Thursday, May 25, 2006

Writing Snappy Dialogue

My friend Gina blogged the other day about the film Casablanca. It was a great post. One of the things she talked about was the wonderful dialogue in the film.

So here I was, writing a crucial scene (aren't they all?) between the hero and heroine in my new historical wip, and I thought, what better timing is this? It really got me rethinking about how to write good dialogue.

I'm a firm believer that no matter what genre you're writing in, audiences of today want to read dialogue that they can identify with. So even though I'm writing about a man and a woman who are living in 1815, and I have to make their dialogue sound realistic for the time period, I also have to write dialogue that rings a cord in my reader's psyche.

I heard once that if you want to learn how to write good dialogue then you should read screenplays. Which has always made a lot of sense to me. But I think you can probably learn just as much (and have a lot more fun while you're at it) by watching those old movie classics from the forties.

If you want to learn about writing snappy dialogue, there's no better movie in my opinion than the 1940 screwball comedy, His Girl Friday. I watched the movie again the other night after reading Gina's post (it just so happened that I had it on my Netflix list and it was at the house--talk about timing!)

The plot is simple: Cary Grant plays a suave, but tough newspaper editor who finds out in the opening scene that his ex-wife and star reporter (Rosalind Russell) is going to get remarried and is quitting the paper. Well, with just one sophisticated cock of his eyebrow, we know Cary Grant isn't about to let this happen. What follows is 90 minutes of the most delicious romantic comedy you'll ever watch.

One of the most fascinating parts of the film is the breakneck speed of the dialogue. My netflix cover says this: One archivist actually timed the hurricane delivery of the actors at 240 words per minute, about 100-140 wpm faster than the average speaking rate! But as a writer, what fascinates me the most isn't so much the fast delivery, but the fact that it's funny, smart and filled with sexual innuendo. So even though this movie came out a couple of decades before I was born, and the references are outdated, I can still find lots to identify with. And that's what I want to do with my own characters in my own stories. I want their dialogue to resonate with my readers. And what better way to do research, than sit in front of the tv with a bowl of popcorn and a great old flick?


Monica Burns said...

I ADORE that movie!! Love Cary Grant in anything he did! Check out Rosaline Russell in Mame! She's INCREDIBLE! Got that movie for Mother's Day on top of the free weekend. Looks like our tastes in movies are quite similar.

MariaGeraci said...

Rosalind Russell is fab. I love her in Gypsy!

Ellen said...

I haven't checked, but I'm sure His Girl Friday is listed under favorite movies for my blog profile. Because it IS one of my faves!

Dh and I have watched it at least 20 times, and I swear that each time we hear a new line. The dialogue is so snappy, so fast, so hilarious, that there's a new gem with each viewing. LOL. It's clever, clever, clever! "Tell him his poetry stinks and kick him down the stairs." ROTFL!

You're absolutely right--great movie to watch if you're thinking about how to do dialogue. And Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell are brilliant.

Casablanca's another excellent film for dialogue (and wartime courage, and romance, and friendship, and . . . *sigh*)

Louisa Edwards said...

One of the best movies of all time. Really, practically anything Cary Grant was in is packed with great dialogue: Bringing Up Baby, Philadelphia Story, Indiscreet...OH, The Awful Truth! Now, Irene Dunne is a woman who can deliver some snappy dialogue. Whew.


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