by Paul D. Marks
If you listen to two (or more) people talking you’ll hear that their conversation rambles all over the place. It bounces from one subject to another, there are pauses and ums and all kinds of distractions. This is conversation, not dialogue. Dialogue is not everyday conversation, but it needs to have the illusion that it is.
Your characters need to talk like real people, but at the same time their dialogue—your dialogue—needs to convey information, move the plot forward, possibly get out some exposition and either story or character background…….without being too obvious about it.
So how do you do this?
Listen to people around you. Their cadences. Intonation. Do they talk differently in a bar than a bookstore? On the East Coast than the West? And even if on the East Coast, don’t people from Maine talk differently from people in NYC or South Carolina? When we think of the East Coast, a lot of people think of New England, but the coast goes from Maine to the Florida Keys. How many different accents, ways of turning a phrase, slang, etc., do you think there are in just the states that border the Atlantic Ocean?
Even within a city there are different ways of talking. New York City has five boroughs. Is the accent and slang the same in each borough? Is it the same in Harlem and the East Side? Los Angeles is spread out over 503 square miles. Do you think the people from South Central talk the same as the people from the Valley—remember Valley Girls?
Make sure the way each character speaks is right for that character. Don’t have all your characters talk the same way. If all your characters speak with snappy lines and quick comebacks, how can you distinguish them from one another? I can understand having a couple characters that are smart and witty, but when every one of your characters is cracking one-liners, a reader might start to wonder if there’s something in the drinking water… In other words, keep dialogue in line with character, don’t have a wallflower start talking like a sailor or a blowhard start speaking like Emily Post.
Don’t use too much jargon, maybe just enough to get the point across that the character works in a particular biz or is from a particular area or background. And don’t get carried away writing dialect. It’s hard to read. Focus on the way people phrase things. If the character’s from the South and has a drawl, don’t write everything out like it sounds, except sparingly to get an idea of the accent. Pop it in here or there, but mostly just say they talk with a drawl.
I once had a producer tell me to write dialogue in “ten word telegrams.” In screenplays most speeches should be short, not long soliloquys. Though ten words is a little too short much of the time (see the long speech from Sideways below). But you have more freedom in a novel, still you don’t want one speech running a page long.
Maya (Virginia Madsen): You know, can I ask you a personal question, Miles?
Miles (Paul Giamatti): Sure.
Maya: Why are you so into Pinot? I mean, it's like a thing with you.
Miles: Uh, I don't know, I don't know. Um, it's a hard grape to grow, as you know. Right? It's uh, it's thin-skinned, temperamental, ripens early. It's, you know, it's not a survivor like Cabernet, which can just grow anywhere and uh, thrive even when it's neglected. No, Pinot needs constant care and attention. You know? And in fact it can only grow in these really specific, little, tucked away corners of the world. And, and only the most patient and nurturing of growers can do it, really. Only somebody who really takes the time to understand Pinot's potential can then coax it into its fullest expression. Then, I mean, oh its flavors, they're just the most haunting and brilliant and thrilling and subtle and... ancient on the planet.*
And though this example is from a movie it applies to novels as well.
Then, when you’re done read it out loud, preferably in front of or with another person. You really do hear things that you don’t see when you read in your head.
Finally, be true to yourself, because everyone has an opinion and opinions are a dime a dozen: I once optioned a screenplay to a producer. He read it and loved it, especially the dialogue. He gave it to a director to read it. She hated the dialogue. Magically and overnight, he hated the dialogue too. Go figure. So, unless you’re getting paid, write it your way.
*Directed by Alexander Payne. Screenplay by: Alexander Payne, Jim Taylor, based on a novel by Rex Pickett.
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