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How to Write Memorable Dialogue

John Steinbeck, a master at writing memorable dialogue.
John Steinbeck, a master of memorable dialogue.

Memorable dialogue makes for a memorable story. It is both an art and a craft, and as such, warrants lifelong study.

Few would doubt that the ability to write great dialogue is necessary for crafting a successful screenplay, but should a novelist regard this skill as equally important?

Undoubtably, yes.

Although novels no longer lead the story market as they did a century or two ago, they do survive as an alternative vehicle for experiencing narrative.

Of course, competition from films and computer games has impacted how current novels are written, giving rise to a requirement for stories with a faster pace, higher stakes, and yes, impactful and gripping dialogue. Memorable dialogue offers the writer the opportunity to compete.

”Memorable dialogue draws us into the hearts and minds of the characters who express it, and it does so with immediacy and impact.”

The topic has inspired the writing of countless of books and courses, but here is a short list on what great dialogue should accomplish:

  • Dialogue should provide information necessary for the understanding of the story.
  • Dialogue should evoke story questions.
  • Dialogue should reveal emotion.
  • Dialogue should advance the plot.
  • Dialogue should characterise both the speaker and the person to whom it is spoken.

Here is an example from John Steinbeck’s, Of Mice and Men:

‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’

‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’

‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’

‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’

Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’

‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’

‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.

‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’

This dialogue, filled with pathos and authenticity, jumps right off the page, offering us an alternative experience to the current obsession with superheroes. It captures the tone and colour of speech, evokes backstory, and offers us a heart-felt glimpse into who these characters truly are.

You won’t get that kind of authenticity from the men and women who swoosh around the skies in capes and tights, now will you?

How many of the five elements of memorable dialogue mentioned in the list above can you find in this extract? Write in and let me know!

Summary

Memorable dialogue performs several functions simultaneously, driving the plot forward while simultaneously revealing the depths of the characters who express it.

Powerful Emotions – add them to your stories

Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.
Powerful emotions in Dead Poet’s Society.

Stories that do not engender powerful emotions are unlikely to be popular. Make us cry or make us laugh, but don’t make us yawn. This sentence should be tattooed on the forehead of every fledgling writer.

William M. Akers agrees with me: “Give the reader an emotional experience or you’re wasting your time,” he writes in his book, Your Screenplay Sucks.

But how does one master the use of powerful emotions in writing? For a start we should look for appropriate places to create emotionally charged moments as often as possible.

“Story characters who solicit powerful emotions in readers or audiences directly contribute to the success of any tale.”

In Breaking Bad, Walter White supplements his meagre teacher’s income by working at a carwash. The idea that someone whose work once helped a team of scientists win the Nobel Prize now has to teach chemistry classes to unappreciative high-school students captures our sympathy. But the writer of the TV series takes it a step further: A couple of students spot Walter at the carwash squatting on his haunches, polishing tires. We experience Walter’s humiliation directly and this causes us to empathise with him more acutely than before.

All emotions are worthy of being foregrounded providing they serve the character and story—compassion, sadness, fear, lust, joy. In Rear Window Grace Kelly arrives at Jimmy Steward’s house with an overnight suitcase. She opens it and we see she has packed a nighty. We swallow with anticipation, knowing she intends to sleep with him.

One of the most moving moments in all of cinema occurs in Dead Poet’s Society. Fired for encouraging students to think for themselves, John Keating is preparing to permanently vacate his beloved classroom under the critical gaze of the man who fired him. Suddenly, one after another, the students ignore possible expulsion and defiantly stand on their desks in support of him, calling out: “Oh, Captain, my Captain.” This is not only a victory for Keating and his teachings, but a hugely successful emotional moment, too.

Although we tend to remember many finely crafted scenes that reveal essential plot information, scenes that are supercharged with emotion we remember forever. 

Summary

Supercharge your scenes with powerful emotions, and do it often. Your stories will be all the more memorable for it.

Genres—what are they?

Mixed genres in Cowboys and Aliens.
Mixed genres, mixed messaging?

Genres are categories containing stories that share common characteristics. The categories themselves are not inflexible. They absorb novel features from other genres and adapt to suit.

For writers, genres are recipes for concocting tales based on past exemplars. The Western, for example, showcases a number of recurring elements, such as saloons, side-arms, and horses.

For audiences a genre is an indication of a certain sort of story.

“Location, time-period, clothing, props, and language are some important markers that constitute points of difference between genres.“

Yet, a genre is neither set in stone nor used exclusively in telling a story. In the Science Fiction/Western, Cowboys and Aliens, two ‘hard’ genres are juxtaposed unexpectedly, which, in this instance, might explain the film’s failure at the box-office.

Certain genres, however, combine seamlessly. Action/Comedy films such as Bad Boys, or Crime/Comedy/Love Story ones such as Crazy Rich Asians use genres so effortlessly that they almost manage to merge them into one.

Some films are even more prolific in their use of genre-mixing. The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a Musical/Comedy/Horror/Science Fiction/Love Story, has achieved cult status, perhaps because it parodies categories of all sorts.

The evolution of genre, much like genetic evolution, involves successful stories passing on their genes to their offspring. Because there is a requirement for novelty and originality, however, the code never stays exactly the same for too long. Mutation creeps in, which, if successful, get passed onto the next iteration.

We see this evolution in the Western, for example, where the protagonist goes from being a tough and decisive man in El Dorado, to an ambivalent and racist one in The Searchers, and finally, to a full blown anti-hero in Unforgiven – a killer of women and children.

The purpose of genre, then, is to guide one’s expectations by referencing existing stories. Genre helps audiences choose which stories to consume by promising more of the same, as much as it helps writers reference and update old tropes.

Summary

Genres are story categories that share similar characteristics. Genres not only assist audiences in selecting which stories to consume, they also provide the writer with a blueprint to emulate and adapt.

Twin Premises – Planning Your Story

Macbeth and the twin story premises
Macbeth, like all great narratives, flows from
twin premises.

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message and its affects. But how does this work and why should a writer care?



For pantsers about to commence the writing of their story, the answer is that they might not care. Pantsers write from the seat of their pants, allowing inspiration to dictate their narratives.

Plotters, on the other hand, need to work out the story before hand, often meticulously planning every scene before beginning the actual writing of their screenplays or novels.

There are some, however, for whom the approach lies somewhere in between. Inspiration can indeed swoop in at any moment and take over the writing process, but in its absence, they need the security of a map. They’ve set sail too many times only to wash up on the rocks without one.

“The twin premises provide the blueprint for writing a story. The one premise indicates what sort of events need to occur and to whom. The other shapes the direction of these events into an outcome that reveals a moral lesson.“

An effective compromise, therefore, is to spend time thinking about the events and characters that would go into the story, while simultaneously trying to nail down the point of it all. Which brings us back to the first paragraph:

The Story Premise is a brief outline of the story that encapsulates the events generated by the central conflict, and the desire through-line of the protagonist. The story premise of Macbeth might be: An ambitious Scottish general embraces the prophesy of three old crones and the urging of his wife to murder King Duncan and usurp his throne only to succumb to guilt, paranoia and death.

This gives some indication of the major characters and narrative events that comprise the tale.

The Moral Premise, by contrast, is the theme of the story. It gives direction to the dramatic scenes that comprise the plot. In Macbeth this might be: Ruthless ambition leads to death and destruction while accepting one‘s place in the Great Chain of Being sustains societal order and life. Not a popular theme by today’s standards, but a central moral premise in the Elizabethan era, nonetheless.

The aim of the twin premises, then, is to create enough scaffolding to support the writing of a story. Both premises must be present for the story to work. Whether the yarn will turn out to be quite the Shakespearean masterpiece is, of course, another matter all together.

Summary

Most stories can be summed up through their twin premises. The one encapsulates characters and events, the other the moral message.

Superfluous Words – strike them from a sentence

Superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.
Omit superfluous words—one of William Strunk’s best remembered admonitions.

In his book, Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. admonishes us to strike superfluous words from our writing. Our narratives will be more polished and energetic for it.


Here are some examples from his book:

  • The question as to whether / whether
  • There is no doubt but that / doubtless
  • In a hasty manner / hastily
  • He is a man who / who
  • His brother, who is a member of the same firm / His brother, a member of the same firm

“Superfluous words weigh down sentences, lessening their import and impact.“

I often castigate students for writing paragraph-long sentences that confuse the reader. I suggest that the remedy is to break up long sentences into shorter ones that build through logical progression and culminate in a telling conclusion. Sometimes, however, the reverse is true. A single, well-styled sentence can deliver more. Here’s another example from William Strunk:

“Macbeth was very ambitious. This led him to wish to become king of Scotland. The witches told him that this wish of his would come true. The king of Scotland at this time was Duncan. Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth murdered Duncan. He was thus enabled to succeed Duncan as king.”

(Is reduced to:

Encouraged by his wife, Macbeth achieved his ambition and realized the prediction of the witches by murdering Duncan and becoming king of Scotland.

Brevity is even more important in screenplays, where a lean, tight style adds to a sense of pace—a requirement in many film genres.

Consider replacing wordy, action-block descriptions with punchier ones:

  • Blake’s hand flashes like lightning to the table, grabbing the gun from it and pointing it at Jake in one breathtaking movement. / Blake snatches the gun from the table and points it at Jack.
  • Matthew slows his pace down to jogging speed. / Matthew slows to a jog.
  • Bethany rushes up to the wall containing the largest window in the room and climbs on the sill. / Bethany rushes up to the largest window and climbs on the sill.

”Brevity leads to precision. Precision leads to a heightened reading experience.”

Do not repeat redundant information in a scene’s action block:

  • Burlap, now fully transformed into a werewolf, stomps into the room, thick muscles hiding under dark fur, fangs bared, great thighs ready to spring. / We already know what a werewolf looks like. Rather write: Bulap, now a warewolf, stomps into the room, ready to spring.

Although this cut-to the-bone brevity is less of a requirement in a novel than in a screenplay, all stories benefit through brevity and precision. 

Summary

Strike superfluous words from your sentences to make your stories leaner and punchier.

How to Take the Yawn out of Literature

Baby yawning

The Big Yawn:

An irksome thought has been slouching around in my head for some time now. I haven’t written about it before, because, well, it can’t possibly be true, can it? And if it is, isn’t it more a reflection on me than the great novels and novelists it concerns?

You decide, remembering that the opinions expressed below, are, of course, entirely my own.

The irksome thought is this: Why do so many great novels, some from the pens of literary giants, bore the pants off me? Why, in some works of literature, does it take two hundred pages for the protagonist to discover her goal? Why has the mythic succumbed to the microscopic, and the grand to the mundane, under the guise of being the real treasure?

Yes, many modern, prize-winning stories are immaculately crafted around intricate themes, characters, and imagery. Yes, they examine the human condition. Yes, they peel away the layers of illusion that surrounds us and shed light on the little things that make life what it is. Yes, they are about real people facing real problems—the opposite to Hollywood’s over-the-top spectacles, unrealistic settings, and extra-terrestrial endeavours.

But, my gosh, why must they be so darned boring? (Alas, to me, anyway).

Why must the goal of the story be so buried beneath details of someone’s bowel movements, explored at the most crude and mundane scale, chocked with backstory and philosophy, that the outer journey seems obscured, or is, at least, trivialised?

What’s wrong with creating an exciting, visible outer journey that is driven by relentless pace, surprises, and colorful events? After all, one of the greatest storytellers of all time, Homer, swore by it it. The Iliad and the Odyssey are about Heroes undertaking grand and challenging tasks—stories about larger-than-life struggles. Little room for boredom here.

But times have changed, you say. We don’t believe in Heroes anymore. We don’t believe in monsters. Besides, you’re talking about the adventure/science fiction/fantasy genres, you say. Literature has to root itself in reality if it is to be taken seriously. It is the little things, the everyday events examined through the lens of genius that ought to comprise modern, prize-winning literature, you stress, with a wag of your finger.

Well, that’s because we probably disagree on the function of story. Stories that have me reaching for two aspirins after reading just don’t cut it with me, anymore. I do want to grow, to observe, to be educated, but I also want to be entertained.

Am I suggesting that ‘serious’ literary novelists dispense with their aching character studies, searing observations into the human psyche, or their insightful, if obscure, philosophical rumination? Not at all. But I am suggesting that they give their stories some pace, make them interesting and, God forbid, grant them exciting goals.

After all, if this was good enough for Homer, it ought to be good enough for us all!

End of rant.

Summary

There is no reason that literary stories can’t be driven by pace, a tangible goal, and exciting, adventurous characters who intrigue as much as they entertain.

Invitation

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Image: Björn Rixman
License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode