What Madison Avenue Can Teach You About Writing Better Dialogue
I’d already spent about 30 years in ad agencies writing copy before my first novel was published. I’m often asked if copywriting benefitted 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, crackpots 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 30 seconds. Radio usually 60. 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 60 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.
Published by permission of “Now Write! Mysteries.”