Blah Blah Blah: How (Not) To Write Dialogue
“You should tell them how not to write dialogue,” Will said.
“How not to write dialogue?” I asked. “That’s ridiculous. It’s much easier to give advice on… y’know, actually writing dialogue. The process of not writing dialogue is easy. Just don’t do it.”
“You should tell them how not to write dialogue,” Will repeated.
“I heard you the first time.”
“You should tell them–“
“Seriously. I got it. I think my time is better spent –“
“YOU SHOULD TELL THEM HOW NOT TO WRITE DIALOGUE,” Will said, sparks snapping from his open mouth. His eyes went dark. The flesh of his hand peeled back like a hand banana, and a Gatling gun attachment whirred to life, ready to spit bullets. I had angered the Hindmarch. His programming would soon default to Kill Mode. Time to defuse.
“I’m going to go ahead and tell them how not to write dialogue,” I said, holding up my hands. A nervous chuckle escaped my lips.
We stood like that for a while. Finally, the gun sucked back into his arm meat. The whites returned to his eyes. The tension in his shoulders slackened.
I had saved us all. This time. This time.
One of the definitions of rhythm is “the pattern of recurrent strong and weak accents, vocalization and silence, and the distribution and combination of these elements in speech.”
Bah! Eff that right in the face. Rhythm is for country-line dancing and hip-hop and birth control. You’re trying not to write dialogue, so the best first step is to ignore rhythm.
That’s right. Ignore it. Bill Shakespeare didn’t know dick about dick about dick. He’s dead, isn’t he? If he was so awesome, then why is he dead? Sure, all that iambic pentameter nonsense is good for an English class. Yes, it sounds great to the ear and captures the lyricism of language. That’s not your goal. Your goal is flat, matte language — gray and mushy like a pile of wet newspaper. Dialogue is best felt when it’s a long straight road through an empty field. Maybe there’s corn. Who doesn’t like corn?
Supposedly, people have an ebb-and-a-flow to their conversation. A rise and fall. More importantly, the human ear is apparently tuned to rhythm. It’s attracted to it; the best dialogue almost has an earworm quality to it, the experts say. It has a beat you can dance to.
In King Mamet’s Glengarry Glen Ross (film version), we get the following line of dialogue from Alec Baldwin’s Blake character:
“Your name is You’re Wanting and you can’t play in the man’s game, you can’t close them — then go home and tell your wife your troubles. Because only one thing counts in this world: get them to sign on the line which is dotted. You hear me, you fuckin’ faggots?”
One might suggest that it has a great rhythm to it. Especially that last part: “…get them to sign on the line which is dotted.”
Nobody wants that. So, let’s rewrite with a total ignorance of rhythm!
“You have a name and it is You Are Wanting Stuff, and you cannot get to play in this game for men, and closing them, you can’t do, and you tell your wife all your problems when you go home to her, your wife. Because one thing in this world only counts: get them to take the line and sign on the line that’s a dotted line with a pen of your choosing and make sure they sign their name which is You Are Wanting Stuff in case you forgot already. Do you hear me, faggots who also fuck other faggots?”
Tada! Flow, ruined. Rhythm, fucked right in its face. Perfect. Next!
Step Two: Embrace Genericism
(It also helps if you embrace made-up words like “genericism.”)
You know what always bugs me about dialogue? How it’s tailored to different characters. In Alex Epstein’s Crafty TV Writing, he points out that one path toward strong dialogue is to make sure that it matches the character, and a test for this is to read the script with the character names removed; if you can still identify which character said what, then the job is done.
Total garbage. Feces of the lowest order! We don’t want to know who’s saying what! That’s meaningless. Dialogue should be interchangeable between any and all characters. The characters are meaningless automatons meant to convey your Fucking Awesome Plot, and that’s it! Dialogue should not contain artifacts unique to that character. It doesn’t make any sense. Reality isn’t like that. We all speak exactly the same. Accents? Local color? Affectations and inflections? Pfah. Mythology. Do you believe that the sun is pulled across the sky by some dickhat in a golden chariot? No, you don’t. Then you shouldn’t believe that different people speak differently, either.
Step Three: Brevity Is The Soul Of Shit
See what I did there? Shit? Wit? Right?
Actually, that’s pretty good. I think instead of calling people “nitwits,” I might start calling them “shitwits.”
Which kind of sounds like “shitwich.” Or, rather, “shitwitch.”
Suddenly, I fear the Shitwitch. And her magical shitcraft. We must dispel her voodoo with lessons learned from the Malleus Malefecalarium.
But this is really not the time or place to discuss how to battle the ancient poo-sorceress. Rather, it is the time or place to dispel a different voodoo: the notion that dialogue must be brief and to-the-point. Brevity is for dumb people. Smart people like to hear themselves talk. So, smart writers should want the reader to hear their characters talk. All the time. Forever anon.
What that means is, write dialogue as if you have absolutely no frame or filter. Don’t let periods get in your way. Just have characters ramble endlessly on. Pages and pages of dialogue conveying no information at all is critical, here. That’s what people want to read! This is your time to show off! Bonus points if it doesn’t make a lick of goddamn sense. Remember: all the bestselling books have dialogue that reads just like passages out of Finnegan’s Wake by James Joyce:
The three of crows have flapped it southenly, kraaking of debaccle to the kvarters of that sky whence triboos answer; Wail,’tis well! She niver comes out when Thon’s on shower or when Thon’s flash with his Nixy girls or when Thon’s blowing toomcracks down the gaels of Thon. No nubo no! Neblas on you liv! Her would be too moochy afreet. Of Burymeleg and Bindmerollingeyes and all the deed in the woe. Fe fo fom! She jist does hopes till byes will be byes. Here, and it goes on to appear now, she comes, a peacefugle, a parody’s bird, a peri potmother, a pringlpik in the ilandiskippy, with peewee and powwows in beggybaggy on her bickybacky and a flick flask fleckflinging its pixylighting pacts’ uemeramybows, picking here, pecking there, pussypussy plunderpussy. But it’s the armitides toonigh,militopucos, and toomourn we wish for a muddy kissmans to the minutia workers and there’s to be a gorgeups truce for happinest childher everwere. Come nebo me and suso sing the day we sallybright. She’s burrowed the coacher’s headlight the better to pry (who goes cute goes siocur and shoos aroun) and all spoiled goods go into her nabsack: curtrages and rattlin buttins, nappy spattees and flasks of all nations, clavicures and scampulars, maps, keys and woodpiles of haypennies and moonled brooches with bloodstaned breeks in em, boaston nightgarters and masses of shoesets and nickelly nacks and foder allmicheal and a lugly parson of cates and howitzer muchears and midgers and maggets, ills and ells with loffs of toffs and pleures of bells and the last sigh that come fro the hart (bucklied!) and the fairest sin the sunsaw (that’s cearc!). With Kiss. Kiss Criss. Cross Criss. Kiss Cross. Undo lives ‘end. Slain.
How awesome is that shit? Boom. Joyce drops the mic, sashays off the stage. Word. (Plus, Joyce gets bonus points for making up a word like “plunderpussy.)
Some might say that writing dialogue is like walking a tightrope. That balance is everything. You must balance the way people talk versus the way people read. You must balance the conveyance of character information versus story information. You want dialogue to never be boring, but you also have to balance flair and affectation against the reader’s urge for you to get to the point. It’s one big balancing act…
Some might say.
Well, one might say that some people are dipshits. You can’t go listening to dipshits.
The only thing you need to worry about balancing are your nuts on the reader’s face. (Ladies, you don’t have nuts, so feel free to balance boobs, or your vagina. I honestly believe the metaphor still plays fine that way. Your mileage may vary.)
Go full tilt! Whole hog! Skew all dialogue toward one direction without a care in the world! You’re not threading a needle. This isn’t a delicate operation. You’re trying to punch your Fucking Awesome Plot into people’s eyeholes with a fist made of people talking. Boom. Hard knuckled dialogue — in your face. You want to do up dialogue where it’s 100% accented local color? Y’alls and fixin’s and incestin’s and reckon potaters cain’t havta thee thou mash a button best get sammich? Do it up! You want to write like everybody’s a robot? “I am eating a sandwich now, and I very much enjoy French-fried potato product BZZT ding?” Hell’s yes.
Remember: the reader is your enemy. The last thing you want to do is be concerned for the reader’s experience. The reader is a namby-pamby Jennifer. Make the reader work for comprehension like a dog for a bone.
He’ll appreciate your genius dialogue, or he can fuck himself right off a cliff.
In life, conflict sucks. I don’t want to get in a fight with you. You might say hurtful things. You might hit me in the mouth.
Same thing in fiction. I don’t read books to read about people’s problems. I read books and watch movies because I like when awesome things keep happening. If it isn’t like Forrest Gump, with the protagonist stumbling into Awesome Situation after Awesome Situation, then I damn sure don’t want it touching my precious eyeballs.
Hence, your dialogue should completely avoid any and all contact with conflict. Sure, the so-called “experts” will tell you that every example of dialogue should be laced with conflict, whether internal or external, whether overt or driven by subtext, but let’s be honest. Those “experts” are usually just crying babies who never had a book published or movie made in their dumb little lives. And they just made that one word up, “subtext.” I mean, what does that even mean? Text below the text? Are we really convinced that writers are secretly putting in words with invisible ink that we have to uncover? I’ve tried to find it. Lemon juice and urine on every book I own. Nothing. No such thing as “subtext,” assholes! Busted, fuckers! I caught you in your lie! And my bookshelves smell delicious!
So, there you go. Five ways to (not) write dialogue. To review:
- Rhythm and flow has no place in your novel unless it’s a novel about people dancing or a woman’s time of the month. The reader is your enemy.
- Dialogue does nothing but convey your Fucking Awesome Plot, and should be generic enough where it ensures all your characters are blathering automatons. The reader is your foe.
- You need to fill word count — bigger books and longer movies always make more money, so you need to throw brevity to the wind and go on at length about anything and everything. When you drive a car, you don’t brake. You accelerate! Always! Same here. The reader is your adversary.
- Blah-blah-blah, writing dialogue is a tightrope walk. Sure it is. For plunderpussies. Balance is for ninnies. Pick a direction and stick with it without a single moment’s worth of variation. The reader is your attacker.
- Nothing makes dialogue less readable than by infusing it with (shudder) conflict. Eschew conflict. If everybody’s not happy and in agreement, I damn sure don’t want to read it. The reader is your nemesis!