Doug Richardson’s first produced feature was the sequel to Die Hard, Die Harder. Visit Doug’s site for more Hollywood war stories and information on his popular novels. Follow Doug on Twitter @byDougRich.
Yeah. This post is about lousy dialogue. You know it when you hear it, see it, read it, sound it out on your own tongue, and witness the awful moment when it happens. It’s those uncomfortable strings of words that ring like an instrument far out of tune as soon as they leave an actor’s mouth. You wince. Cringe. Cover your ears. Want to run to the honey wagon, shut the door, and turn off the walkie-talkie and cell phone and hope to hell they don’t find you.
Yes. I’m talking about your dialogue. Why me? you ask. I mean, c’mon. It was sterling when you wrote it, reread it, and then polished it into the shiny turd it still is — which is horrible, awful, sickness-inducing strings of wordplay that no actor – and I’m talking even one of the greats of all time – could wrap his or her mouth around and make sound the least bit authentic.
And not only did you write it. But at this very moment you’re just a page click away from committing the same crime yet again.
I strongly suggest you stop with the “not me” denials and reconsider reading on.
For starters, you need to forgive yourself. Everybody whose ever put pen to paper and attempted a stab at dialogue has failed. I can virtually guarantee you there were moments where Shakespeare himself stood sixth-row center at a rehearsal in an empty Globe Theater and felt shivers to his marrow when a competent actor tried and failed to stick the landing on a chain of squeaky dialogue.
Then again, not all of us have the luxury of competent actors available to sound out our egregious errors.
There are though, tricks you can utilize. The first of which is to confess to yourself that if given the opportunity to act yourself, you’d most likely suck so bad you’d fail to get cast in an all-silent student film. And if the aforementioned is true–and you know it is–how the hell can you be the judge of your own work?
First suggestion, take some acting lessons. Mind you, it might not turn you into anything more than an improved-but-you-still-stink actor. But it will give you insight into how hard it is to build actor-resistant dialogue. And at worst it will give you some performance skills that will one day be useful when it comes to that awful, non-writerly must called pitching. Brief digression concluded.
Continuing on with the acting lessons. Once ensconced in classes, you will find yourself amongst actors, many of whom might be willing to come over for a night of pizza, beer, and a table reading of a few scenes from your screenplay or novel that you’ve written. Just hearing even mediocre actors rehearse and/or cold read your stuff will be an extraordinary education in writing dialogue. It may not be good dialogue yet. It will though, I promise, be improved.
Oh wait. You say you don’t have access to an acting class? Or the time to commit? I get that. And I did say there were tricks. As in plural. So if you’re curious, please read on.
Here’s where the dialogue path diverges. You can follow one or the other. Or attempt both. Each is an outstanding exercise in learning to write distinct and workable wordplay.
First is a technique used by a number of successful writers. When I was just a punk at Warner Brothers, I first heard it utilized by Patrick Sheane Duncan (Mr. Holland’s Opus, Courage Under Fire.) Pat made a habit out of writing in restaurants. Mostly coffeeshops and delis, if I recall. He’d write on a legal pad, keeping one ear on what he was laying down on paper, the other on nearby conversations. He’d listen for rhythms and the natural defects in one-to-one communication. How we normal folks clip words, poorly punctuate ourselves, and generally converse. This is an awesome technique. But mind you, you’ll quickly and rightly learn that unless you are writing a sequel to My Dinner with Andre, purely natural dialogue is like diarrhea. It never ends. As writers we must manipulate our fictional tête-a-têtes into moments of brevity that give the illusion of conversation.
What’s that you say? I can’t afford to sit in restaurants or even free public places as a way of training my pen to be as tuned as my ear? Okay. Here’s an even cheaper trick. And this is the one I use nearly every day.
Choose an actor or actress your adore. Now, this can’t be that hard. Otherwise, why the hell are you trying to write movies or TV or even books? We live in a media culture and, throughout our lives, have been bombarded by iconographic figures in the guise of actors. Even better, many of their performances are burned into our subconscious with the ferociousness of pop tunes – good or bad – that screw into our brains like the earworms they are. Once you find the actors and/or characterizations that either narrowly or loosely fit the scene, write or re-write the words as if coming through their mouths. Don’t direct them. Seriously, you’re not that good and George Clooney in Ocean’s Eleven can’t hear you. You can, though, learn from the years he labored to hone that movie star persona. And if George Clooney or Jessica Chastain are the avatars you picture in that role – and they can’t make your dialogue work–it’s bad dialogue. Period. Start over. Do it until you get it right.
One of my personal favorites is Paul Newman. Even more specifically, Paul Newman in The Verdict. I’m big on writing redemptive characters. So when I need a moment and am stuck for ways to put it over, I will sometimes run it through my Paul Newman as Frank Galven filter. In doing so, two things usually happen: my dialogue word count often gets cut in two and the word usage gets way more focused and to the point. So thanks, Paul.
Now these tricks do not apply to all dialogue. If you are inclined to invent a universe where your own distinctive dialogue is part and parcel in creating your own distinctive universe – think Aaron Sorkin’s patented patter or Quentin Tarantino’s often delicious verbosity – then forget everything I’ve said, carry on and good luck to you.
I recall my junior days walking into a meeting at Warner Brothers to learn that my seat was still warm from where David Mamet had been parked only fifteen minutes earlier. The exec followed up by telling us that Mamet had been auditioning for a gig adapting a famous novel. For the life of me I can’t remember the famous author, but it was someone with a very unique voice. When Mamet was asked how he planned to morph his own distinct verbal skillset into the author’s, Mamet replied, “Don’t worry. When I’m done (the famous author) is going to realize it’s better to sound like me.”
Though I’m not suggesting you ape great writers like the ones mentioned above, if trying to get inside their unique voices helps you turn your shitty dialogue into words that pop and make actors want to be your professional spokes-hole, give it a swing. Worst that can happen is you miss and have to start over. But, hell. Writing is rewriting. If you can’t wear out your backspace key and try, try again, I strongly suggest you fold your writer’s tent and reinvest in your day job.
Get Doug’s volume of Hollywood war stories in his new book
The Smoking Gun: True Tales from Hollywood’s Screenwriting Trenches