How can you advise writers on dialogue? Firstly, I ask them to use their ear; read their dialogue aloud. Those who get it right have what amounts to a musical gift but, frankly, most of us don’t have a knack for it. It takes hard graft to get to a basic level, where speech doesn’t sound weird. Successfully varying your style for each of your characters is a whole other ballgame. The most common glarer I see is the educated-sounding blue collar worker, and I don’t think I’ve worked with a single writer who’s a whizz at teen speech.
Sometimes writers craft a series of staccato sentences in a stylised thriller style (that can get unbearably annoying if overused) while pairing this with grammatically perfect dialogue. Wrong way round surely? Who on earth speaks in perfectly constructed sentences with subclauses and connectives etc.?
Other dialogue traps:
Dumping information and backstory into dialogue for convenience with no calculation as to whether this would take place in real speech.
One you often see in second-rate TV dramas is where a professional spells out a procedure to a colleague in the same business, who would darn well know all about it. It helps to deliver information to the viewer but it’s lazy.
‘Writing on the nose’ dialogue, a term that can equally apply to novels as it does to screenplays, is when a character spells stuff out – giving a script an instant leaden quality. Of course, as with any show/tell issue, the reader or viewer would get much more enjoyment if they were able to fill in the gaps for themselves. Robert McKee uses the scene in Sideways where his male protagonist discusses wine to show a master screenwriter at work. The subtext, if you recall this scene, is all about the man’s repressed love, but it is never something that is actually spelt out.
Lastly, please don’t sidestep dialogue – many underconfident writers do. Go for it – and as David Thomas, author of the Sam Carver thrillers, recently advised in a series of tips: ‘Study the masters’ – both novelists and TV and film scriptwriters.