Tuesday, April 18, 2017

WHAT MADISON AVENUE CAN TEACH YOU ABOUT WRITING BETTER DIALOGUE by Chris Knopf

I’d already spent about thirty years in ad agencies writing copy before my first novel was published. I’m often asked if copywriting benefited my fiction, and I always say yes, in every way possible. This is particularly true as it relates to dialogue.  

And even more true for writing mysteries and thrillers, inhabited as they usually are by tough guys, crack pots and regular joes. It’s hard to convince your reader of gritty realism when your characters talk like 19th century elocutionists.  

Writing to a fixed increment of time is another important discipline copywriters have to master. A TV commercial (we call them spots) is usually thirty seconds. Radio usually sixty. Of the two forms, I think radio is the best exercise for fiction writers. TV spots are little movies, fictions for sure, but as in the big movie business, the visual elements often dominate. In radio, words matter, and like a book, there’re usually no visual aids. Radio, like fiction, relies on manipulating the theatre of the mind, using language to engage and seduce the audience into buying an artificial reality. Unlike fiction, however, you need to tell your whole message in sixty seconds, or less. This teaches you how to prune, condense and telegraph your story, which almost always makes for a more energetic mystery or thriller.  

We’re taught in advertising to keep our copy conversational, to write the way people speak. Which is usually in sentence fragments. Sometimes only one word. Honestly.  

Grammatically iffy. But highly readable.  

Speech is far more economical than written exposition. Even the most voluble blowhard will tend to drop unnecessary verbiage, frequently skipping things like pronouns to get right to the action verbs.

“Watcha’ doing there, Joe?”
“Catchin’ fish. You?”

This example also points to another reality of spoken English. We often drop the ‘g’s’ off gerunds and other ‘ing’ words. Even the well-educated and erudite will do this, only more sparingly (e.g. Barack Obama). Also, we nearly always use contractions whenever available. Few things will mess up conversational speech more than using “do not” or “cannot” when “don’t” or “can’t” will do.  

(Just don’t overdo it. Informality can’t sound ignorant.)

There’s a place for monologue in advertising and fiction, but when two or more people are speaking, there’s little in the way of long dissertation. Rather, they tend to pass phrases back and forth like a pair of tennis players. Especially in great crime fiction (e.g. Elmore Leonard).

When writing radio and TV commercials, you’re not only drafting copy, you’re casting potential talent, framing out the type of people you’ll need to fulfill the spot’s objectives. So you need to literally hear your characters’ voices in your head. Which leads to seeing them in your mind’s eye. And placing them in a context – eating breakfast, driving a car, leaping off a cliff into a pool of water.  

And before you know it, you have a novel on your hands.

Published by permission of  Now Write! Mysteries.  

∗             ∗            ∗

Chris Knopf’s 14th thriller, Back Lash, came out last year, and his 15th , Tango Down will be published in November. This is the second in a series of bi-weekly posts concerning the art of writing that should appeal to both published and unpublished writers alike. We welcome your comments on this site, and we hope you share this post everywhere and with everyone you can. You can also reach us by email at shepard@thepermanentpress.com or at ChrisK@mintz-hoke.com.

6 comments:

  1. Good stuff. The only slight disagreement I have is with long dialogues. True, Elmore Leonard didn't do it, most writers don't either, but Leonard (like Chris, an ex-copy writer) admitted he learned from the great George V. Higgins, whose books are basically made of long dialogues. A few great ones can get away with it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Jim. As I've noted to you before, Leonard got away with anything he wanted to, including ignoring his own rules.

      Delete
  2. Great post, Chris. We did a podcasting workshop at my firm last year, which was also really helpful - many of the same things you mentioned here when writing for radio. It's definitely changed the way I think about my fiction.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Liz. We copywriters have other powers, like short deadlines with minimal inforamation.

      Delete
  3. Dead on, Chris. My wife, who still acts and spent years writing advertising copy for radio, is still my first reader, especially for dialogue. She's also brilliant with dialects, which is often a matter of changing the rhythm more than the vocabulary. That's where moving an adjective AFTER the noun or not using a contraction can make a big difference. Elmore Leonard is still the best, but Ed McBain was a close second in his prime.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agree on McBain. Writing dialect is very tricky, since it's easy to sound phony and forced.

      Delete