Daily Dojo

Rapping On Writing - The Dialogue Mix . . .

Police Camera Tech: Who the fuck are you?

Dignam: I’m the guy who does his job. You must be the other guy.
- The Departed

Let’s chat some more about What Writing Be?, shall we?

A short time ago, Mystery Man asked me my approach to writing dialogue and here is part of what I wrote in response:

“For me, a lot of dialogue is about rhythm, everyone has their own individual beat, and once you nail that cadence, you got the character… that’s me, anyway… We’ve all got tell-tale rhythms, I’ve got them, I’ve got actor friends I can nail right away just by looking for the beat of what they’re saying.

A lot of what I do, when I write, is putting people I know right into the fucking story and it becomes easier after that.

It may help that I began as an actor, but I dunno, I think I just got an ear for it… I’ve taken music lessons for five different musical instruments, when I was a wee lad, and couldn’t learn to play a single one. Just couldn’t get it. My brother sat down at a drum set at 9 years of age (my drum set, need I add) and taught himself how to play fast. He’s since taught himself three other instruments and fronts a band. He just had an ear for it. Me, I never really had formal training as a writer, but when I began writing, I just seemed to have an immediate feel for it. I’ve worked hard since, took to the books (’cause there’s definitely a lot more to writing than people talking) but when I started, I just had the touch for characters right out the gate…

“I hear the characters, and I think that could be a stop-gap for a lot of writers… they’re sitting there, trying to think of cool things to write as dialogue… me, I’m seeing whomever it is I’ve got pictured in my head, and once I can see them, I can hear them. I never try to write dialogue.

That’s an important key, I think. Hear the characters before you hear the dialogue.

“Some of it is people I know, or once knew, or would LIKE to know… the important thing is to get that person locked, see them, even like a small character with three lines, if you locked them good, you got them. Even an imaginary character (well, especially those) you have to see them, put a friend in that role, and then you’ll have it.

I’ve done that in a couple of my screenplays, have a character with only a few lines and LOCKED them in, made even their one small moment ring true. When I figured out how to do that, that’s when I had a break-through in screenwriting… “

So I said that, and I thought I’d share that with you and elaborate a little bit more.

Listening is key to writing dialogue.

It’s not just writing cool things about pop culture, it’s about cool characters who care about pop culture, that’s it.

So to restate, don’t try to write dialogue, try to create real characters who do real things and listen to them.

I’d note that I know a few writers who write only one voice, their own, and all the characters sound like them. Not a bad thing, either, if you write a one person show you can be quite successful that way.

The thing is when you want other characters in whatever story you’re creating, they need to feel real and separate from each other. To me, it’s really closer to music, how people speak, everyone’s got their own beat and rhythm and stylings . . . Everyone has their own music, I do, my lady does, my friends do . . . it’s simply a question of nailing it . . .

Here’s an example from The Departed

Ellerby: How is your wedding coming along?

Colin Sullivan: Great, great; she’s a doctor.

Ellerby: That’s outstanding.

Colin Sullivan: Yeah.

Ellerby: Marriage is an important part of getting ahead: lets people know you’re not a homo; married guy seems more stable; people see the ring, they think at least somebody can stand the son of a bitch; ladies see the ring, they know immediately you must have some cash or your cock must work.

And also from the same film:

Frank Costello: [to Costigan] I knew your father.

Billy Costigan: Yeah? You know he’s dead?

Frank Costello: Oh, sorry. How’d he go?

Billy Costigan: He didn’t complain.

Frank Costello: Yeah, that was his problem.

Billy Costigan: Who said he had a problem?

Frank Costello: I just said he had a fucking problem. There’s a man who could have been anything.

Billy Costigan: Are you trying to say he was nothing?
[French slams Costigan onto a pool table and continues his search]

Frank Costello: I’m saying he worked at the airport.

You can see these guys, you can, just from their dialogue.

I think the big thing is listening to the characters, really. See them, place them and make them important in their world, and then what they say will feel true. Each one has their own beat . . .

Here, listen as Matt Damon Does Matthew McConaughey and notice, Matt doesn’t tell any jokes and when he responds to Dave, he responds honestly by asking him to come down to Austin . . . it works because the rhythm is just like how McConaughey himself speaks, and it sounds like something he might honestly say . . .

In other words, when it comes to dialogue, we’ve all got our own music, and the key is seeing who the musician is and making their songs honest . . .

More later, when we get into character . . .

One Response to “ Rapping On Writing - The Dialogue Mix . . .”

  1. Mystery Man Says:

    I loved these line:

    “It’s not just writing cool things about pop culture, it’s about cool characters who care about pop culture, that’s it.”

    “So to restate, don’t try to write dialogue, try to create real characters who do real things and listen to them.”

    Great article! I couldn’t agree more.


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