The Townhouse of Ideas

How I Learned To Write Dialogue

Critics and readers have told me that I have a gift for dialogue.

I think maybe I do, but it wasn’t exactly something that I fell into instantly.

So, I’m going to tell you how I learned to write dialogue.

I didn’t learn to write dialogue from books, believe it or not. Most books, unless you encounter P. G. Wodehouse or Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett, don’t have memorable dialogue. I think it’s for two reasons:

1/ Writers learned how to write dialogue from reading novels, so their characters read like they are characters in a novel.

2/ Writing dialogue that sparkles seems “unrealistic” to some novelists. After all, most of us don’t sit around the Algonquin Round Table exchanging witticisms with famous wits.

I learned to write dialogue by watching old Hollywood movies, particularly screwball comedies– and films noir. I also learned my craft from playwrights like Ben Hecht, Charles MacArthur, Garson Kanin and Ruth Gordon, and George Kaufman, whose plays were made into classic Hollywood movies.

See, screwball comedies and films noir depend on dialogue not only to move the plot forward, but to also reveal who a character is. 

Take your average film noir. The majority of the time, the detective is talking to someone about something… and yet, it’s never talky. Here’s why:

1/ The detective is always in conflict with someone, be it the police, a client, a mobster, a hitman, a witness, a blackmailer, etc.

2/ The detective is talking about something important, like murder, assault and battery, a robbery, etc.

3/ The detective has to coerce someone to give him information of some type, so how the detective does so, and whether the detective succeeds or fails, becomes fascinating.

4/ The detective never knows who to trust, because he doesn’t know if someone’s lying to him.

A film noir takes 70 to 90 minutes to tell its story. So there’s no room for fat on its bones. So, every word of dialogue must show and tell not only something about the plot, but also something about the characters in the scene.

We can tell by a lot about a film noir character by how the character talks. Let’s make up a character– let’s call him Shortstuff. 

The second Shortstuff opens his mouth, we find out who he is as a character:

–We find out what side of the law Shortstuff is on

–We find out if Shortstuff is afraid of something or someone

–We can tell how well educated/smart Shortstuff is

–We can figure out if he’s dangerous or not

–We will soon find out whether Shortstuff is cynical, philosophical, practical, worldly, naïve, and on and on.

We find out, through dialogue, a lot of what we need to know about the character, and since the film has only ninety minutes max to tell the story, we learn it fast.

I learned from films noir that dialogue doesn’t just move the plot forward, it moves the characterization forward.

As such, I learned that all of my scenes with dialogue needed to do the following:

–Show and tell you who the character is

–Show who the character likes and dislikes

–Show who the character is in conflict with

–Show us the likeable and unlikeable characteristics of a character

–Show us who the character has a real understanding with

Here’s the thing to remember about dialogue– in books, movies, TV shows, and real life, dialogue does one of two things:

–brings characters closer together, or

–tears characters apart

Think about real life. You meet someone. You like talking to this person. Then that person says something that strikes you as odd, offensive, or just plain unhinged. Are you going to start being friends with this person, or are you going to back away very slowly?

Or… you meet someone, and they mention a book or a movie you like. Are you going to stop talking to this person, or will you try to draw this person out further?

Like I said, dialogue either brings us closer together, or tears us apart.

Look for either the conflict in a scene with dialogue, or how dialogue brings people together. That’s where you will find your characters– and that’s where you’ll find your plot.