Do you have to make your dialogue short?

Alan Ball

One screenwriting book actually dictates, “Don’t write any dialogue longer than three lines.”

Hmm, just as well Tarantino didn’t read that before writing “Pulp Fiction”, or Alan Ball before writing “American Beauty” or Aaron Sorkin before he wrote “The West Wing.”

If you have intelligent, articulate characters, why gag them? If the dialogue sparkles, intrigues, surprises, or provokes laughter, the audience won’t balk at longer speeches.

When a character speaks with an accent or in a dialect, do you write all of his or her dialogue that way?

Gerard Depardieu

No, please don’t. It gets very distracting for the reader.

If, for instance, you have a character who speaks with a French accent, just indicate that in the stage directions, but don’t try to write out his dialogue phonetically to reflect the accent.

In the case of characters for whom English is a second language, you might sometimes change the sentence structure slightly or include a small mistake in order to reflect that. For instance, a German might use the literal translation of “How are you?” and say “How are you going?” But, again, don’t overdo it.

What’s the biggest mistake people make when writing dialogue?

One of the most common problems is using dialogue to reveal facts that you want the audience to know but that your characters wouldn’t really say because they already know it. For example, a character might say, “When we were married 22 years ago, we thought it was going to be easy, didn’t we?” But in real life, probably he wouldn’t include the “22 years ago.” If it’s important to the plot to reveal that they’ve been married that long, you could work it into the wife’s reply: “Three more years to our 25th–do you think we’ll make it?” Obviously whether or not that line would work depends on the nature of the conversation, but you get the idea.

A better solution often is to introduce a character who doesn’t know the fact you want to reveal and has a good reason for asking. This is why reporters are such popular choices for characters–they ask a lot of questions. It could also be a new neighbor or an inquisitive child.

(For more on how to write good dialogue, see my book, “Your Writing Coach,” published by Nicholas Brealey and available from Amazon and other online and offline retailers.)