(My guest post as seen on Nina Romano’s Website: NINA)
Don’t write dialogue the way people talk
Sol Stein, the great author and editor for luminaries like Elia Kazan and James Baldwin, taught a class on dialogue that had never been taught to writers before. He taught at University of California at Irvine and had to hold the class in a medical amphitheater to house the number of writers taking his course. The first thing he said was critical. Dialogue is a foreign language. What that means is when you write you don’t write the way you were taught to speak. It must be adversarial, filled with nuance and revelatory language, but not so much for what is said, but what is meant. I love the example he uses:
Elmore Leonard: “Let’s get a drink, and talk for a few days.”
This line is rife with meaning. And, I’m sure you didn’t learn to talk like that.
Conflict is critical in dialogue
This doesn’t mean people need to shout, or to use profanity. Yes, use profanity sparingly. Curse words should only be used when absolutely necessary. So far, I haven’t found them necessary in any of my stories. Using lots of profanity is an easy way out of designing dialogue between characters that reveals what they are made of and where they are going. It should express conflict in order to thrust the story forward. Using the f-word does neither. It also shows a lack of imagination. Think of this. How do you write a scene between two people where one is so angry they are ready to kill? It would be easy to say, “I’m gonna kill that motherf——.” All this line shows is anger and nothing else. I personally love the line that Alan Rickman uses in Robin Hood where he screams, “I’m going to cut-out his heart with a spoon!” Hmm. Don’t you think that gives you a better visual?
Dialogue should also show an adversarial bent