Notes Of A Storyteller: Dialogue- Part Two (How TO Do It)

Did you make it over here last Friday? If so, you’ve got some laughs to catch up on. I posted the WORST dialogue you might ever see in your life. I also mentioned some things I’ve learned about avoiding bad dialogue.

But what’s the good of avoiding the bad if we just avoid the bad? Here’s my advice on how to write good dialogue…

1) Watch movies. 

Sorry. That’s no good at all.

1) Watch good movies. I have learned more from movies than anywhere else about how to make good dialouge. When you’re saying something out loud, you have a sharper sense about what words to keep and what words to throw away. It’s an art. Naturally, then, the only way to improve is to absorb the work of other artists. Check out this clip from The Princess Bride…

Here’s one from The Dark Knight. This whole movie is amazing well-written; I spent half an hour going through clips trying to pick one to demonstrate. Listen to the rhythm of the conversation.

Look for movies like these. Play through the best scenes with characters talking to each other. The Lord of the Rings, Sherlock Holmes (yes, the Robert Downey Jr. version from 2009),

2) Read good books. Obviously, screenwriters aren’t the only guys around who can turn a phrase. Read Shakespeare (in particular, read Hamlet and Julius Caesar). Read Dorothy Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries. Read Flannery O’ Connor’s The Violent Bear It Away. If you don’t read anything else, please read The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. Read this stuff aloud. Get a feel for how the characters go back and forth. It takes time to cultivate that instinct for what sounds good.

3) Make fun of bad dialogue. This will strengthen your sense of quality, as you learnt to distinguish good dialogue from bad dialogue from reprehensibly stupid dialogue. Most importantly, make sure you have a reason for why it’s bad. That will really sharpen your mind. Make sure you have friends around you when you get confident. This is your chance to show off.

4) Practice until you go insane. Keep playing with words, catchphrases and comebacks until your fingers are numb and it’s 1 AM in the morning and your brain is a pile of slush. Then try writing one more line of dialogue. Eventually, you will break through. You’ll know it when it happens.

5) Let other people read your work. We writers can come with wonderful explanations for atrociously bad decisions. Let your unbiased friends have a peek at your dialogue. Better yet, let your savage enemies look at it, and let them tear it apart. Understand why they make the criticisms they do. If you have appropriately savage friends, your dialogue should start looking better in a hurry.

6) Don’t give up. This stuff takes time.

I didn’t give up, and somehow I improved. I’ll leave you with a passage from The Quest which is considerably improved from how it first sounded in my rough draft…

FROM THE KINGDOM: THE QUEST. DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR, SEAN MATTHEW MCGUIRE.

“Larsor?” called Arman.

 “You know my name!”

“W… what’s wrong? Larsor?”

“I thank you, milord!” shouted Larsor, drunk, waving his tangled hair. “For gracing this wretched, cold, filthy hall with your most comely feet and toes, and your wonderful brown hair!”

Larsor started to rise from his bow, and then toppled. Arman started towards him, but the knight only got back up, giggling. He fell again, bonking his head on the bed.

“Oh, make yourself useful and get me a brandy,” mumbled Larsor.

“You… don’t look like you need anything at the moment,” said Arman feebly.

“Arman, Heir of Broamas, I need everything at the moment! More, more, more! Where’s that dratted bottle! Oarath, you pig! You cow! You patriotic blockhead! You can’t keep me from my drink!”

“Oarath’s not here; I am.”

“Good! A captive audience! Let me tell thee of the sluggish, serious ways of the good knight Oarath! Everybody loves him, though he doesn’t do anything but bow to lords and look pretty on a horse! I make the lords laugh, but they always save their love for him! Ansfeld, can you hear me? You can back me up!”

“Who’s… who’s Ansfeld?”

“Ansfeld! Ansfeld! Son of Annarth! The best friend I ever had- dead! I can’t hold it back anymore! Cut down by arrows before he could even draw his sword!”

“At the Meras?”

“I saw the corpse myself! Piled on a horse, like a sack of dirt! Oh, Ansfeld!”

“I’m sorry.”

“You’re not sorry! You’ve never lost a friend! Don’t ever vomit those words at my feet again! More brandy!”

“No.”

“A beer!”

“I’m not… no!”

 “You drank once with me today. Come! The night is young! We’ll tear this town to pieces! Quaff another barrel of ale! We’ll find a Councilman’s girl and yank up her skirts in a plump feather-bed!”

“I… have other priorities at the moment.”

“Like what? The Nameless One? Nothing will dampen his spirits like a good party, don’t you think?”

“Thousands of people are counting on me to do good. I must refuse your offer. Don’t be offended.”

“I’m not offended! I’m drowning in laughter! You won’t ever be a naughty boy, will you? Ha! You’ve never done a brave thing in your life, have you?”

“I set out with Menemaeus…”

“Oh, and that was completely your own decision? A big, flaming spirit nudging you on didn’t have anything to do with it, eh?”

“He’s more than a big, flaming spirit.”

“Then what is he?”

When Arman did not answer, Larsor pressed on.

“Have you got a girl back home?” he said.

“Yes, and I would prefer not to speak of her at this-“

“You never kissed her, did you? Not even once? Ha! You couldn’t do it, could you?”

“Stop!”

FROM THE KINGDOM: THE QUEST. DO NOT REPRODUCE WITHOUT CONSENT OF THE AUTHOR, SEAN MATTHEW MCGUIRE.

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Notes Of A Storyteller: Dialogue- Part One (How NOT To Do It)

There I was, in that stereotypical writer’s hunch at my desk. The laptop glowered at me maliciously. My weary eyebrows managed a frown in response. My wrists and fingers hardened, ready for another onslaught. My mind braced itself for a beating. Hunching over a little more, I cast out for my ideas.

“Okay,” I breathed, “What am I going to write for “Notes Of A Storyteller” this week?”

If you thought that was intense, you don’t even want to know what writing dialogue is like.

You may or may not have been down this road before. Those who have may raise their glass with me; those who haven’t may sit down and listen to me. There are two things that kill a novel quicker than anything else: your very first sentence and your dialogue. Oh, your dialogue. There are some truly horrendous examples out there. None could ever be worse than what I wrote as a wee, innocent sophomore in high school…

   “Where’s the strength in that?” jeered Mathonar when he stopped by and noted Arman’s more pale mead mug.

“Where’s the sobriety in that?” retorted Arman, observing a full mug of something that looked strong enough to craze a troll. Vertaen and some of the knights oversaw the debate with amused and grinning expressions.

   “Since when has anyone factored something stupid like that into drinking?” countered Mathonar.

    “I won’t argue with you on that point if I’ve got to explain your logical contradictions.” scored Arman, and Mathonar laughed and walked away.

    “Just what contradictions did he make that you couldn’t explain?” challenged Vertaen after he left the eye’s sight.

    “If I have to attempt telling anyone the folly behind matching up sober, stupid, and drunk the way he did, I’ve got nothing to say in the slightest.” said Arman, drawing guffaws around the group.

    “There’s a rare ‘un!” laughed one knight, “Wit and morals!”

    “Won’t see one of those again, I reckon!” said another.

I don’t care how terrible you are. If you can manage something even slightly better than this, you have hope as a novelist. If you can string together at least four lines that make a lick of sense, and that sound like things that human beings would actually say, then you just might have a future in storytelling.

Next week I’ll show you a sample from The Quest as it is today, vastly improved from what you just read. I’ll tell you then how to do good dialouge. For now, here’s a list of don’ts…

1) Don’t ever assume you are the wittiest writer ever

2) Don’t ever stop going through every line of dialouge, looking for something to edit

3) Don’t explain too much. Let your characters talk. Inserting a paragraph of facial expressions or background information will kill the rhythm of your dialogue. If you do a good job, the words your characters say will clue us in to personality, reaction, etc.

4) Don’t emulate Charles Dickens or Alexandre Dumas if you’re looking to connect to the readers of today. I’m terribly sorry. I know they sound wonderful. Feel free to tap into their skills of making words sound good; do not make your lines of dialogue longer than a paragraph. Readers don’t like that. They expect snappier dialogue these days (I’ll get more into that next week).

5) Don’t ever get discouraged and don’t ever stop trying. No matter how badly you screw up, there’s no way you’ll write anything as bad as The Room.

Come back in 2012 for Part Two!