I’ve recently been doing a lot of dialogue work. In other words, I’ve not written much recently. Because I, like many, find authentic, interesting dialogue difficult to write.
But good dialogue is essential to a good story. Dialogue can advance plot, reveal character, or simply make a scene pop.
When I’m stuck, I try a number of things.
For one (by suggestion of a faculty member at Hamline), I look for words in the news, on a random page in the dictionary, on a bus or truck driving by on the street—interesting words, unique words, words I wouldn’t necessarily think of using in my story—then force myself to add them to a scene. Play around. See what happens.
I also turn to John Hughes—specifically his teen canon of the 1980’s—Sixteen Candles, Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, and Some Kind of Wonderful.
Hughes once said, “I always liked character stories best—put two or more people in a room and get them talking—that’s the whole reason I got into this in the first place.”
And his films are just that—interesting, authentic teens talking. And often the pairings are unexpected—the hot girl and the geeky guy, the popular jock and the nerd, the dangerous guy and the quiet girl. Hughes forces these high school stereotypes into a room together and lets them loose, writing first, asking questions (and revising) later.
As a result, he's given us some of the most enjoyable teen films ever made. Sure, the clothing, hairstyles, and music are dated, but the dialogue still feels fresh, original.
In addition to putting people in situations they wouldn't normally be in (with people they wouldn't normally be with) to get a conversation going, Hughes avoids slang and other language that falls flat. You won’t find a lot of gnarleys or awesomes or wickeds in his work. There are some, sure. And certainly it’s sometimes appropriate to use slang to represent a particular time period or place or connect with a specific audience. Or just for fun. But Hughes doesn't overuse it—and neither should we. Mostly Hughes uses unique turns of phrase, making his stories memorable, highly quotable, and ultimately timeless.
So I watch his films not to get specific ideas for dialogue but for inspiration on how to craft speech that is interesting and fresh—dialogue that will bring deeper understanding of characters and their situations. In short, I want to write dialogue that will make a story pop.
Nearly two years after his death, and decades since he made his most influential films, Hughes is still an inspiration for his unique and honest portrayals of youth. And he built his best stories on characters and their words.
“You killed the car.”
“You’re not dying—you just can’t think of anything better to do.”
"Only the meek get pinched. The bold survive."
“A: You can never go too far. B: If I'm gonna get busted, it is not gonna be by a guy like that.”
"We're all pretty bizarre. Some of us are just better at hiding it, that's all."
"Andie, hon. Listen, it's after 7:00. Don't waste good lip gloss."
“His name is Blane? Oh! That's a major appliance, that's not a name!”
“Stop feeling sorry for yourself! It’s bad for your complexion!”
“I’d rather have you not see me and like me than see me and hate me. ‘Cause I can’t afford to have you hate me, Keith!!!”
“You break his heart, I break your face.”