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Take a moment and listen to the way people talk. Everyday speech is broken and filled with pauses and um’s and ah’s. It’s fragmentary and oftentimes non-linear. This makes the task of writing realistic movie dialogue tough and the task of writing it well even tougher.
Some people have a natural knack for creating beautiful and memorable dialogue. Others labor at it and it shows in the final product. So what do you do if you’re great at writing everything but dialogue? Is there anything you can do to help? Of course there is.
As writers, you often hear the saying “write what you know” ad nauseum but it can apply to writing dialogue as well. How? By taking the words you hear everyday from your friends, enemies, coworkers and anyone else you know and adapting them for your script. To that end you should carry a note pad or some type of recording device with you at all times so that when you overhear someone saying interesting, you can write it down so that you can refer to it and use it later. You should be writing notes or recording speech every time you hear something that catches your ear whether it’s a rant on a why spaghetti sauce is too salty or some dirty joke a co-worker told.
Ok. So you’ve got a pile of every day conversations from real people written down or recorded. Now what? Just because the conversation is interesting doesn’t mean it will fit your script. What you can do is create a library or notebook or computer file full of these lines and conversations. Then, when you’re stuck for dialogue, you can go through this library to see if you have anything that fits.
The best case scenario is when you find some gem that someone said and it perfectly fits the scene you are writing. Most of the time, this is not the case. However, many times you will find some lines or conversations that are similar enough for you to adapt to your story. Maybe you’re writing a scene about someone who is competing for a promotion with a co-worker and is making a case for themselves to their boss. While it’s not the exact same situation, you might be able to take a speech by a political candidate running for office and change it to fit your scene.
The situation may be different, but the desire to prove yourself worthy of something is similar enough that you might be able to take the rhythms and phrasing of the candidate’s speech and alter it to fit your needs. Or by looking over other people’s words, you may find something completely different that inspires you to write the dialogue that you need. That being said, this library should only be one of your tools in your writing toolbox. Don’t feel the need to take all your dialogue from every day conversations.
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that real life conversations are often fragmentary and non-linear and filled with too many ah’s and um’s and other pregnant pauses. Unless you need the half finished thoughts and pauses for effect (David Mamet is the reigning king of this technique), you will need to adapt adapt the real life conversations you recorded into lines more suitable for film and television. So how do you do that? First, take out all the stuttering and the um’s and ah’s unless they fit the scene. For example, if your character is trying to stall someone, they may use um’s and ah’s and what not. The pauses and stuttering of everyday speech would fit that situation. But generally speaking, the stuttering and pauses and extra syllable will sound long winded and boring on film so cut them out.
Next, cut out all your “well” and “you know” at the beginning of people’s lines. These introductory words and phrases are unnecessary and serve no purpose. You want your dialogue to be real, but you want them to be concise as well. No one wants to hear an actor ramble. Which leads into the next step, cut out anything from the conversations that do not pertain to what the scene is about. Real life conversations wander almost randomly from topic to topic. You can’t do that on film unless you’re going for some kind of slice-of-life verite drama (re: boring). So take out all the little asides and random bits and pieces that found its way into the conversation and streamline it down to what is relevant to the scene.
Finally, the last tip for adapting real life conversations to filmic dialogue is vocabulary replacement. People speak with the vocabulary that they know given their education and background. This same should be true of your characters. If you tell someone the story of how your car was towed which made you late to a court hearing which caused the judge to charge you with contempt of court and fine you $1000, an English professor may reply, “That’s unfortunate,” while a plumber is more likely to say, “that sucks,” or “shit happens.” You need to make sure the vocabulary of the dialogue you adapt is appropriate to your characters.
Of course, this is only one way to craft realistic sounding film dialogue. I hope these tips help and good luck on your writing.Buy the Moose a cup of coffee.