Dialogue – live it, learn it, write it

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This will be one of those rare posts from me here on MW, an actual post about the craft of writing. I’ll let you in on a little secret I haven’t shared with my site-mates, for fear they’ll kick me out – I don’t think I’m really that good of a writer. I’m a heck of a storyteller, and a heck of a promoter, but I think most of the folks here on the site can write circles around me. So I don’t talk about craft all that often. It’ll probably only happen late at night before the morning when I’m supposed to cover for Misty who’s taking Faith’s day on Wednesday so that Faith can deal with real-life, off-the-page stuff. 

But if there’s one aspect of writing I think I’m actually good at, it’s dialogue. And since some of my friends have expressed their challenges with writing dialogue, I figured I’d give you a few hundred words on how I learned to write dialogue.

Read a lot of plays. 

Crap, that was supposed to be about seven paragraphs, but I’m a little wacked out on Nyquil since I’ve picked up some version of TB/The Black Plague/Walking Pnuemonia/a cold working on In the Heat of the Night

By the way, I’m in a play for the next two weekends, come to Theatre Charlotte and say hi! 

Sorry, back to the point. I mentioned I’d taken Nyquil about an hour ago, right? Anyway, back to dialogue. I do attribute a lot of the ease with which I write dialogue to my theatrical training. In the theatre, the dialogue is all we have. The dialogue does all the heavy lifting of setting scene, establishing emotion, defining character – everything. 

So how do you learn to write better dialogue? Go to the masters. I suggest you start with David Mamet. The author of Oleanna, Glengarry Glenn Ross, Race and many other awesome plays is considered one of the masters of dialogue. His shows are so difficult to master that I’ve watched actors working on scenes actually say the word “pause” when they’re supposed to take a break in the dialogue! But when you watch them, Mamet’s characters seem totally, and amazingly, realistic. It’s because they talk the way we talk, with broken sentences, interruptions, splintered thoughts and “ooh shiny!” moments. Mamet has made such a study of the human condition that now we study him to learn how to write more effectively. 

I’m also a big fan of Sam Shepard, although fewer people fall into this camp with me. I think Shepard writes period characters wonderfully and creates worlds for them that we can relate to. His dialogue isn’t as realistic as Mamet’s, but it also is easier to manage, with fewer interruptions, a little less profanity, and a simpler structure for an actor. But definitely worth a study, particularly his Fool for Love, a play I really adore. 

There are plenty of other playwrights out there who write dialogue beautifully – Theresa Rebeck, Suzan-Lori Parks, Steven Dietz, and of course Neil Simon, whose Brighton Beach series of plays is a classic lesson in not only dialogue but direct address as well. 

So when you’re stuck writing dialogue, go back to the experts – the folks who write to be spoken – the playwrights. I suggest you check out some local theatre, buy a few scripts, download the ebooks, whatever works for you. But don’t be afraid to step outside the literary box to learn better dialogue, and then learn to read your dialogue out loud. If it doesn’t sound good to your ears (or the cat!), odds are it won’t sound good to anyone else, either. 

So that’s my $.02 for the day. Go read a play, then go write something! 

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6 comments to Dialogue – live it, learn it, write it

  • Reading out loud…I could not agree more! Back in the old days of our writing group, we read our work out loud before receiving critique, and very, very often I’d catch my own little mistakes just in the act of hearing myself say it. We’d also sometimes trade and have another member read our work, so that we could see if the dialogue flowed as it should.

  • I never ever read scripts. And after reading your post I find myself wondering why. The advice you offer here is so simple, so logical, so reasonable. That must be why I didn’t think of it . . . . Nice post, man. Best of luck with the play.

  • Megan B.

    I never thought of looking to plays for tips on writing novels and short stories. But what you say makes total sense. You also touched on my own personal ‘rule’ of writing dialogue, which seems so obvious it shouldn’t even have to be a rule. Write dialogue like people really speak. Not as easy as it sounds, in practice, but it’s pretty much the foundation of writing believable dialogue.

  • Great post! I like some of Tom Stoppard, too. But that may be story more than dialogue. What I find helps with dialogue (and this might be about character more than dialogue) is that it gets better when I give my character a chance to say all the s&!$ that I’d like to be able to say, but never can, ’cause, you know, real life consequences. So when my dialogue feels like it is dragging, I think “what does the character really want to say? What will make ’em go out in a blaze of glory?” and I use it. It also sometimes helps with plot, ’cause it creates some serious consequences at times .

  • Gypsyharper

    Well, I think I’m terrible at dialogue, so I’ll take all the tips I can get! Oddly, it never really occurred to me to look at plays for help with my novel craft, even though I’m a total theater girl (mostly musical theater). And when I was writing the book for my musical, I thought a lot about story telling techniques intended for novel writing, so it definitely makes sense to apply techniques the other way ’round.

    Have a great time with your play!

  • My Tolkien class has been talking about why Tolkien’s dialogue is a terrible model for most writers (have you tried reading a draft epic novel where everyone says thee and thou? it’s painful), yet the LoTR reads so smoothly that we often have the impulse to read passages of dialogue out loud. One thing we’ve hit on is that Tolkien is able to shift diction appropriately for the moment he’s writing. His characters often speak very formally in high epic moments and very informally in intimate personal moments. The Hobbits cheerfully insult each other the way young men often do as an expression of affection. And sometimes Tolkien uses inappropriate diction for humor. Look at Gimli’s hysterical outburst at Isengard – he shouts “you wool pated, wool footed truants! I’m so torn between rage and joy…” but he does it right after Merry has delivered a highly formal (even comedically formal) greeting to King Theoden.