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William Monahan On Writing Unforgettable Dialogue

by ScreenCraft on January 5, 2015

When it comes to writing good dialogue the bottom line is this: it’s harder than it sounds. So, how do you get good enough to have Jack Nicholson quote things that were once just a thought in your head? Below is a rundown of Oscar winner William Monahan's (The Departed, The Gambler) insightful interview with FastCompany about dialogue from its conception to the final draft, broken down into two categories: Listening and Interpreting.

Listening

“It’s not only politicians and advertisers and lawyers who shade the truth or have an agenda—it’s everybody.”

 Simply listening to people will let you in on the two best lessons for writing dialogue: 1) dialogue is used to reveal not what we want to say, but what we are trying to hide; 2) people say the most entertaining things when they aren’t trying. The reality is people don’t talk in soliloquies and/or profound statements, which is great because you’re writing a script, not a sermon. So, forget what your parents taught you— eavesdropping is the way to go. Learning colloquial speech is like learning a whole new language—become fluent.

Of course, then it’s also your job to pepper that language with motivation and revelations. Monahan also points out that natural dialogue is boring-- “You’re sort of fumbling around for meaning, whereas in written drama, you have to get at it.” In other words, be natural but get to the point.

Interpreting

“The writer has to perform all of his people on the page.”

As a writer you think of what the character wants to say and as the actor you think about how they would say it. And as a well-rounded writer you should think of both. You’re basically a professional crazy and each voice in your head needs to have their own distinctions, drive, inflections, and dialect. Inevitably you’ll pull from the people you love or even overhear, but by thinking like the actor you can interpret all that the noise into motivated and character-specific speech.

Monahan also adds a gem that might be contrary to most textbooks and professors: “I don’t think any actor would appreciate your writing for them. I think they want to play somebody else—that’s what they’re there for.” So think like the actor, but remember that you are not actually the actor. Once your work is greenlit, be prepared to adjust dialogue per the table read, notes, and even on-set suggestions. Embrace and foresee this happening as you write because the goal is to take the one-(wo)man show in your head and collaborate on it.

Monahan wraps with what could be a line from The Departed: “Do your homework. And work. Like a bastard.” The words in your script might be casual, but the work ethic has to remain professional. “I knew I had something that you could call a knack. But then I worked harder than anybody else I knew, and I risked everything.” Don’t be fooled, it’s unnatural and difficult to sound natural on paper. Keep working at it, researching, listening, reading, and take risks. And maybe one day, like Monahan, you’ll be able to use your knack to not only write a great script but also a kick-ass acceptance speech.

The original interview can be found here: http://www.fastcocreate.com/1682092/oscar-winner-william-monahan-on-how-to-write-unforgettable-dialogue

 

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