How to write dynamite dialogue
Posted by inkpop on December 18, 2009
Cheva’s editor at HarperCollins, Farrin Jacobs, applauds Cheva’s dialogue for its hilarious, natural vibe. “I’ve seen dialogue that’s funny but doesn’t reflect how people actually talk,” Jacobs says. “Cherry is able to find that balance perfectly. I think it must come from her TV experience, where so much depends on dialogue.”
Some elements of writing dialogue for books are similar to writing for TV, but it’s mostly a “very different” experience, says Cheva, who majored in psychology at Yale. For instance, the team of Family Guy writers pitches jokes aloud, often by mimicking the characters’ voices. “So if you’re about to suggest a Stewie line, you’ll bust out a British accent,” she says. “In a book you have more freedom than when you’re working with characters that already exist on television. If I feel like changing a book character halfway through and giving him a whole different way of talking, I can do that, but it doesn’t really fly when you’re working with pre-established voices.”
DISTINGUISH YOUR CHARACTERS’ VOICES
What are some common mistakes that beginners make? The first, Cheva says, is writing dialogue that doesn’t actually sound like people talking. The second common foible is characters who sound the same. “Sure, you want them all to be delightfully witty or whatever, but try to do it in different ways,” Cheva says.
CREATE A DYNAMIC DYNAMIC
Establish the ways in which your characters’ ages, slang, geographical locations, and personal experiences characterize their language. Before writing dialogue, think about how your characters’ personalities and relationships connect—and what makes them interesting. For instance, do your characters hate or love each other? Do they compete against each other, or are they best friends?
In She’s So Money, the two primary characters, Camden and Maya, have a love/hate thing going on. “Anything that starts from a place of ‘you suck but also are hot’ is going to lead to some fun, snarky, back-and-forth bitchery,” Cheva says. “[For She’s So Money,] it was just a matter of making the bitchery up, which I approached pretty much the same way as any other writing—apply ass to chair, and type.”
Here are a couple of slices of conversation from She’s So Money:
“That’s not the point. The point is that I hate him, even though I’ve never met him. Is that wrong? Is that shallow?”
“No shallower than the shallow end of his giant backyard swimming pool full of whores.”
“Come on,” wheedled Camden. “Work hard, play hard. Right?”
I glared at him.
“Work hard, play flaccid?”
HOST A ‘CASTING CALL’
Not sure if your characters’ conversations sound natural? Try reading them aloud. “If you’re repeatedly tripping over words, change them, or if you find yourself naturally throwing in contractions that aren’t written in, throw them in,” Cheva says.
STUDY THE PROS
A good way to learn about how characters interact with each other through good dialogue is paying close attention to your favorite characters on TV and in movies. “Seriously! They’re chock-full of dialogue—you’ll learn by osmosis,” Cheva says. And if you can get your hands on them, read the scripts as well.
Continue your study of dialogue by eavesdropping on people’s conversations on the street, in restaurants, etc. “That’s real people talking right there—just don’t be creepy about it,” Cheva says, jokingly.
As you’re making like a dialogue anthropologist, you’ll likely start creating jokes and lines in your head. Which is awesome. But keep this in mind: “This is kind of a bummer, but even if it’s the best line or joke ever, if it doesn’t work in the story, it’s probably better to save it for something else,” Cheva says.
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