A good writer is always observing and watching other people and their interpersonal relationships with others. Relationships are complex and rarely resemble yours. And of course…listening. Everyone speaks differently, with a different word choice and a varied cadence to their speech. This can translate to your writing and add another layer of ‘flavor’ to your dialogue.
I also recommend watching movies or series to learn dialogue writing. But, not just the ‘bad’ movies, poorly written, poorly directed, and poorly acted. Watch the good ones too…ones you liked.
I recently was binge-watching an older series, “Six Feet Under“. One which I had loved when it was new and couldn’t wait for each episode to air. I began watching for the simple pleasure of re-watching it. But three or four episodes in, I began to critique it. Especially the character of Ruth; the mother of the Fisher family. She had a hot temper and I am certain that was ‘written’ in for the character. However, the actor, (Frances Conroy) went from 0 to 10 when the script called for temper. There was no layering. At first I blamed the writing…then the director. My final analysis was that the
writing (without seeing the script) was hardly at fault. Or maybe a little bit not having enough blocking written in. Don’t forget, emotion can be written as part of the blocking.
Then I laid some blame at the director’s feet for not noticing that his actor had only two levels; calm and yelling. And the yelling came out of the blue and was all the same. Why didn’t the director catch this? Well, he did have a huge cast to direct and watch over. So mostly the responsibility lay with the lazy actor. An actor who wants to get as much as possible out of a part would look for those layers, subtle though they may be. Ed O’Ross (Nikolai, the fiery Russian florist) was excellent at layering his character’s emotions.
No script or production is perfect. You can watch ANYTHING and learn from it. Same with reading. I’ll give you an example; when I noticed a couple of authors using the same word or phase over and over in their work of fiction, I realized I might suffer from the same curse. My nemeses is the word ‘just‘. My guard dog is the feature (in any word processing platform) ‘find’ or ‘replace’ and I use it to root out the 300 times I used ‘just’. (hahaha)
If you’re a screen writer, visuals are more important than diaglogue. Your blocking can include the silent dialogue. Write in the non-verbal speech of an actor. In ‘Six Feet Under‘, actor, Lauren Ambrose (Claire) and Jeremy Sisto (Billy) were superb with their non-verbal dialogue, using facial and eye expressions and body language. This credit I give to the director and the excellent actors.
When writing stage plays the playwright should keep ‘action’ simple. Write some emotional blocking in but always remember the director is going to have their own thoughts about how the scene should go. Be careful not to do the director’s job for them. It won’t be appreciated.
If you are a screenwriter or writing fiction you probably think you have no interest in theatre. One of your best sourses to learn about writing dialogue is the theatre. Live stage plays are the Mecca of good or bad dialogue. Go there, observe and learn!
Another link on the subject of over-usage of words.
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A few BOOKS BY TRISHA SUGAREK