One thing I have found out is that when you say, “They can’t teach me anything”, it is a self fulfilling prophecy. Even though I’ve written several novels and written several screenplays, I still read and watch everything I can on the subject of writing.
There’s nothing more personal than writing. And none of us can be completely objective about our writing – because it came from us. And since it came from us, if someone points out that a scene doesn’t make sense, or that it;s completely unneeded, we tend to react as if the criticism was about us, not our product. Writers are the only group of people in the world who can send a manuscript to a reviewing service and get offended by the report.
Dialog is something that apparently is my strong point. When I challenged out of a college class using a chapter from a novel I was writing, the English teacher made a comment that my dialog was strong and believable. Well, if you spend your youth doing more listening than talking, that’s going to happen.
Dialog often remains the one area that separates unpublished writers from published writers. So what can you do to improve your dialog?
- Stilted dialog. This happens to people who don’t realize that dialog not only has a rhythm, but also has pitch. I used to mimic human speech musically, to show people how this is done. You need to improve your dialog to the point that it has, even on the written page, the same spoken rhythm. The best way to do it is read your dialog out loud. If it seems awkward when you’re reading it, then it’s because it isn’t fitting the common rhythm we associate with it.
- Repetitive dialog. Yes, indeed. It repeats. And says the same thing over and over again, echoing what it already has said, mimicking itself. As Robert McKee says, dialog is subject to the law of diminishing returns. Saying it once has maximum effectiveness. Saying it twice has less effectiveness. Saying it a third time is now yielding limited effectiveness. Saying it a fourth time has no effect. “I need to talk to you.” “Go away.” That exchange is done. We’ve expressed that IDEA. To repeat that idea is to now start making the reader agitated. “You need to listen to me!” The next line had better be, “All right, but I don’t know how you’re going to change my mind”, or you just ruined the scene. Or, “Well, I’m going to talk – you can either listen and get this resolved, or you can walk away and lose everything we’ve worked so hard to build.”
- useless dialog. Sometimes, writers resort to dialog that simply doesn’t say anything. “How is mother?” Okay, you’ve got a great, great opportunity here to suggest something’s wrong with mother. “Mother is… you know mother.” Three or four word narrative sentence to show the subtext message is received… then, “Yes. We all know.” That dialog did something. But, “How is mother?” “She’s fine.” is useless, unless for comedy effect. If you’re writing dialog that does nothing for the sake of two people having conversation, you’re wasting precious white space on your screen. Dialog must have PURPOSE. We could even change the exchange to being more powerful. “How is Mother?” He looked away, not meeting her gaze. “You have to even ask?” He answered. “You know we’re still… Look, skip it.” See, that dialog has purpose, subtext, and it pushes the plot along.
- Dialog with no purpose. Dialog must push the plot along. The people in your book or script are having many conversations between pages that you’re not writing down. They’re stopping at the Wawa to buy a salad and a Dr. Brown’s Cream Soda, and chatting with the bored kid behind the register in his red shirt. It doesn’t need to be in your novel, unless it somehow is part of your story. For instance, how many times in any Tom Clancy novel did Jack Ryan fill his gas tanks? He drove around a lot. And he probably said something every now and then to the people at the gas station. And Jack Ryan was married, and had a daughter. But we rarely saw him speaking to either of them – unless it pushed the story forward, or was part of the plot.
- Flat dialog. Dialog has emotion. I got very good at insistent communication when I was young. We call that “Whining” today. Plaintive communication, sorrowful, reluctant – there’s a million different forms. Flat dialog is dialog without any emotion. This too can be used for effect, to show someone is beyond caring or over it. But if your whole book is full of flat dialog, go do something exciting, then come back and write. When someone is talking to someone else n your novel, they want something, whether it’s asking or giving. There’s emotion involved in that. “How’s Mother?” “Why do you keep asking about her? Leave it be!” That’s dialog. “How’s mother?” “Fine, just fine.” Flat.
- Excessively wordy dialog. If your character just talked for four pages about shoelaces, um… chop that. Yes, I know War and Peace was eighty nine billion words, but you’re not Tolstoy, and I don’t think Tolstoy could get away with that even today. If you suffer from this, get a Twitter account – that will fix it. Or write on a piece of paper in your writing space, “What’s the shortest way to say this?” and the famous ONW – “Omit Needless Words.” If you have friends, you’ve learned to speak to them in the shortest way possible. If you have no friends, ding ding ding ding!!!
- Pretentious Dialog. The obsessive need to write something because it sounds like great literature. If you can elevate your writing craft over ten years to being someone who writes great literature, that’s a beautiful thing and I’m envious. But if you’re on novel one and you’re trying to write Wuthering Heights… um… take baby steps first. Write dialog that sounds real. Write narrative that communicates powerful actions, describes things with cinematic focus. Let age, maturity (maturity??? We’re talking writers, here!), and experience naturally give you the great literature skill. Don’t sound like Hyacinth from “Keeping Up Appearances” trying to write a novel!
Okay, I went about 400 words over the limit on this one. But I wanted to seriously talk about dialog because some people just don’t get it. If you’re a writer, I want you to get published. If you’re a reader, I want you to know how to read and understand the inner language of the novels you read. Character dialog is a powerful tool, if used effectively. Use it effectively!