The Insider Secret to Dialog [Hint: Steal It]

July 25, 2017 | 6 min read

 

Photo by Victor Rodvang on Unsplash

Today’s guest post is by author Jeff SomersHe has published nine novels, including the Avery Cates Series of noir-science fiction novels from Orbit Books, the darkly hilarious crime novel Chum from Tyrus Books, and most recently tales of blood magic and short cons in the Ustari Cycle.


 

 

The film Sunset Boulevard (1950) is perhaps Billy Wilder’s greatest achievement in terms of dialog—including the all-time great line (spoken by all-time great voice William Holden), “Sometimes it's interesting to see just how bad bad writing can be” (a line given extra oomphby the fact that the character speaking is himself a pretty bad writer). You can’t help but wonder if Wilder was winking at himself when he came up with that one, despite the fact that Wilder—a Polish Jew who emigrated to the U.S. in his late 20s—didn’t learn English until he arrived in Hollywood to begin his stellar career as a screenwriter and director.

The fact that English wasn’t his first language might have helped Wilder come up with such great dialog. Hearing a language spoken when you don’t understand it is an entirely different experience than when you’re fluent; in 1972, Italian singer Adriano Celentano released “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a song of gibberish lyrics that are designed to sound like English spoken with a typical American accent. Listening to the song is an interesting experience—at first, it seems like the meaning of the song is just beyond your grasp because the rhythms and inflections are right on the money. The reason this song sounds right despite being meaningless reveals the fundamental trick of good dialog: The rhythm.

 

Slave to the Rhythm

Every writer knows that it’s pretty easy to go very wrong when writing dialog:

- Monotony, wherein all the characters sound more or less exactly the same (if a reader can’t tell who’s speaking without a dialog tag, you’ve got a problem).

- Stilted, exposition-heavy conversations filled with clumsy signifiers like “As you know ...” or repetitions of facts re-phrased for clarity (people simply don’t talk like that).

- Dialog that’s too close to reality, because in real life we all speak in meandering, stuttered phrases, using a lot of filler sounds to stall for time—and while making your characters sound like this might be realistic, it’s unpleasant to read (and difficult to understand on the page).

- Characters that only speak in Plot Points, only opening their mouths when the reader needs to know something.

The sweet spot for dialog is hazy, but the trick is to match the rhythm of real speech, but use a much more controlled approach to the actual words.

Modeling Speech

The key is turning off your brain a little and hearing just the pacing and pattern of a conversation without the meaning behind the sounds. One easy way to do this is to take dialog from a fictional source or from a real-life conversation and then substitute your own words.

TIP: Steal the rhythm, skip the boring parts—this is a perfect opportunity to strip out the “placeholder” words we all use to stall while we think, like “um” and “ah,” or, if you’re Italian, allora.

Borrowing From a Scene: Let’s say you have a scene between two characters talking about something. Why not steal the rhythm from one of the masters of modern movie dialog, Quentin Tarantino, and his classic Pulp Fiction:

JULES: Okay so, tell me again about the hash bars.

VINCENT: Okay what do you want to know?

JULES: Well, hash is legal over there, right?

VINCENT: Yeah, It's legal but it ain't hundred percent legal, I mean, you just can't walk into a restaurant, roll a joint and start puffin' away. They want you to smoke in your home or certain designated places.

Even without having seen the film, the rhythm of each speaker is clear, and the dialog bounces in a way that’s distinctive and pleasant to the ear—which is one reason this scene is one of the most famous from a famous film. The subject matter is not exactly important in any way (to the plot or anything) else, but you can see how the use of meaningless words like okay, right, and yeah are used to keep the rhythm balanced, and how some words are intentionally left out to get a more naturalistic sound (like ain’t hundred percent legal instead of ain’ta hundred percent legal). Modeling your own dialog after these rhythms can get that same bounce for your own words.

Vincent Jules Pulp Fiction

You can also steal from great books. Why not steal from a master of the art like Hemingway or Elmore Leonard? Leonard had a skill in making ordinary conversations pop off the page:

CHRIS: She didn't throw me out, I left. I phoned, you weren't home, so I stayed at Jerry's.

DAD: When you needed me most. I'm sorry I wasn't here.

CHRIS: Actually, you get right down to it, Phyllis's the one does all the talking. She gives me banking facts about different kinds of annuities, fiduciary trusts, institutional liquid asset funds ... I'm sitting here trying to stay awake, she's telling me about the exciting world of trust funds.

DAD: I had a feeling. You've given it some thought. You realize life goes on.

CHRIS: I'm not even sure what attracted me to her in the first place.

DAD: You want me to tell you?

All of Leonard’s dialog has a recognizable rhythm that magically seems realistic while being very controlled and carefully constructed.

Borrowing from Real Life: An equally powerful approach is to model your dialog on actual conversations. This can be a better approach if you’re trying to capture an iconic cultural rhythm, or if you’re simply looking for something more naturalistic. This approach can guarantee that your dialog has a believable, authentic rhythm to it, which is about 75% of the battle.

A hybrid of both approaches is to use an actor’s distinctive delivery of dialog to model the rhythm of one character on. Think about an actor with a distinctive way of delivering dialog—Alec Baldwin, or Meryl Streep, or even a non-actor you know personally. Imagining them reading every line you write for a specific character will subconsciously guide you towards a distinctive but believably consistent rhythm for every line they speak in your story.

These approaches will train you to write realistic-sounding dialog every time, eventually without having to draft on someone else’s work or the neighbors’ conversations—and eventually to develop your own personal rhythm that doesn’t rely on anything but your creative imagination and skill.

Dialog is hard—no one’s saying otherwise. World-building and plotting can be fun, filled with the wild excitement of simply creating. Dialog is a delicate business. The secret to great dialog doesn't lie with poetic lines scanned and re-scanned endlessly for errant commas or stuffed with convoluted similes—it's all about the rhythm. If your characters’ speaking rhythms appear naturalistic to the mind's ear, the reader will find it easy to imagine the characters are really speaking even though written dialog is so different from the spoken kind. This is incredibly important because having your characters speak in believable ways sells even the most far-fetched world-building and the most faith-testing out-of-nowhere plot twists. Bad dialog can ruin even the smartest story, even stories that are otherwise brilliantly written, and like many aspects of the craft getting dialog ‛right’ has more to do with approximating reality than reproducing it. Like "Prisencolinensinainciusol," you're fooling your readers into “hearing” what you want them to hear.

Except, of course, you should use words that actually mean something as a best practice. So, writers, tell me: What writer creates the best dialog for modeling your own work?

 


Jeff Somers

Jeff Somers (www.jeffreysomers.com) began writing by court order as an attempt to steer his creative impulses away from engineering genetic grotesqueries. He has published nine novels, including theAvery Cates Series of noir-science fiction novels from Orbit Books (www.avery-cates.com) and theUstari Cycleseries of urban fantasy novels. His short story “Ringing the Changes” was selected for inclusion inBest American Mystery Stories 2006,his story “Sift, Almost Invisible, Through” appeared in the anthologyCrimes by Moonlight edited by Charlaine Harris, and his story “Three Cups of Tea” appeared in the anthologyHanzai Japan. He also writes about books forBarnes and Noble andAbout.com and about the craft of writing forWriter’s Digest, which will publish his book on the craft of writingWriting Without Rules in 2018. He lives in Hoboken with his wife, The Duchess, and their cats. He considers pants to always be optional.

 

 

 

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There’s an age-old debate about the superior version of a story: Is it the book or the movie? Most readers and far too many writers will default to the idea that “the book was better.”

But was it? Was it really?

May 20, 2024 9 min read


Talking to Alex Kazemi doesn’t feel like talking to the guy who wrote 2023’s “most dangerous book of the year,” a book Ellen Hopkins calls “raucous, raunchy, and sure to offend.” And it certainly doesn’t feel like talking to Bret Easton Ellis’s “favorite millennial provocateur.”

It feels like talking to a friend I haven’t caught up with in a while. And my friends just aren’t that cool.


We’re chatting because Kazemi lives a ruthlessly offline lifestyle, a philosophy at the core of Freewrite and which Kazemi sees as necessary to being the best artist he can be. Having garnered a book deal at the tender age of 18, he knows a thing or two about life as an artist.

Kazemi released his first book, Pop Magick, an occult book about how to manifest, in 2020. “Madonna helped me launch that,” he says, casually mentioning one of the biggest pop stars of the twentieth century. “So, yeah, that was insane.”

But it wasn’t until the release of his first novel, New Millennium Boyz, nearly a decade in the making, that things got truly wild.

Kazemi’s unflinching look at Y2K culture and teenage boyhood reads like a horrifying screenplay — or the transcript of a violent AIM conversation between bored, lonely teenagers. Even before publication, the book faced criticism calling it dangerous, prompting the publisher to splash a content warning across the front matter, to Kazemi's extreme annoyance. Conservative American moms later flagged it for book bans, leaving the Canadian author baffled.

Was an honest look at the 90s and early ’aughts really worth all that uproar?

We sat down with Kazemi to discuss the driving force behind his portrayal of this often-glamorized time period, why he felt compelled to present this reality to modern audiences, and how in the world he lives an offline lifestyle in the year 2024.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

 Mirror selfies without a smartphone

ANNIE COSBY: First things first. Are you a millennial?

ALEX KAZEMI: Yes. I was born in 1994, which means I’m on the cusp. I do not identify with any Zoomer qualities or tendencies at all.

COSBY: In general cultural discourse, millennials tend to get a bad rap – very infantilizing, even though some of us are 40. What's your take?

KAZEMI: I think it's pretty insane because we were dealt a really bad card, with the recession, jobs being lost, the digital age booming… Many of us still have memories of going to Blockbuster and, you know, AOL chat rooms and the early web. But then we watched everything go chronically online and digital through the 2010s. We watched technology and the information age replace a lot of skillsets. So we became a weird bunch, for sure.


COSBY: I do find it interesting that people glamorize that period specifically because it was the beginning of everything being online — so everybody's mistakes and drunken pictures are out there.

KAZEMI: Right? And we did it willingly.

COSBY: Oh God, the things I said to strange men in chat rooms.

KAZEMI: Me as well. And it’s so, so dark, because the internet has always been and will always be, even as we're adults and growing older, a mirror of our subconscious vomit. The frequencies we vibrated to when we were coming of age were more about exploration, and that's why there was so much stranger danger. There were so many scary scenarios that kids could get themselves into with the early web because of how unregulated it was, as well.

COSBY: Would you say New Millennium Boyz is a defense of the way we Millennials are? Or is it a commentary on how misremembered that era is?

KAZEMI: It's definitely a commentary. And it's supposed to be historical fiction, educating younger folks and also older generations about how, you know, this beautiful picture that you see of Rachael Leigh Cook from She's All That on TikTok? There was actually a lot of darkness and chaos going around, especially when it comes to very normalized racism, misogyny, and homophobia.

 

 

I find it very ironic that this new generation that is so fixated on social justice and evolution and freedom would fetishize the aesthetics of an era of true debauchery and chaos and cruelty — like really — which was mirrored in the art in that period. Look at 2000s teen movies! I just wanted to write a satire of that extreme teen genre, like Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, Larry Clark's Bully, Spring Breakers...

My second motivation was to really look at boy culture in the post-Columbine era and how this was very much a prescient, predictive time of where we would end up with the alt-right and 4chan and “incels,” and how it's all connected.

And then of course exploring the romanticized aspect of Y2K — going to the mall, people wearing Marilyn Manson shirts, and the aesthetic obsession with it. I wanted to create the book I wanted to see in the world that I didn't feel existed yet.

COSBY: I’ve heard you talk about the misogyny of the “teen girls are bitches” trope. It's like, have you met boys? Have you been a teen boy talking to other teen boys?

KAZEMI: Oh, they're the biggest bitches. They're so cruel. You see the “mean girls” trope in tons of movies, like Jawbreaker, but it’s so strange how we don't ever look at the cruelty teenage boys face. And not just the cruelty but also the misguidedness and the culture that feeds that.

Especially in the 90s and 2000s, boys were so encouraged to be testosterone-driven and hyper-masculine. Woodstock 99 was such a great example of the chaos of too much of something – and it’s being talked about now because of the documentary.

COSBY: New Millennium Boyz really explores this violence inherent to 90s culture for boys, and because of that, it got a content warning, right?

KAZEMI: Yes. During the final cuts of the book, when we were in edits and copy edits, I got the call from my publisher that “So-and-So is not going to stock it without a content warning because they're really worried about how teenagers are going to react to the work and if they're going to reenact the behavior.”

And I was like, this is a cultural critique. It's not anything to be glamorized. I think anyone who reads it would understand that.

COSBY: Do you think we as humans always look back on past time periods with rose-colored glasses, or is there something special about Y2K?

KAZEMI: There's something really freaky about what we're doing with the 90s and 2000s. I don't think we've ever before been in a place, as humans, where corporations like Meta and TikTok can just algorithmically feed into us all the time.

A teenager in the 90s could fetishize the 70s or the 60s, but they could close the book when it was done or finish the movie and turn off the TV. But with Gen Z, and every generation now, we're just inundated every day with memes, photos, videos, and other people’s thoughts.

And I guess this 90s nostalgia is partly because it represents familiarity for people of a certain age, but even for the people who didn't live during that time, it seems to represent a kind of order, a sense of quietness — “Oh, 90210 is on at 9 p.m. and that's all there is.” No choices to make. There weren’t one billion options like kids today have.

COSBY: So you think people are viewing that period as a time of simplicity and unplugging, which we’re all kind of yearning for now?

KAZEMI: Yeah, and you certainly could unplug then, but you can unplug today, too — we're just brainwashed into thinking that we have no choice, that we have no free will. But it's totally not true. You could simulate Y2K if you wanted to! You just have to set a lot of boundaries.

COSBY: Like writing on a Freewrite.

KAZEMI: Yes! That’s why I write offline. Over the years, I’ve had different cool ways to do that. For a lot of my teenage years, I wrote in Apple Notes. Then, I ordered a BlackBerry off eBay and used it as a word processor for a while. I have a dead AlphaSmart here — rest in peace.

I feel like what's so crazy about Freewrite is a lot of people don't know that these products exist, which is a problem.

COSBY: It's also super polarizing. Without even trying it, some people are like, “What is this hipster thing?” Meanwhile, we get so many messages from new users saying, “What is this magic? I'm actually writing for the first time in years!” It's really interesting to see people's reactions. Tech is such a weirdly touchy subject.

KAZEMI: And a Freewrite is way better than a typewriter. I'm not fucking doing the ribbon, there's no time for that.

COSBY: Some people do though, right? Aren’t you friends with Matty Healy?

KAZEMI: Yes, yes. I told him about Freewrite. I love his songwriting. I love the 1975's lyrics. I love him as a literary mind.

COSBY: Alex. [heavy pause] Is he the one being referenced in the song?

KAZEMI: [rolls eyes] Honestly, I'm not really interested in all the gossip. I don't think great artists should be reduced to that.

COSBY: OK, that's fair. I think they're both great storytellers, too. And it would be so hard to live a creative life under that kind of microscope. On that note, your offline approach to life goes beyond writing, right? How does that work?

KAZEMI: Well, it definitely includes a lot of conscious boundaries that annoy a lot of people.

I’ve had a flip phone for a few years now, and I have a landline. When it comes to the internet and iMessage and emails, I try to do regulated “office hours” of screen time.

It's a very privileged position to be in, because a lot of people have to be on call all the time for work. But being disconnected definitely gives me more time for my mind to be free and creative and to write more.

COSBY: And this annoys people?

KAZEMI: Yeah, it drives everyone insane. It's a huge boundary I put in my life. People have to go through loopholes to contact me. But it's the only way that I can have a life as an artist and as a writer.

All of this technology can be a tool. There's nothing inherently bad with the tools that exist on the Internet. It's just the compulsivity and the addictive mentality we have with it that creates this chaos for us as writers and artists.

COSBY: You've mentioned being on Tumblr before, back in the day — are you on social media now?

KAZEMI: No, I'm not. Sometimes I have to look at it on friends' phones to get a person's email or something like that, but no, I don't have social media. It's so scary, the pressure of having to perform or turn my most personally valuable things into currency — to monetize it. It just feels weird. I'm not into it. I'm not into it.

And when you're online so much, you're like, “I don't have to be doing this. Why am I doing this?” That's where that punishing feeling of addiction comes in. A lot of us, when we are in those spirals, we don't even really even want to be there. There isn't a sense of agency or control.

It's a loss of control.

And I think that submission of when you are looking at other people's work, what they’re doing, and you're scrolling, scrolling, it just creates a huge sense of inadequacy and darkness.

COSBY: It's interesting to me because time goes so much faster when I’m scrolling — and I feel the same way when I get really into something I'm writing.

KAZEMI: Like a flow state.

COSBY: Exactly! It’s complete absorption. But scrolling doesn’t make me feel good after, the way creating does.

KAZEMI: It’s like a black market, counterfeit flow state. A heroin flow state.


So I guess the question is: How can we induce positive, offline flow states?

COSBY: Isn't that the question. How do you do it?

KAZEMI: I find that just setting boundaries is so important. You have free will over your boundaries. This idea that we have no sense of agency and have to give all of our energy and life force to these corporations zapping us is just so crazy and unfair.

But when you bring up these things to certain people, they can't even fathom living without their online habits.

COSBY: Yeah, it has to be a conscious choice.

KAZEMI: You have to ask yourself:

"OK, am I going to just sublimate myself to be a consumer of everyone else's content? Or am I going to be a creator and produce?”

COSBY: Most of us know which one we want to be.

KAZEMI: You have to know which one you want to be.

COSBY: Any last words for the creators out there?

KAZEMI: For creators and artists and writers who are overwhelmed by information overload and the prospect of putting your work out there, just know there is an audience for your work. Just stay focused and don't be discouraged. You’ll find your place in the weird world.

--

Annie Cosby is the Marketing Manager at Freewrite, a former fiction editor, and the author of seven books — and counting. Her work deals with Celtic mythology and has twice won the YA Indie Author Project in Missouri. See what she's writing on Freewrite.

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