Good Dialogue – The Elusive Sprite

Pretty much everyone writes terrible dialogue to start with. My theory on this is that you often can’t write what a character would say until you really get to know them. You might think you know them in the beginning, but actually they’re a bit like real people – they often take on a life of their own and don’t quite fit into the box you built for them. The awkward shits.

Once you’ve gotten to know their intimate parts you’ll need to go back over and look for where you’ve stuck a ham in your mouth and choked on it. It took me months to come to terms with the fact that Claudia McLeod would never use the word ‘primordial’. It didn’t matter that it made a better sentence, that it evoked the nature of the plot turn. It would’ve been my arrogance as a writer to leave that in. Bret Easton Ellis (author of ‘American Psycho’) once said something along the lines of ‘Most characters speak like they’re college professors, when they’re not’.

My brutally blunt (and so very useful) friend said of my earliest dialogue ‘Were you a scriptwriter for ‘Dawson’s Creek’?’ Dawson’s Creek is a great example of what to avoid. It’s wordy and they all express their feelings about situations too thoroughly. People are often most interesting for what they’re hiding. Also as a Brit brought up on far too much telly and film made by the US, you gottah remember where you’re from. Use you’re roots, use what you know about folk that other people maybe don’t.

I recently went to a talk by actor turned director Paddy Considine (serious hero-worship) in which he discussed filmmaking from the two angles. Like many great British directors (Ken Loach, Shane Meadows, Lynne Ramsey) his starting point with his debut ‘Tyrannosaur’ is gritty social realism. We don’t all need to make gritty social realist films, sure, but we can learn a great deal from a genre we’ve done very well in.

Along with much dry Midlands charm and humour he said quite a few things I noted agreeably. He discussed the importance of creating scenes that are ‘lived in’, saying ‘People write scripts based on movies, where their characters talk like they’re in the movies’. As stated in ‘5 tips for dialogue’ (which I’ll link at the end) although you don’t want to write things exactly as we speak in real life (um, like, yeah, y’know, what I mean to say is, you alright then?), you need a ring of authenticity. Paddy pointed out that in many film scenes characters speak directly to one another, making eye contact, when this often doesn’t happen in real life.

Considering simple things like this can help you think about what you’re saying about the nature of these character relationships and drive aspects of your plot forwards. And this is the other main factor to remember, characters should never talk to fill space and time. We’re either getting to know something about them, or getting to know something of their situation. It think it was Roland Barthes than said ‘Everything in narrative has a function or nothing does. Even if something appears nonsense it exists precisely to function as the nonsensical’. Think in this case of ‘Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas’ or anything David Lynch ever made, or in literary terms my favourite wappy author Gunter Grass.

Terry Gilliam, Lynch and Grass are great examples of that old adage ‘Know the rules before you break them’. With dialogue, you will learn from time and experience. My favourite thing is when I put a character in a situation and feel able to let them speak. This is the absolute magic place, when you know them well enough not to be putting words in their mouth.

I’ve mostly learned my dialogical trade writing fiction on the page, but given I’m more or a film worm than book worm the cinematic influence is strong. When writing a first person narrative you have an advantage of being able to express a person’s internal thoughts. With film and television you still need to know their internal thoughts, but find ways to exhibit them differently.

A few recommended pages on aspects of film dialogue (found courtesy of Blue Cat) –

5 Tips for writing dialogue to make strong men weep

3 Ways to Master Subtext

The Paradox of Great Dialogue




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