Writing good dialogue

Ken Levine, that wonderful blogger we don’t know (and who doesn’t know us), but whom we read whenever we can, is back with more worthwhileness. (Yeah, we know that isn’t a word. But it should be. Live with it.)

nerds-420x0by Ken Levine

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that is worth an entire post.

It’s from Kevin Rubio:

I have often heard actors in interviews take about “dialog having a wonderful rhythm…”. And notice that this comment is generally associated with shows that have well known/ respected writers – Sorkin, Whedon, Levine, etc.

Can that type of writing be taught, or is it just innate?

Well, I’m not sure I belong in that category with Sorkin and Whedon, but I appreciate it… unless you’re thinking of another Levine, which is very possible.

Learn to develop an ear for dialogue by being very observant and paying attention to the dialogue that’s all around you every day.

It’s interesting that some of the greatest English dialogue writers grew up speaking another language. Billy Wilder grew up speaking German, so did Mike Nicholls. Larry Gelbart spoke Yiddish. But I think they developed a real appreciation for words, language, and slang.

Make note of interesting expressions, colorful descriptions, usual and unusual speech patterns. Do they use a lot of crutches, are they verbose, inarticulate? Do they answer questions with questions?

People rarely speak in perfectly formed sentences. They trail off, drop pronouns, mangle grammar, spout clichés, repeat themselves, try to impress by using big words (often incorrectly), interrupt each other, stammer, change subjects in mid-sentence, pause at weird times (think Christopher Walken), talk with food in their mouths, sound distracted, and fifty other things. A common mistake writers make is giving each character well-crafted complete sentences.

Read it all – it’s worth your while

SUITS and the Unsustainable Premise

This should be required reading for everybody who ever wants to be involved with creating a television series. Which should mean, yeppers, everybody who comes to TVWriter™:


by John Perich

I’ve been catching up on Seasons 1 and 2 of Suits, USA’s slick new legal drama. It plays like a quippier, faster, and more shallow version of Mad Men. It’s just clever enough for my taste, but it doesn’t wallow in its cleverness the way geekier shows do – one of my pet peeves. All that said, however, there are two things I struggle with.

(1) The catchy yet incomprehensible theme song. I’ve resorted to making up my own lyrics rather than guessing at what’s really being sung. “Gonna have a pizza pie / in your eye / Gonna split an onion bomb / with your mom …”

(2) The perilously unsustainable premise.

For those who haven’t indulged yet: Harvey Spector (played by Gabriel Macht, having emerged from the doghouse that the title role in Frank Miller’s The Spirit earned him) is a hotshot closer at the prestigious NYC law firm of Pearson Hardman. He’s been told to select a protege out of a pool of interviewing associates, but none of them impress him – except one kid, a scruffy blond with an encyclopedic knowledge of basic law and the photographic memory to prove it. It turns out that this kid, Mike Ross (Patrick Adams), isn’t actually a lawyer. In fact, not only has he never been to law school, he only stumbled into this interview as a way to hide from a drug deal gone bad. Intrigued by Mike’s quick wits and prodigious memory, Harvey hires him anyway.

Neat, right? It tells us something about Harvey right off – he’s a game-player, he values genius and improvisation more than experience, he’s willing to bend the rules to get the job done. It also binds Mike to him in an interesting way – Mike could get in trouble if caught, sure, but Harvey’s career will also be over. So you’ve got two loose cannons on the 50th floor, bending the law in order to serve it.

The only question: how long can they keep this up?

Practicing law without being admitted to the bar, for those who don’t have Mike Ross’s photographic memory, is uniformly illegal. The penalties vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but in New York it’s a misdemeanor. But even without the legal threat, there’s the damage to the reputation of Pearson Hardman. Every time Mike fraudulently represents himself as a lawyer adds another scar to the Dorian Gray-like portrait that must, inevitably, be unveiled. He’s already appeared in court at least twice – most recently in “Break Point” (S2E5), representing a tennis phenom.

Not only has Mike not been admitted to the bar, he hasn’t even been to Harvard – and Pearson Hardman makes a point of only hiring Harvard graduates. So that’s at least two lies that Mike has to keep straight. Mike doesn’t even bother covering his tracks until “Dirty Little Secrets” (S1E4), and that’s with the unsolicited help of a computer hacker. And even when his record is (fraudulently) updated to create a Harvard law degree, he still has an awfully empty past – no college diploma, no prior legal work experience. If any other lawyer invested the amount of effort in checking out Mike’s past that Mike and Harvey invest in checking out their clients and opponents, Mike’s secret would be outed in a heartbeat.

So someone must eventually discover Mike’s secret. And someone, in fact, does – Jessica Pearson (Gina Torres), managing partner of the firm (S2E1). The only reason she doesn’t can him and Harvey immediately is because a bigger threat rears its head. But how much damage could such a discovery do in the hands of Harvey’s intra-firm rival Louis Litt (Rick Hoffman)? Or the Boston lawyer who’s gunning for Harvey, Travis Tanner?

How long can this go on?

Read it all (lots more)