Do you want to write better dialogue? If so, there are a number of ways to go about it. One is to read and re-read books containing dialogue-driven scenes you admire – if you’re a writer then I assume you’re already voracious reader – another is to watch and deconstruct films which contain the kind of exchanges you want to evoke in you’re writing. I advocate for doing both as deconstructing my favorite moments in fiction and film helped me write dialogue effectively.
While there’s no substitute for reading great fiction, watching movies is useful for entirely different reasons. Because movies allow you to hear the way language sounds when it’s delivered by professionals trained to use language for maximum effect. Watching and active listening allows you to dial in on the way vocabulary, syntax, diction, and tone are deployed in a scene to effectively evoke a character that’s attempting to convince, plead with, seduce, flatter, interrogate, or intimidate others.
And thanks to the internet, watching your favorite movie clips is often free. Additionally, having the clip playing on a screen on your desk allows you to watch and re-watch a scene in order to break it down into its composite elements.
Just one word of caution – be selective in the films you choose to study.
“The bad artists imitate, the great artists steal,” says Pablo Picasso. So, personally, I aim to steal from the best. After all, why take the time and effort to lift costume jewels when a bit of effort will yield real gems? Don’t get me wrong. I read and watch my fair share of garbage. But while I indulge in all kinds of gratuitous reading, TV, and movies, I don’t waste time actively studying scenes which lack challenging material.
Does this kind of exercise really work?
I can only state with certainty that it works for me. Often I’ll come away from deconstructing a scene with tricks, strategies, and ideas I’m able to deploy immediately in my own writing. Other times, I know and understand how an effect was achieved but will have little use for it in a current project. I’m okay with this because I’d prefer to have more tools at hand than less. And, just as reading great sentences will certainly improve one’s writing, I believe listening to and internalizing great dialogue can only help me in the quest to write better scenes of my own.
So how’s this done?
In my next post, I’ll demonstrate how I break a scene down and extract the reasons I think it works. In later posts, I’ll look at a number of other lessons films can teach writers and list ‘writerly’ movies that I repeatedly return to in order to hone my craft.