Bringing Dialogue to Life

I've been rereading Karl Iglesias' fabulous Writing for Emotional Impact, which focuses on screenwriting but is every bit as applicable for novelists. In the book, he quotes advice from the late screenwriting legend (and three-time Academy Award winner) Paddy Chayefsky (taken from John Brady's out-of-print The Craft of the Screenwriter):

"I write laboriously worked-out dialogue...because I know what I want my characters to say. I envision the scene; I can imagine them up there on the screen; I try to imagine what they would say and how they would say it, and keep it in character...Then I rewrite it. Then I cut it. Then I refine it until I get the scene as precisely as I can get it."

Flat, mundane, and emotionally-false dialogue are death on the page, death to the project. But how does one get to the crisp, witty, plot-propelling and character-revealing lines that drive a real barn-burner of a script or novel? Rewriting, cutting, and refinement are crucial, but I believe the real key is in what Chayefsky says about envisioning the characters in the scene and imagining the conversation from them.

One helpful technique for improving dialogue that Karl Iglesias shares is the read-through or staged reading used by screenwriters and playwrights (a role I tried my hand at before my novels were published). To use this collaborative technique, a novelist might assign readers (critique partners spring to mind) each a role and read through a scene's dialogue. When the reader stumbles or something sounds clunky, that's where your red pencil comes in. If you have really good readers (experienced stage actors are wonderful at this, but anyone willing to engage his/her imagination will do) they may tell you, "My character wouldn't say this. I think she'd say _______________ instead."

Listen to the feedback you get. Embrace the spirit of collaboration. What do you have to lose, other than a few clunkers?

If you can't find a willing group of readers, you'll have to cast yourself instead. Let the scene play out in your mind. See and hear it "on the screen." Lock the writer in the back room and play the role of actor, director, and the audience instead.

Then take out your paring knife and sharpen every line.


Jeanna Thornton said…
ok...An ecellent idea! I need to find a critique partner soon!

(I am putting it out there..into the universe!)

This is a good point, Colleen. I always read the dialogue out loud myself, and it's surprising how easily you can catch certain things. The other thing I do is look for repetition. If someone asks a question twice, it's usually best to cut everything between the two times.
I'll help you beat the bushes!

That's a good point. I hate seeing info repeated in dialogue, too. I usually go back and cut the first reference to maximize the impact of the second. When it works. :)

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