How to Tighten Up Your Dialogue

When I’m writing a novel my train of thought needs to stay on track. If I loop around to edit I run out of steam. So I keep shoveling coal into the engine and words onto the page. Sometimes there’s nothing but rails all the way up the horizon. Sometimes curves in the mountains keep me from seeing where I’m going. Some routes are ideal while others are just serviceable.

The process forces me to wear many hats. I’m both the conductor and the stoker, tasked with staying on schedule and fueling the creative process. If I overthink the path the crankshaft screeches to a halt. So I keep chugging along until the first draft is done. No sense in letting writer’s block derail me.

When I write dialogue I get a sense of where the scene needs to go and let my cast say the first things that come to mind. I let their upbringings, attitudes, and professions dictate their speech patterns. For the characters I pick up along the way I try to find their voices while writing. I’m not too worried if I can’t on my first try because all writing is rewriting and I know I’ll be back this way again.

These are the most important lessons I’ve learned while tightening up dialogue for the second draft.

Dialogue is Not Conversation

Listen in on a conversation between strangers. They might have some solid quote book material between them, but odds are they won’t seem quick witted as characters on film. Genuine conversations never flow like they do in the movies. They’re never as snappy. They’re more herky jerky.

Onscreen dialogue is straight to the point while real world conversations are full of speech disfluencies; filler words like: like, um, uh, huh, and you know. These breaks buy us time while our brains are farting.

Most conversations are subject to segmented sentences, false starts, and interruptions. A pair of Chatty Cathys will free associate, wandering from topic to topic, pausing to backtrack. Stressed speakers can get a condition called word salad where they swap nouns with verbs, switch tenses, and mix their syntax.

Notice how even poorly spoken characters in movies aren’t afforded the luxuries of speech disfluency, free association, and word salad. This is because screenwriters only have so much time to convey information before the credits come. They have to be economical with their scenes, which is why characters can’t be too conversational.

Say it Out Loud

Regarding the script for the original Star Wars Harrison Ford said, “You can type this shit George, but you sure can’t say it.”

When I attempted to record my first audio book I learned this lesson right away: my story was in dire need of another edit. The dialogue was filled with multi-syllable words, tongue twisters, and paragraph length sentences. My sentences were too verbose. I found myself running out of breath reading them. This wouldn’t have happened if I’d read the dialogue aloud while I was writing.

Reduce Redundancies

In real life people have a habit of saying the same thing twice. Cutdown on these tautologies like they broke out clapping in wild applause, or He was sobbing with a face wet with tears, or She was projectile vomiting, spraying puke everywhere. Your characters will have to choose one way to get their point across.

Replace repeated words. A line like, “I’m a fighter fighting for the pure love of the fight,” could read, “I’m a brawler fighting for the pure love of combat.”

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Cut the Smalltalk 

There’s a reason characters in movies don’t spend much time asking “How’s it going?” talking about the weather, or the wellbeing of people offscreen. That’s because those introductions already happened before the audience arrived in the scene. Economical screenwriters enter scenes late and leave them early.

Audiences have been trained to pay attention to dialogue for relevant information that might come into play later. You don’t want to burden them with empty chatter unless it reveals something about the characters or slyly advances the plot. Characters should talk about the strange weather they’ve been seeing only if the Apocalypse is about to happen in the next scene.

Play With Idioms, but Don’t Rely On them

Pay attention to how many stock phrases you’re using, lines like “I have a bad feeling about this.” or “I get that a lot.” or “You should see the other guy.”

It feels safer to let your heroes echo lines you’ve heard a thousand times, but the more you use these idioms the more generic your characters sound. Their dialogue will be serviceable, but not memorable.

Think Like a Director

In movies and TV the camera moves closer to the actors with each dramatic beat. Think about the crime scene sequences at the beginning of almost every episode of The X-Files. A small town sheriff walks Agents Mulder and Scully through the bloodbath. This is usually a wide shot to show the characters in relation the space. When Mulder and Scully start asking questions the cameras move in for a medium shot featuring both the series leads from the waist up. When the Agents start arguing about what they think happened we see whoever is speaking from over the shoulder of the other character. The camera moves in for a closeup when Mulder introduces his shocking theory. We get a closeup of Scully reacting with bewilderment and we’re onto the next scene.

Written scenes should follow similar dramatic beats. Visualize your characters talking as though they were characters in a film. If you think you’ve found a good emotional moment for a closeup that’s the note the scene should go out on.

Keep Track of How Long Each Character Has the Ball

Real world speakers can be more selfish than their fictitious counterparts. If conversations are a game of catch one speaker often holds the ball longer than the other.

Dialogue flows better when characters pass the ball back and forth, speaking in single sentences. This game of catch keeps the pace fast. If a character holds the ball for too long there should be a good reason they’re still talking.

Characters get to have monologues when they have a good cause. For instance: an intrepid journalist confronts a colleague on all the things she had to do to get where she is, a sea captain warns his crew of a giant squid known to swim the waters they’re crossing, or a detective confronts a group of affluent suspects in a parlor room scene.

If your hero is an eccentric, like Sherlock Holmes, he’ll hold the ball longer than his peers. If your villain has an entrenched sense of entitlement you can assume his lips will keep flapping longer than his henchmen. Just pay attention to who’s passing the ball and who’s traveling.

Closing Thoughts

Film is a visual medium. Screenwriters should illustrate as much as they can through action before resorting to conversation. Television on the other hand has been called radio with faces. TV writers get to pig out on their banter.

Authors have to find a balance in between giving readers something worth visualizing and dialogue worth quoting. Don’t take for granted the fact that you have more space to work with in a book. Less is still more. You still have to hold your audiences’ attention. Keep your dialogue short by creating a sense of urgency. If you don’t know how to get your characters out of a conversation interrupt them. If they keep gabbing make sure they’re saying something relevant.

No matter the medium, good dialogue should always do the following: reveal the characters, serve their goals, highlight their conflict, further the plot, and have swears, plenty of swears.

•••

This is my first collection of musical spoken word recordings. Each recording puts a satirical slant on self improvement, self medicating heartbreak with humor, and dropping the mic on depression. The recordings are scored with synth melodies, backing beats, and radio drama sound FX.

8 thoughts on “How to Tighten Up Your Dialogue”

  1. I can hear my ‘people’ in my head as they speak to each other, Drew. Often I will talk out loud as I’m typing the dialogue. My daughter has even shouted out to me from her adjoining bedroom, thinking I’ve been calling her. When I’m editing, if I change someone’s dialogue I will often reread it and think ‘No, that’s not the way he/she would say that.’

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Hey, Drew. I’ve had the sudden need to focus nearly all of my energies in other areas for a month or so here (if you want to know why, drop a line or check out my first post in five weeks: http://www.thebestadvicesofar.com/2016/03/11/when-the-dust-settles/).

    BUT, I’m loving being back to writing, and being able to catch up with my favorite bloggers. I’ve missed you, man. (Don’t cry.)

    Now, regarding your post here …

    I don’t swear a rule. I only do it in humor, and so infrequently that, when I do, it always garners just the reaction I’m hoping to elicit. In the same way, I think you can use any of the above no-no’s successfully, if you pair them with a character who is typically not guilty of the offense.

    For instance …

    A slick, well-spoken person suddenly falling into word salad.

    A pithy or high-brow person using a hackneyed expression in an odd moment.

    A nun swearing. (Well, actually, that one’s not as infrequent as some might believe.)

    You smell what I’m cooking, I’m sure. And I’m glad to be smelling what you’re cooking once more.

    Like

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