Okay, to conclude this series the notes I most often give to first drafts, let’s look at some dialogue notes:
- Too much how it is, not enough how it feels, When we write a first draft, our primary concern is laying out the plot and making it make sense. We tend to have characters explain their situation carefully, so that the reader understands the story. But resist this urge: The characters don’t know they’re in a story and they don’t know that anyone is listening. Furthermore, since they’re in a crisis, they’re going to be emotional and not very analytical. From a character perspective, this is great for you, because you want them to display a lot of personality, but from a plot perspective, it’s more problematic, since they’re not going to explain their actions very well. This is why the best plots visualize the problem, freeing the characters up to talk about other things.
- Plotting on the page: In first drafts, characters spend too much time discussing what they can and can’t do before they act. Even worse, they discuss what they did and didn’t do after they act. This is death. Figuring out the plot is your job, not theirs. Let the audience see their motivation and their obstacles before they act, without a lot of discussion, and never let them Monday-morning-quarterback their decisions.
- More personality: All too often in a first draft, a character’s reactions aren’t unique enough… They say what anyone would say, or they ask something in the way that anyone would ask it.
- Nobody would say that. Here’s an example from The Hurt Locker of dialogue that drives me crazy. The guys are going though Jeremy Renner’s stuff and asking about it. He explains, “This box is full of stuff that almost killed me.” Then Anthony Mackie takes out a wedding ring and blankly asks, “And what about this one?” Renner smiles ruefully: “It's my wedding ring.” Mackie looks confused until Renner says “Like I said, stuff that almost killed me.” The problem, of course, is that people don’t give each other big, fat set-ups like these. We’re always trying to guess what the other person’s going to say. If one of your characters has something clever to say, let them jump right in and say it, don’t force another character to set them up for the line.
- Characters are listening too much, not interrupting each other enough: Unless someone is explicitly making a speech, they shouldn’t get in more than four lines of dialogue before they’re interrupted. Speaking of which, I’ll talk more about this tomorrow…