Thursday, May 17, 2012


Since I've cornered the market in the bubble-bursting department, I might as well sharpen my ice-pick and address the very important/not at all important issue of writing dialogue.

In my previous rants, I've committed the heresy of putting forward the humble proposition that you must have talent to write a good screenplay (operative words there, "talent" and "good.") 

An example of this is the writing of dialogue.

Having an ear for dialogue is analagous to having natural rhythm. Either you can dance, or you can't dance.  You can't "learn" how to write good dialogue any more than you can "learn" to tap your toe in beat with a song. It's either comes naturally, or it doesn't come at all.

Sure, even if you're a spaz on the dance floor, it's possible to sit down, one eye on a metronome, and, after hours of patient practice, learn to tap your foot along with one song. But you're screwed the moment the next tune comes up.

It's like the drunk who steps up to the bar. "Iwannashnwad," he says. The bartender refuses, "Listen up, pal, if you're too blotto to order the cocktail, you're too blotto to drink it.

The drunk staggers outside, stands in an alley for an hour and practices. "I wannashodgenwad. I wanna shcodgenwad. I wanna scotchenwadder..."  

He goes back into the bar, orders his drink. A regular Laurence Olivier: "I want a scotch and water."

The bartender gives him a look, says, "You want that straight-up or on the rocks?"

The drunk thinks about it. 

"Iwannashnwad," he says.  

I guess that what I'm getting at is you can "learn" to craft one good line. Unfortunately a piece of dramatic writing usually has a shitload of good lines, all coming from different characters, with different backgrounds and different ways of speaking.  

If you can't "hear" what they're saying naturally—automatically—and you have to intellectually ponder each and every line, you're not just at a disadvantage.  

You're totally screwed.

If you do have an ear for dialogue, congratulations. But that's just an admission ticket to hone your talent. Knowing how "real people talk" is handy, but it doesn't have a whole lot to do with written dialogue. Just listen to those two “real people” in the next booth at Denny's. 

NO! Not them, numbnuts! The other booth. Listen...

                REAL PERSON #1
    So I go down to the Sears an'...
             (takes a big bite of
             French toast)... 
    mish guy, ya know—

                REAL PERSON #2
    Which guy?

                REAL PERSON #1
    The guy, you know. That one with the 

                REAL PERSON #2
    Oh yeah. I know that guy. Ricky somethin, 
    right? He's a dick.

                REAL PERSON #1
    Fuggin-A. So I'm standing there, waiting, 
    and, like, there's this music, you know, 
    like playing. You know that song...

                REAL PERSON #2
    They always play that in there! I was 
    there, shit, I dunno, I was there and 
    they were playin that then, too. I swear 
    to God. It's like, what do they got? One 
    tape? Jeez...

Had enough?

Sure, it sounds "real." That's the way real people talk. The only problem is that real people don't say anything!

Then there's the other end of the spectrum: Characters who say exactly what they are thinking or feeling at any given time. Just turn on the television. It's like a pox.

    You're empty inside, Debra. You're 
    incapable of love.

    That's not true, John.  I do love you. 
    I do! But you're too blind to see it. 
    It's not easy to open up to a man after 
    you've been repeatedly sodomized by a 
    satanic cult of outlaw bikers!
    But I'm trying, John.  You must know that!

    I do, Debra. I do! But a man has needs.
         Can't you see this is tearing me apart?!

OH MY GOD!!! Stop! My head's about to implode!

People are simply a.) not that self-aware and b.) even if they were, they don't just blurt out their deepest feelings, darkest secrets and greatest fears. Except, of course, in hack screenplays. 

(Oh, and by the way?  The only place where John calls Debra “Debra” and Debra calls John “John” in every other line is on bad television.  In real life, we rarely use a friend’s name while speaking to him in a conversation.)

A close corollary to this brand of bullshit is "THE BUTTON."

The Button is a BIG LINE that one character says at the close of a scene that is so powerful— so absolutely right—that it leaves the other character(s) speechless.

    Tearing you apart. You, John. That's
    what this relationship is all about,
    isn't it? That's what it's always been 
    about! YOU!!!

John stares at her, the bitter truth of her words sinking in. She coolly regards him, then turns and exits.

When was the last time an argument ever ended that way for you?

As for me, I've dropped some absolute atom-bombs on my wife in the course of arguments, yet none of them have ever rendered her speechless. Why? Because she has her own thermonuclear arsenal. Everyone does. The truth is, in real life, John would look at Debra and say:

    Really? You really think so? Well, 
    you wanna know what I think? I think 
    you liked being sodomized by those 
    outlaw bikers!

It's called Mutual Assured Destruction.

If you really want to see how people behave in a toxic relationship, check out WHO'S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? Burton and Taylor are like a binary star system, each locked in orbit, feeding on each other in this beautiful, ghastly, absolutely brilliant death-dance. You can't take your eyes off it.

Of course, we can't all be Edward Albee. But we don't have to be hacks, either. And believe me, using "THE BUTTON" is a hallmark of hack-writing.  In real life, human beings simply do not relate to each other this way. 


And they shouldn't in your scripts, either. So next time you write a nice, pat little scene that deftly steps down to a pithy little button, do yourself a favor and write the next line. Because, as in the JOHN and DEBRA example above, that's where things will begin to come alive and get interesting.

Characters are a bit like dogs. You can snap the leash and make them heel or cut them loose and watch them run down rabbits. The former may be nice and safe and satisfying to the person walking the dog, but the latter is far more entertaining for the rest of us.


  1. Thank you sir. Great advice for anyone that doesn't want to write for the Lifetime Network.

  2. John and Debra were a bit reminiscent of Jack and Rose there for a moment. And thank you for outing the Button.

  3. Well, here's my problem, Daniel: I don't have a natural ear for dialogue. I never have, and, according to you, I never will. I have vivid memories of reading this post on your original blog 12 or 13 years ago. In fact the part about "You're totally screwed" has stayed with me and (I'm not kidding) haunted me on a near-constant basis ever since.

    "You're totally screwed."

    Holy shit.

    And I still remember that feeling of dread that crept over me... the sensation of having my greatest dreams dashed and my greatest fears realized in the space of three little words... and just about all that has sustained me and kept me working ever since has been blind determination and the possibility that -- as smart as you are, Daniel -- maybe, just maybe -- in a few isolated cases -- you were wrong.

    I'm still crossing my fingers.

  4. My intent is not to discourage, but to plainly state the hard truth, mainly as a counterpoint to the endless train of charlatans who claim that if you buy their books, listen to their tapes or attend their seminars, they can magically transform you into a successful screenwriter.

    This is patently absurd. There are far fewer screenwriters making a living wage than professional athletes, yet one rarely sees books purporting to teach "anyone" how to be an NFL starter.

    That said, exactly where did you get the idea that you haven't got an ear for dialogue? Is this something a teacher told you? Something you've told yourself? If so, I'd argue that, just from the rhythm, emotional subtext and easy colloquialism of your comment, that he/she/you are dead wrong.

    People rarely aspire to endeavors for which they are not equipped. We tend to gravitate toward what we instinctively know we are capable of doing.

    In college, I got a "D" in creative writing. My professor, upon reading a short story I'd poured my heart into (and I'm sure thoroughly sucked) actually suggested I "consider barber college."

    Rather than discouraging me, his words enraged me and strengthened my resolve to prove him wrong. If mine have done the same for you, terrific. If not, I wish you'd posted after the first time it appeared, so I could give you this reply and save you some hand-wringing.

    But keep this in mind: When I said "you're screwed," what I meant is merely that a person without a natural ear for dialogue is severely hamstrung WHEN IT COMES TO WRITING DIALOGUE. And dialogue is but one aspect of the dramatist's craft. There are a number of VERY successful screenwriters whose dialogue skills are C+ at best.

    1. People rarely aspire to endeavors for which they are not equipped.

      And yet, it was only a few years ago that I realized I was not cut out to be a children's novelist, despite determining before 2nd grade that it was my destiny to be a novelist, oh yes oh yes oh yes.*

      Then after reading The Trolls by Polly Horvath—which consists mostly of several humorous stories told by the crazy aunt—I wondered whether I had any stories like that to tell, and realized not only that I didn't, but that I hadn't attempted to write any kind of fiction for several years.

      "Writers write," I told myself, as the scales fell from my eyes.

      Now I'm happily employed as a technical writer. I am handy enough with words to make something sound good, and it turns out I'm pretty good at organizing information and explaining systems and sussing out the mysteries of technology.

      So I didn't exactly aspire toward my true talents, but I got close enough to scootch over sideways when the time came.

      * I was going to write a seven-part series about a kid who finds out he's a wizard, but that wench Rowling beat me to it. :-)

    2. Thanks for the reply, Daniel. And your original post did, I swear, strengthen my resolve, and the ones that preceded and immediately followed it were invaluable, too, and it's nice to see them making an encore.

      And I'm glad you decided against barber college.

    3. My pleasure, and good luck with your work. Btw, I'm tracking page views to determine whether there's any interest in the pieces on screenwriting, all of which I've revisited and revised. So get the word out and I'll post more.

  5. Hi Daniel, your advice is fantastically direct and a joy to read. I don't have aspirations of becoming a screenwriter, but I am in the process of a fairly self indulgant project where I'm documenting a few untold stories of my mother's life in the Middle East. They're stories that deserve telling. Whether they end up in a graphic novel or in text form or in film doesn't really matter as your advice overlaps all three. Dialogue being a case in point.

    Post more, I'll certainly be reading it.