When critics read my writing, they comment that it reads like a television or movie script. Both genres use dialogue judiciously. What’s most interesting is that I didn’t have a television growing up – I did have an imagination that produced a lot of imaginary characters. Though conversations between people appear to be a natural to me, I still rely on some key tools to write good dialogue:
1. Keep characters completely unenlightened
One book that every writer of fiction should read is Michael Shurtleff’s Audition. His advice equally applies to actors and writers. Shurtleff observed that actors often play a scene as if they know the scene’s ending beforehand. For example, at the climax of one particular scene of a Tennessee Williams’ play, an insane person puts out a cigarette in the palm of the hand of the nurse who’s trying to help her. But the nurse, according to Shurtleff, wrongly played the whole scene as if she didn’t like the patient. Shurtleff told the actress: “If you treat the patient really nicely and kindly throughout the scene, and you show the audience you like her, and you’re trying to help her, it’s a thousand times more powerful if she then turns around and puts that cigarette out in your palm.” That makes a lot of sense. If you know the how the scene will end before you start to write it, don’t let your character act and speak as if they know where it’s going. Preserve surprise and the scene will be much more efficacious.
2. Become the Character
Amy Tan stated that her when she wrote dialogue, her technique was to stare at her shoes until she suddenly became the character. I use a version of this; I pretend to be each of my characters whilst I drive – this is tricky because I wouldn’t want to be in the character of my villain when I order tea at Starbucks.
3. Leave Transcripts for Court Reporters
Superb dialogue sometimes just happens, but most often, we have to sit there for a long time until we get exactly the right words we want. At an audition, a director told me he’d deduct a hundred dollars from actors’ pay for each word they uttered that was not in the script. As a writer, you aren’t in charge of getting down every single word the characters might say – you just have to report the dialogue that’s most important to the story.
4. Make Every Word Count – Like You’re Being Charged for Them
Here’s the dialogue on the first page of Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club:
[Mother:] “Auntie Lin cooked red bean soup for Joy Luck. I’m going to cook black bean sesame soup.”
[Daughter:] “Don’t show off.”
The daughter’s three little words tell us a lot about both characters: 1) the mother was trying to one-up Auntie Lin; 2) the relationship between mother and daughter is combative; and, 3) the nature of the daughter who’s hard - she isn’t always nice. So, when the mother comes back with this retort: “It’s not showoff.” We know the mother is hurt, we also know that the spelling means the speaker’s first language is not English – “showoff” instead of “show off”. Use dialogue to provide the evidence of who your characters are and let the reader draw the conclusion.
5. Read Your Dialogue Aloud, into a Tape Recorder
When you speak your own dialogue, you suddenly know which lines need attention and which lines are fine.