I must confess before I begin that this is my first time guest posting on a blog. I realize what a big deal guest posting is, so let me say thanks to Joy for the opportunity. Hopefully I won’t bore you to death or embarrass you.
I’ve been telling stories in one form or another almost all my life – but only in the last ten years or so has it become my career. Of course, I still shrink a bit when I say ‘career,’ as the word sort-of implies that I get paid for my work, which hasn’t happened yet – at least not in any amount that wouldn’t make a tax preparer bust out laughing after seeing my 1099’s. But I have been told that I’m a good writer, by quite a few people who have nothing to gain by saying so. I think the coolest compliment I’ve ever gotten came from a producer who told me that I ‘write like a man.’ A lot of female writers would take offense at that, but I knew exactly what she meant – and if you’re a writer (or a steady reader), you probably know what she meant, too. So I think I might actually be fairly qualified to give out some free advice to any fellow writers who read this blog.
My biggest pet peeve when reading a novel (or especially a script) – besides sloppy proofreading jobs – is bad dialogue. Reading it is like running on an open beach on a beautiful, sunny day, totally in the zone – and then suddenly tripping and busting your ass. To me, nothing ruins a story faster.
So how can you write better dialogue? Well, the first trick is an obvious one, and key to just becoming a better writer, period: read a lot. And not just the classics, but mediocre books and bad ones, too. Once you’ve read enough of all kinds, you’ll be able to recognize why the good stuff works and the bad stuff doesn’t.
Another trick is to listen carefully to how other people talk – and how you yourself talk. So much of what makes good dialogue work so well is how it sounds, even though you’re reading it. There’s a natural feel to good dialogue, a smoothness – which is not to be confused with (what I can only describe as) über-cool dialogue. To me, the epitome of über-cool dialogue is a lot of what Quentin Tarantino writes – stuff that sounds awesome, but that you would never actually say to anybody in real life. I mean, really – if you were Beatrix Kiddo in ‘Kill Bill Vol. 2,’ would you have sat through Bill’s entire spiel about superhero origin stories? Don’t get me wrong, it was cool – but you could’ve dispatched the dude and been halfway across the state in the same amount of time. That’s not what I mean when I think of ‘good.’
Just plain old, good dialogue should get the necessary information across, but sound like a conversation you’d have with your best friend – and to me, that includes using things that other writers (and teachers of writing) would say are incorrect. In real life, people don’t always express themselves in properly-constructed sentences. They start sentences with conjunctions. They pause mid-thought. There are conversational lulls. They say ‘uh,’ ‘um,’ ‘like’ and ‘really.’ I say don’t be afraid to put them in there. Don’t be afraid of using phonetic spelling if your character has an accent – don’t be afraid to try anything you think will make your dialogue sound better. Just don’t overdo it.
It might sound as if I’m against the long-established rules of proper writing, but I’m not – not at all. Every writer should have a copy of ‘The Elements of Style’ and do their utmost to abide by it – but every writer is also a bit of a rebel, and should also know that sometimes breaking the rules is better for the story. And whatever is better for the story is what the writer needs to do.
About the Author:
I'm a Philly girl, born & raised. Yo! I've always loved to tell stories, been doing it since I was a kid. But I loved being a visual artist as well -- so I went to college thinking I was going to become a graphic designer, and ended up a film major. Met my husband there and we got married after graduation. Then we packed up and hauled ourselves Beverly Hillbillies-style out to Hell-A, and spent the next 10 years working in Hollyweird.
We had a pretty good run out there...I was an assistant editor during the last hurrah of film and the beginning of digital, and my husband worked the last hurrah of hand-drawn feature/TV animation. But the change to all things digital and CG hit animation especially hard, and around '01 he found himself in the midst of massive layoffs due to outsourcing. So we re-evaluated our priorities and decided to pack it in. After 9/11 my husband joined the US Border Patrol and we moved to Arizona. Stayed there for 5 years and absolutely hated it...the only good thing was having our daughter in '04. Then finally, my husband was able to transfer out and we took off to the great white north of North Dakota, where we currently reside. It's a beauty way to go...yah, you betcha.
I now find myself in my 40's, going back to storytelling in the hopes of making a new career out of it. Here's hoping it works out