The thing about writing dialogue is that there can be a very fine line between smart, funny and inspiring and just plain sickly sweet. I personally don’t like sweet dialogue and there is a lot of it about. In fact there are some popular lines that just make my eyeballs itch.
I mean Jerry Maguire is a great film that gave us wonderful lines like this one:
‘I am out here for you. You don’t know what it’s like to be me out here for you. It is an up-at-dawn, pride-swallowing siege that I will never fully tell you about, ok?
But the very same film also gave us the sickly sweet ‘you complete me.’
Complete! Were you really only part of a person before you met whoever it was completed you? If so, which part were you? Were you half a person, three quarters or what? What did they contribute to complete you? Maybe a chunk of arm? Or half a leg? Five eyelashes and an ingrown toenail? Several portions of whole brain?
No, for me that line represented a clingy, unhealthy kind of love and I would expect it from a stalker but not from somebody really in love.
Soppy phrases are bad enough, but what really makes my earlobes curl is those smug expressions of ‘love.’ Not only was Love Story filled with more cheese than you’d get in a cheddar mill but it also gave us the ubiquitous:
‘Love means never having to say you’re sorry.’
What’s that supposed to mean? Is it that, when you love someone you become perfect and never? Never do anything wrong apart from boring everyone to sleep? Or, does it mean that once you’re in love, you can do what you like and still qualify for a get out of the dog-house free card?
AND THEN THERE’S RELIGION
There’s an awful lot of robo-speak masquerading as religion out there in this age of the meme. I have nothing against any religion whatsoever but some of the stuff out there is just plain childish. Here’s one of my favourite non-favourites:
‘God doesn’t give us more than we can handle.’
So if we believe this, then we must believe that we can handle any situation that’s thrown at us, any disaster, any amount of suffering, emotional or physical?
But what if we can’t? What if we break down or fall down? If we can’t handle whatever is thrown at us, then is it because we don’t want to? Does God apply this rule to everyone – even children? Even babies? So what does this mean? Should those babies have swum harder to survive that tsunami?
Maybe those children who starved to death or were maimed by famine and war should have tried harder? Walked further? What about their parents? They were never sent more than they could handle either so maybe they could have prevented that tsunami.
But, at the end of the day the thought of being able to handle everything that happens is a sweet one but there are times we just can’t – we fall, we fail and we do break, that’s what makes us human and that’s what makes us real.
And real is where I want to be. When I write dialogue I don’t want it to sound like something a computer spat out, or that could be written on a chocolate box!
So how do you write good dialogue? Listen to conversations with your writer’s ear, noting not just what is said but what is unsaid too. Write more and then more. Practice! Practice! Practice!
Once you’ve written your dialogue one of the best ways I know of improving it is to hear it read aloud.
If you know any actors you are lucky and you should beg and bribe them to read your dialogue for you. If it sounds bad well…
If you don’t know any actors you could ask your friends to read it for you. The next best thing is to read it aloud. Play the parts yourself – you could even put on voices.
Listen to those voices and ask yourself honestly if it sounds like something a real person said? Does it sound like you are you keeping your dialogue real? Or does it sound more like you are auditioning for a washing up liquid adverts?
Best of luck with all your writing – especially your dialogue.