My husband has been educating me on Star Wars. I think he sees it as his duty to make me a well-rounded individual who fully appreciates cultural icons. And while I’ve seen the original trilogy, I’ve never watched Revenge of the Sith…or that one about the clones…or that other one whose name I can’t remember.
So we’ve been watching them together. And I have thoughts.
My first takeaway was that battle droids are adorable. Why did no one tell me this before? But my second takeaway was the dialogue. Like this infamous line, delivered by a mawkish Anakin: “I don’t like sand. It’s coarse and rough and irritating, and it gets everywhere. Not like you. You’re everything soft and smooth.”
NOBODY TALKS LIKE THAT.
Or if they do, you probably should be running away fast.
So I started thinking about dialogue, and how crucial it is in maintaining immersion for viewers or listeners or readers.
In real life, people are unscripted and say “um” and “uh” and “like” and “y’know”…and they really don’t drop similes into ordinary conversations. In real life, people fumble for words and speak in sentence fragments. They’re unscripted.
The way people talk also tells you something about their background. Certain words are unique to certain locations. (Y’all, anyone?) The words people choose indicate what they like to read and where they grew up and who they hung out with. So for writers, getting dialogue right is important. It’s important for general realism (your characters shouldn’t sound scripted, even though they are), and specific realism (your characters shouldn’t use words they wouldn’t know or have heard in their context).
When I started writing for a news podcast, I had to learn the difference between print and radio. In print, you can cram lots of details and clauses into a sentence. Like this frontpage Washington Post article from the mid-2000s:
“President Bush yesterday said he takes responsibility for the federal government’s stumbling response to Hurricane Katrina as his White House worked on several fronts to move beyond the improvisation of the first days of the crisis and set a long-term course on a problem that aides now believe will shadow the balance of Bush’s second term.”
Perfectly acceptable print sentence. But try reading that out loud. It doesn’t work.
For one thing, it’s too long. Normal people don’t speak in long, full sentences with correct clauses and subclauses. They use short sentences.
It also doesn’t make sense the first time you hear it. When you’re reading something, you can go back and re-read parts of a sentence or paragraph that you missed the first time through. If you’re speaking or reading to someone, you only get one shot.
So for stage and for radio, you have to translate it into something speakable. When I write scripts, I’m constantly saying the lines out loud as I type, to see if it feels natural. Once, my editor flatly refused to include “transmogrification” in a script because who says that in real life? (Well, maybe you’re writing a character who happens to be a super nerd. If so, you can use transmogrification in their dialogue. I’ll allow it.)
Bottom line: Choose words that your character would actually say. And that means you have to know who you’re writing about. Spend time with that demographic. Listen to how they speak, their sentence structure, their slang, their word choice, their pronunciation.
Kids don’t think in abstract terms, so don’t write in deep moral thought processes for your 6-year-old character. Women tend to say “I feel like [insert opinion here]” more than men do. Americans don’t call elevators “lifts,” and Brits don’t call an eggplant an eggplant. They call it “aubergine.”
So listen and mimic. But…only to a certain extent.
You want dialogue to sound natural, but the same time, you don’t want to write in all the ums and uhs and filler words so common in real-life conversations. That would bog down a script and sap all your artistry. There is a place in between ordinary conversations and scripted dialogue. That’s the sweet spot. National Public Radio calls it “speech that has been washed and pressed.” You mimic natural speech without being strictly accurate.
You can use rhetorical devices in scripts and dialogue. Scripted lines can (and should) have flow and rhythm and lyricism. But if you read it out loud (or have a 6-year-old read it out loud, or a Canadian, or a 40-year-old man, or whoever your character is most like), it has to sound like something they would actually say.
Whoever is voicing or reading your script will thank you. And if you do your job right, your audience probably won’t even notice, because they’ll be immersed in the characters and setting. There won’t be any sand…that coarse, rough, irritating stuff that gets everywhere…to distract them.
Have you ever performed in a play where the dialogue was difficult? Do you have certain authors that just make everything sound natural? I’d love to hear from you!
Until next time–this is just me-talking to you from the wings!