The ability to write good dialogue can make or break a writer, yet there is only one requirement, that it be believable to the reader or listener.
For the dramatist who writes to be heard rather than read, dialogue is of course vitally important. But it is amazing the number of writers who imagine that because they can converse, they can write convincing dialogue.
Dramatic dialogue is not written conversation, as any reality tape recording will prove.
Conversation relies on gestures and visual hints, together with pauses for reflection and long periods of silence. Though the dramatist can include such reinforcement to increase the reality of his work, prolonged usage will prove excruciating to the audience. The art of successful dramatic dialogue is in the balance between the transmission of information and the dramatic effect it has.
Every piece of dialogue must have a purpose. Does it move the plot forward? Does it explain a character’s motivation? Or the relationship between two characters? Characters in a drama cannot just chat, they must drive the drama forward in some fashion.
It is important too, that each character has a distinctive voice which differentiates him from the rest of the cast. These differences can come in many forms, accents, vocabulary range, pitch of voice, all valuable markers for the audience. Vital in radio writing, they are also useful in visual media because the audience can ‘log on’ to a character if he adequately delivers a well-written line. “The name’s Bond, James Bond,” carries authority and self-assurance even when delivered with Sean Connery’s Scottish slur. Or perhaps because of it.
So how does the writer learn to write good dialogue? Of course he must listen, but with a writer’s ear, and reading his written work is never going to be an adequate trial to assess the worth of his dialogue. It must be read aloud, preferably into a tape recorder and listened to with an objective ear. Get your partner to join in the fun and enjoy the experience. You might not be actors but you’ll get a better sense of how it’s going to sound to an audience. Eventually your ear will adjust and you can forego the pleasure of casting your beloved as a mass murderer, but until such time listening to your own work is a useful tool.
Try not to trip up actors with over-complex dialogue, they are simple folk and should be helped at all costs. Most importantly know the style of the people you are writing, the cockney barrow boy speaks much differently from the Montanacowboy but you must avoid clichés. Try having the cockney say ‘Howdy’. Accents and dialects are useful but you can test the value of the dialogue by trying it in different styles
In listening to other people’s speech patterns try to make a judgment call on the situation you are eavesdropping. Are these two lovers, Or two drunks about to come to blows?
Mastering dialogue puts you in the driving seat with opportunities in stage work, radio, TV and cinema. Remember the great lines, the great bits of dialogue you have heard. What made them work? Who said them? Where? Why?
Okay, time for me to bore you with some of my material. The following is the opening scene from a radio sit-com pilot called DOC. Note that in this, I have to pass on a lot of information about the characters and situation to a cold audience, but in an entertaining way.
THE WEST-END BAR IN GLASGOW, SCOTLAND. EARLY EVENING. IT IS QUIET AND A JUKEBOX PLAYS WEARY TUNES. DOC AND BILLY ENTER AND COME TO THE BAR.
DOC: (SINGING) Happy days are here again! Yo there, Flora. Lagers for me and the boy.
BILLY: I don’t want a pint, Doc.
DOC: Listen, young Bill, when I’m paying, I decide what you’re drinking, and this is
National Lager Day.
FLORA: Every day’s National Lager Day for you.
DOC: That’s just a rumour, I’m partial to alcohol in any shape or form.
FLORA: Aye, you’re nothing but a sad old bugger.
DOC: I love it when you talk dirty, Flora. (HE DRINKS NOISILY) Nectar! First today!
FLORA: You’re a liar, Ken told me you were in at lunchtime.
DOC: Half-pints, they don’t count.
FLORA: You had fifteen of them, Doc.
DOC: Well, it’s warm up in the work, you develop a thirst.
FLORA: Billy, have you discovered what he does up in that hospital, because he’s certainly not any kind of doctor I can think of, despite his nickname.
BILLY: He sort of wanders about in a white coat, trying tae look important.
FLORA: Just as I thought, a waster.
DOC: Hey, I went to college for five years to learn that.
FLORA: Aye, but what is it precisely you do?
DOC: It’s like this, my lovely. When you start up in the hospital, they hand you a
chemistry set. If you drop it, they make you a porter like Billy here; if you pass the
responsibility onto somebody else, they make you a doctor …..
BILLY: ….. and if ye chase nurses all the time, they make ye a senior lab technician like you.
DOC: Heyy, that’s my line!
BILLY: Well, you keep tellin’ me you’re teachin’ me the ways of the world.
DOC: Fair enough. More drink, Flora!
FLORA: Do you not think you should have something to eat before you get into a heavy drinking session?
DOC: If you’re going to treat me like a husband, I’m going to demand my conjugal rights.
DOC: What, are you charging for it now?
FLORA: (REALISING) For the drinks !
DOC: You had me worried there, there’s still room in this capitalist world for the enthusiastic amateur, y’know.
FLORA: You have a one-track mind.
DOC: I’m a romantic, Flora, as you well know. Listen, Billy, she’s got ‘Property of Doc’ tattooed on her left buttock.
FLORA: I have not !
DOC: Sorry sorry, right buttock. The left one’s got the list of previous owners.
FLORA: Don’t you listen to him, Billy, he’s sick.
DOC: Not at all, I’m the young fella’s guru, teaching him the ways of the world. Who introduced you to the mysteries of the nurses’ quarters, Billy ? Who’s going to get you educational DVDs?
BILLY: You’re taking yer own sweet time about them.
DOC: I’m trying to get the latest releases for you, with all the new moves and grips.
FLORA: I can understand a young fella like Billy being obsessed, Doc, but a man your age.
DOC: I can’t help it, Flora, it’s that bum of yours, it drives me wild. In fact, I don’t even think of it as a bum, more of a leisure centre.
FLORA: Is that all you pathetic buggers think about, bottoms?
DOC: Not at all. There’s bosoms. We often think of bosoms.
FLORA: See, I told you, the drink has gone straight to your head.
DOC: (WEARILY) We should never have given them the vote, Billy. But she’s right, there’s a long night ahead of us, we should eat, put a lining on our stomachs. What kind of peanuts do you want ?
Notice that here I’m just setting the scene with no reference to any plot that is to follow. An audience will allow you a little time to do this, but I would have to set up some conflict fairly quickly after this to maintain the listener’s interest. The alternative is to start of by asking the big question the plot poses, and then returning to paint the characters. Both methods are valid.
The extract from DOC is there to prove that you can paint characters with dialogue, you don’t need description. The joy of dialogue is that one character can pass comment on another, which reveals elements of the personalities of both.
Here’s an exercise to see if you can handle dialogue.
Write a 3 minute radio dialogue (approx. 3 pages) between 2 characters on the phone to each other. They are army buddies who haven’t seen each other for 10 years. Use the dialogue to paint a picture of each character and what has happened to them during that decade.