I want to write wittier dialogue
July 19, 2022 9:32 PM   Subscribe

How can I learn to write wittier dialogue?

I write light romantic fluff (with zero literary merit) for my own enjoyment. The type of thing I like to read generally has very witty dialogue. You know, no one just has a regular conversation, everyone converses in quips, allusions, wry asides, etc. It's not at all realistic but it's fun to read. But I am bad at writing this kind of thing. How can I get better at it?
posted by unicorn chaser to Writing & Language (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Be really clear about what each character wants - how do they try to “win” the scene? A character might try to make someone else scared of them. Make someone kiss them. Make someone say “wow; you’re so sophisticated.” Get someone to loan them money. Etc. Be really clear what they each WANT. It should be a concrete goal so they can achieve it or lose it concretely within the scene.

What’s stopping them from getting it? They’re so shy they can’t form words in this person’s presence. They’ve sworn a vow of chastity. The other person hates them. They have to go along with what a more powerful or vulnerable person wants. Etc.

With these thoughts in mind, watch some scenes from great movies and break them down. Moonstruck, When Harry Met Sally, Our Flag Means Death, High Fidelity are some rom-coms that I find have great dialogue with clear character motivations. First scene of The Social Network is amazing, too.

Also, speak your dialogue out loud - can help you find the words and actions better.

And read books about screenwriting and acting to help you understand these character motivations and how to structure them into scenes. Michael Shurtleff’s “Audition” is very illuminating.
posted by nouvelle-personne at 9:42 PM on July 19 [4 favorites]

Plus-many to saying things out loud! When I have had daydreams about people I am crushing on, I often will putter around with the clever and delicious things we might say to each other in our dream-meet-cute. Lots of fun.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 9:59 PM on July 19 [1 favorite]

I hate to suggest it, but doing some deeper analysis on other writers' dialogue you like and what works for you as a reader might help here. What kind of language choices are they making, how long/short/varied are the sentence lengths, how much does each character participate in the back-and-forth etc. Then try imitating (or even lifting small sections of dialogue) what you've read with your own characters, or practise with scenes that are just this kind of dialogue even if they never make it into a wider story.

(I say I hate to suggest this because as a writer I hate doing close reading to see what's working and how the author is doing it, and I also hate writing exercises that don't form part of a story I actually want to finish, but in spite of those reservations I've got to admit that they're both effective ways of honing the craft.)
posted by terretu at 8:07 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]

Listen hard to witty dialogue. I remember loving the dialogue on on Moonlighting, but it isn't streamable.
posted by theora55 at 9:09 AM on July 20

I think the secret to witty dialogue is that the writers spend a LOT of time iterating, writing and rewriting, polishing over and over. A snappy two-minute scene in Gilmore Girls was likely worked and reworked, table-read and then worked again. Give yourself that time. Examine each exchange and ask if it could be even punchier. Leave it aside and let it percolate—you can basically use staircase wit but go back and actually use it. Your readers will never know. To them it will flow at a speedy, brilliant pace.
posted by moonmoth at 10:35 AM on July 20

Learn a bit of rhetoric. The most banal things can sound witty if they are presented within a rhetorical device.

Here are some examples

For example if your scene involves someone trying to get someone else to go out with them and getting turned down, rhetoric would offer phrases like:

"Never, no, and not on your life."

"I'd be tempted to go out with you, if I was out of my mind."

"You're an insufferable incel and your invitation is an insult."

"You're an adorable dork but I don't do pity sex."

"I knew you were going to say something repulsive the moment you sleazed up to me."

posted by Jane the Brown at 10:38 AM on July 20 [2 favorites]

I would listen closely to the funniest/wittiest people you know. Not just what they say, but how they say it.
posted by umbú at 9:01 PM on July 20

Maybe you already know this since you point out that in your favourite reading, “no one just has a regular conversation,” but a good practical shortcut that always stuck with me is:
If you have two characters, and one asks the other a question, the other should NEVER offer a straight answer.

E.g., if a dad asks his son, “where are you going after dinner and when will you be back?” the son could say a billion different things as long as you never write: “to sit on the bike racks outside the school until we get bored.”

(Disclaimer: I suppose mis-handled, this would be obnoxious, but I like to think of it as a back door way to getting at what nouvelle-personne says right up top: every char has their own wants (and/or fears, etc) and you should ideally know what they are. If not, or either way, this can be a cheap way to fake it.) :)

Another practical tip I like is “you can never write a character so greedy that it seems unrealistic” but that’s maybe less relevant to your point.
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:07 PM on July 23

If you’re up for “research,” here’s an exercise I might try: get yourself some British panel shows, like TV’s Q.I. or 8 Out of 10 Cats Does Countdown or Radio 4’s The News Quiz. They’re all just full of comedians and entertainers being as witty as they can. Consider transcribing, say, an episode of The News Quiz? I bet worst-case scenario you notice some useful things about representing casual, natural language.
posted by TangoCharlie at 10:21 PM on July 23

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