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!