natural-sounding dialogue. I think Friday Night Lights was a good one because sometimes it sounded almost improvised, it seemed so natural. Try transcribing a scene or two and see how the words come across in print. Otherwise, just listen to people, a lot. Eavesdrop on conversations and imagine how you'd write them. Look for speech patterns like word usage or rhythms. Listen to the way a conversation flows.

A few tips for writing dialogue:
* If you're writing contemporary American characters, use contractions unless there's a specific reason not to. If someone is saying "do not" instead of "don't," it's usually to emphasize the "not." Not using conjunctions is going to sound stilted -- though that may be what you want to convey with some characters.
* If you have trouble getting distinct voices for your characters, mentally cast them, then watch something with those actors to get their voices in your head and try to hear those voices saying the lines as you write.
* Read your dialogue out loud to yourself. Is it uncomfortable to speak those lines? Do you feel stilted? Can you tell a difference between the characters? Do you run out of breath? If you can't say a sentence in one breath, you need to break it up or trim it because your character would also need to pause.
* It may help to take an acting class. You may be able to find a class through a community college or continuing education program or though a theater organization. Learning how to embody characters and speak dialogue can really help in writing dialogue -- or at least in the way you read your dialogue out loud to yourself so that you can tell if your dialogue works.
* Edit, edit, edit. Most first-draft dialogue is too long for the way people really talk. Pare it down to the minimum, unless what you're trying to convey is a long-winded character.
* Make use of subtext. Most people aren't going to directly say what they're thinking unless they're really in a comfort zone or are too desperate to play games. They may say only a few words or deflect while their body language gives them away. In writing dialogue, remember that not everything has to be said in words. Incorporate non-verbal communication, as well, and it will feel more natural. Remember that people are more likely to subconsciously believe what's being said non-verbally than they are to believe the actual words being spoken, especially if they contradict each other. Think about someone saying through clenched teeth, "No, I'm not angry at all," while clenching her fists.

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