Roarin’ and bubblin’ – writing good dialogue
‘Great dialogue, like great music, soars off the page’, says Laura Schellhardt in ‘Screenwriting for Dummies’. Since 1927, every writer has needed to be able to write good dialogue. Not that it didn’t matter before then. It’s just that afterwards it mattered more as talkies came to the cinema screen with ‘The Jazz Singer’. By 1929, all new films included speaking characters.
Recognising good dialogue is the start of being able to write good dialogue yourself. The 12 people who signed up for writer, producer, director and OCA creative writing tutor Andrea McCartney’s ‘Writing Good Dialogue’ workshop at Sheffield’s ‘Off the Shelf’ festival found that two hours is enough to learn some of the tricks of the trade and start putting them into practice. Among them was a man who makes short films, a woman who saw herself as ‘good at prose but weak at dialogue’, and another who had just started writing for children and thought concentrating on dialogue ‘would be a good idea’.
We discovered by analysing short extracts from the screenplay of Ang Lee’s film of Jane Austen’s novel ‘Sense and Sensibility’ and Conor McPherson’s ‘The Weir’ some of the questions writers of dialogue can ask themselves to help improve their work. Does the character need to speak in whole sentences? (In ‘Sense and Sensibility’ the answer is yes, in ‘The Weir’ the answer is no.) What’s the impact of silence and ellipsis? (To work, they need to be linked to the habits and personality of the character who is speaking.) What does the dialogue sound like spoken? (The easiest way to pick up clunkiness is to read out loud to other people.)
What of writing in dialect? Less of a challenge than some writers believe, according to Andrea. We experimented with her technique of adding texture without forsaking clarity by gathering give-away phrases from a part of the world with which we were familiar: Australia (‘Full as a googie egg’ to mean ‘stuffed’), Scotland (where crying is bubblin’), Sheffield (where it’s roarin’) and the north east of England (where ‘Why aye’ is ‘yes’). It’s idiolect we should aim for, advised Andrea, where a phrase or pattern of speech is peculiar to a particular person, such as the Brenda Blethyn character’s ‘sweetheart’ in the 1996 film ‘Secrets and Lies’.
If your dialogue is feeling a little flat, introduce conflict. Where would romantic comedies such as the 2003 film ‘Love Actually’ be without it?. The audience knows the two main characters will end up together, but not until they have encountered and overcome lots of obstacles.
Now to trying some of these techniques for ourselves, choosing between three possible conflict scenarios and with two characters arguing: a hotel room, in which a guest accuses a cleaner of stealing money; the dressing room of a cruise ship in which a tribute act is arguing with his or her manager about wanting to sing their own songs; and in a car park, where two car drivers argue about their right to park in the last space.
We ended the afternoon by swapping suggestions of online resources to help writers of dialogue. They included John Cleese’ 1991 lecture at Sussex University on creativity and how to become more creative; the resources for scriptwriters on the BBC writersroom, which include sample layouts and advice on margin width and the fonts preferred by commissioners; and Scrivener, software that has been designed to help writers create a first draft of any long-form writing including novels, research papers and scripts.
Andrea McCartney is the author of OCA’s new level 1 module on scriptwriting, which will be available later this month (November 2013).
Photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/marcwathieu/2979572825/”>Marc Wathieu</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/”>cc</a>