Watch it here. The bastards won’t let me embed.
Readers, you must always remember, are inclined to distrust you and your work. They’ll assume that you’re a bad writer until you prove otherwise. (This is true especially for readers you don’t know, but, truth be told, it’s often true for readers you do know.) And because they’re assuming that you’re a bad writer, they’ll naturally picture a bad actor reading your dialogue.
This is especially true if they detect even a hint of pomposity in your drama, or schtick in your comedy: a switch will flip in their minds and they’ll say, “Oh, I see, this is that kind of dialogue, and the voice in their head will become as hammy as possible. At that point you’re poisoned.
So your goal is to never flip that switch. Your distrustful reader just needs to stumble over one overdramatic line to unleash Master Thespian on the rest of your dialogue. But can you force them to picture a great actor instead? If you give them no hammy lines, they can’t picture a hammy actor!
Reread all of your dialogue and remove all of the potential ham-triggers. If you can hear it in Master Thespian’s voice, take it out. Be ungenerous with your dialogue. Try to hate it, and then work on until it’s hard to hate, no matter how hard you try.
This is not entirely hypothetical for me. I’ll have a very real-world reminder of this phenomenon soon. I wrote a play (kind of co-wrote, but we need to work that out), and a friend offered to have it read aloud by his actor-y friends at a small gathering, so I did a quick reread and rewrite of it, and frequently found myself freaking out. Can any of this survive being read aloud by a group of friends, who may or may not be taking this particular challenge seriously? At what point will the room turn on the script? What line will be the tipping point?
(Okay, this is weird, but I just realized something as I typed the above. In the play, which is based on a true story, there’s actually a scene where a theatrical troupe turns against a play they’re performing and starts to ham it up after a few bad lines cause them to lose respect for the text. So it’ll be pretty goddamn meta if that happens in person.)
So I tried to slice out all the ham. I’ve tried to force a possibly-flippant group of performers to respect the text, maybe against their natural inclination. That’s a high standard to hold yourself to, and so it’s a great trick to make your writing better.