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The art of writing dialogue: Don’t listen to everyday conversations

I’ve heard people who teach writing give advice that if you want to write good dialogue to eavesdrop on people’s conversations in coffee shops, train stations, and other public places.

Personally, I think writing mentor Robert McKee’s advice is more accurate: only eavesdrop on people’s conversations if you want to learn how NOT to write good dialogue.

The other day I was writing at a coffee shop and happened to overhear an argument between a mother, father and teenage daughter. Even arguing, their words were flat, dull, boring, lacked imagination and were full of clichés. Ouch. If we wrote dialogue like that nobody would read it.

McKee says that dialogue in novels or screenplays must sound like every day conversation but to turn it into story or art it must rise above everyday dialogue in both content and style. To learn how to write dialogue, he says we should watch good movies or plays—he recommends Quentin Tarantino and Tennessee Williams. For fiction, he recommends reading Elmore Leonard—the master of creating high-style repartee between low-life characters.

Here’s some juicy, lively dialogue between John Travolta and Uma Thurman’s characters in “Pulp Fiction”:

I love the last line: “When you little scamps get together, you’re worse than a sewing circle.”

When writing dialogue, ask yourself: how can this be more juicy, lively, and vivid?

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