Thursday, January 19, 2012
3 Keys to Brilliant Dialog
1. Read your dialog aloud. You've heard this one before, I'm sure. But what are they really getting at here? It's all about sounding natural, but what does that even mean? To me, thinking "I must write Great Dialog" can be really intimidating, as opposed to "Its just me, yo." In everyday conversation you just talk, easily, almost reflexively, with little to no analytical thinking. When you read your dialog aloud it should feel as close to that as you can get it. If you can write it in that conversational way to begin with, all the better. (Don't believe anyone who says literary dialog can't be conversational. Just write. There are always edits.)
2. Get in Character Mode. In my experience the worst thing a person can do for their dialog (both in writing and acting, actually) is to think 'How would this character say this?' Right there you've lost all your naturality, and made your dialog stiff and contrived. You can't know how someone else would say or even perceive something, you can only know how you would say or perceive it. But Sarah, you say, my forty year old zookeeper musn't sound like his sixteen year old niece or people will figure out I'm a hack and throw one-star reviews at me.
So we bring out our inner thesbians. You know you have one. If you didn't you wouldn't be trying to tell a story. If you're going to write believable dialog for this character, you need to be that character. And that's not so hard, because they all came from you to begin with. They're all part of you, all in your head. So it's less thinking "How would a teenager say this" and more "I'm a teenager saying this." It's not some generic "A Teenager", it's you. As a teenager. Or a trucker, or a pirate or a seventy-year old retired FBI agent living in a rest-home. If you get rid of any self-conciousness and just write, the nuances between characters will be seem incredibly subtle to you, but will make all the difference. The key is to not think of what they say as separate from what you say.
3. Hear brilliant dialog. This is the fun part. This is when watching genius television (*ahem* Sherlock) counts as research. It's like learning any other skill, the best way is to watch someone who knows how to do it. Or for that matter, someone who doesn't and you can learn from their mistakes. Reading great dialog is good too, but I particularly like the idea of hearing it because dialog should flow from your pen as naturally and realistically as great dialog flows from a great actors tongue, which is to say, as naturally as it flows when you're telling your roommate the weird dream you had last night. I think its perhaps harder to get that same experience when you just have words on a page and didn't experience the way they flowed from the writers mind to that page. Does that make sense? But once you've experienced the ease and flow of good dialog it is of course a great idea to see how that translates to ink and paper.
Is dialog one of the hard bits for you, or easy? What have you done to make your dialog the most effective?