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BPS 079: How to Write Dialog that Pops Off the Page with Linda Seger

Today on the show we have returning champion the legendary Linda Seger. Linda and I discuss her new book You Talkin’ to Me?: How to Write Great Dialogue. We do a deep dive into how to write great dialog. Here’s a bit about the book.

Unlike the chitchat of everyday life, dialogue in stories must express character, advance the story, suggest a theme, and include a few memorable lines that audiences will be quoting for decades to come. The best stories have dialogue that sparkles, but it’s easy for inexperienced writers to fall into common pitfalls like creating dialogue that’s wooden or too on the nose.

Other writers end up with exposition awkwardly inserted into conversations, actors tripping over unnatural phrases or characters who all speak exactly the same way. In You Talkin’ to Me? Linda Seger and John Winston Rainey are here to help with all your dialogue problems. In each chapter, they explore dialogue from a different angle and discuss examples of great dialogue from films and novels. To cap it all off, each chapter ends with examples of poor dialogue, which are annotated by Linda and then rewritten by John, so readers don’t just learn how to recognize when it’s done well―they also learn how to make the dialogue better. Whether you’re writing fiction or nonfiction, for the screen or for the page, this book will get your characters talking.

Ron Howard says he never starts a film without her book. Having authored nine books on scriptwriting, including the best selling Making A Good Script Great, Linda is one of the most prolific writers in her field. 

Enjoy my conversation with Linda Seger.

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Alex Ferrari 0:40
I'd like to welcome back to the show returning champion Linda Seger. How are you Linda?

Linda Seger 2:45
I am just fine in spite of everything.

Alex Ferrari 2:48
Yes, it is. It is a crazy, wacky world we are living in. But I think storytellers filmmakers screenwriters are more needed now than ever before.

Linda Seger 2:56
And it's a good time to do writing. Yes, we do. You know, you

Alex Ferrari 3:03
would think you would think but yeah, you're you're quarantined? Do you have no excuses anymore? Yes. You can say, Oh, I have to go out to do this. I'm like, no. So now you actually literally have to face not only the white page, but you also have to face yourself. So we're here to talk about your new book. Are you talking to me? Are you talking to me? Sorry, I have to do the whole De Niro thing. You talking to me how to write great dialogue. And I haven't really had a full episode just dedicated to dialogue. And it's such an important part of screenwriting. So that's why I was so intrigued by your book. And I wanted Of course, anytime I get a chance to talk to you, as always a wonderful, wonderful time. But so to get into it, what makes great dialogue, in your opinion,

Linda Seger 3:49
great dialogue is really very specific to the person and the context, and everything that goes around wrong with that character. So it includes the vocabulary, it includes the rhythms, it includes the backstory, sort of who is this person and how do they express it, versus how somebody else expresses it? So it's not it's not just saying the text is not just saying I have to go to Milwaukee. It's finding an interesting way. To get some more that Schlitz beer here I go.

Alex Ferrari 4:26
Right. So that that's two different so that's two very different ways of saying the exact same things that you got to go to Milwaukee, but one's a lot more interesting than Hey, I'm going to Milwaukee.

Linda Seger 4:38
Yes, yes.

Alex Ferrari 4:40
And is that what makes dialog kings like Tarantino, Mamet and Sorkin so good? I mean, because I mean that their dialogue is just so crispy and it just pops off the off the screen and off the page.

Linda Seger 4:53
Yes, and then know how to define each character. So there are different rhythms. They know how to work with subtext the underlying meanings of dialogue. I love that opening scene of Inglorious Basterds. It's just so rich with subtext is here comes these Nazis and the farm guy who's ready to bring them into the house. And he tells his daughter, you know, go into the house Don't run. Well, if you think, oh, obviously something is going on and also Why is he so nervous? What what's happening here they're just having a nice normal conversation but over something else is happening here. And it's it's literally

Alex Ferrari 5:39
under the floor. So it's like like literally it's like so he's talking about this is visual subtext. It's fascinating that

Linda Seger 5:46
we find out that Jews are hiding under the table and plus on top of the little carpet, which is under the floor and coats the Nazi guys seems to know all along. There's something here and he is going to find it out.

Alex Ferrari 6:02
It's it's fascinating because I honestly think that scene was what kind of locked him in for the Oscar when he won the Oscar for Inglorious Basterds? I mean, it's just such a it's a masterclass in dialogue.

Linda Seger 6:12
Yes, he he has a real voice as a writer, meaning that he is an artist has a specific way of doing his films. You can go to the movie theater and say, oh, what what is this movie? Who's it by? And within a couple minutes, say, Oh, I'm watching a talentino film, because he knows what he's doing. He knows his rhythms. He's just very good at what he does,

Alex Ferrari 6:43
as far as you mentioned, backstory, how important it could please can you tell the audience the importance of backstory to not only character but to dialogue, because the backstory a lot, a lot of times when I read scripts, the characters are kind of wooden, you know, almost made of cardboard, because there's no depth to them whatsoever. And then hence the dialogue isn't doesn't have any depth to it. I think what makes Tarantino and Mamet and Sorkin so good is that there's so much depth into their characters, that allows dialogue to come out so wonderfully, that makes sense to do it, as opposed to just kind of like painting an old fence, trying to make it new again, there's no depth back there. And maybe that's not a good analogy, but you know what I'm saying? So what do you think in regards to that?

Linda Seger 7:29
Well, backstory is really what went on before the character entered the movie, what, what kind of family do they come from, what kind of education, what kind of socio economic class, all what kind of religion all of this information can be used by the writer to make that character much more specific. So for instance, I'm from a little little town in northern Wisconsin named peshtigo. And if you, when I say the word about, you will hear a slight Canadian or northern Wisconsin accent. So people have these various accents that they know or dialects that they bring to it. And they also have phrases that they use, or they have a sense, for instance, if we were driving past a group of cows, and I might say those efforts. And you might say, How does she know that? Well, Wisconsin is coal country I grew up around, I wasn't on a farm. So you think about all these details of how we thread our speech with with things that tells somebody else Oh, I hear a little bit of Alabama there. Or you have a you insert a phrase in the dialogue and that says, gosh, that's so Southern, like give me a little sugar, honey, but you know, tell us to give them a sugar bowl, just to say, Oh, I know what that means, or in the sell zone as they say, God bless them, which really means he's God's The only person who could possibly bless that kind of stupidity. So we you know, various countries, various cultures have these sayings and sometimes just putting them in, they tell us the backstory, they tell us where is that person from? And I will leave in talk in a different rhythm. For instance, being a Midwestern or listen to me, I probably don't have the same hurried rhythm of a New Yorker, or the same language rhythm you might get from somebody from the south. Now I know you're going to talk to my co author leaders on Winston Rainey. JOHN has been all over the place from Oklahoma, the Michigan to New York And when you start thinking about all the accents and patterns that someone like that has picked up, versus me who stayed pretty much in peshtigo, Wisconsin till I was 18.

Alex Ferrari 10:14
So that So, so like a movie like Fargo, if you would put Fargo into Los Angeles, it's that really isn't. It's that I mean, you can have the exact same dialogue. But some of that dialogue won't even make sense because you're in Los Angeles, because it's so specific to the region. But what makes Fargo so one of his that's the kind of first time I'm in. I'm from South Florida, originally and raised in New York and South Florida now in LA. So I had no idea about Wisconsin or Montana or those kind of upper northern states. The first experience I had with it was Fargo. I was like, What is that accent? I've never heard of that before.

Linda Seger 10:53
Yes, because all those Scandinavians settled in the North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin. And so you do have these speech patterns. And it's, it's so cold.

Alex Ferrari 11:10
I mean, it's cold, it is so

Linda Seger 11:11
cold. I came from a place where sometimes 50 degrees below zero and I could identify with Fargo and where they were all that snow

Alex Ferrari 11:21
all the time.

Linda Seger 11:25
And then when March at the end says, you know, how could you have killed someone it's such a beautiful day, and it's nothing but a whiteout, snow and you say yeah, that's somebody who's been around snow and cold. They'll see the beauty.

Alex Ferrari 11:40
So that's another thing you were saying about tempo. That's something very interesting. That's that's something I hear very often when this when people are discussing dialogue, tempo of dialogue based on region based on dialect of the character is so important. So you just kind of touched upon that. Can you elaborate a little bit on that?

Linda Seger 12:00
Yes. So tempo and I'm going to actually read a touch the dialogue, okay, go for so when you have a number of different kinds of writers who use different rhythms and tempo. So for instance, Harold Pinter is known for his pauses, and everything is slowed down. So, Emma says, You know what I found out last night, he's betrayed me for years. Now, you can see how the writing forces you into that. And then you have a movie like network, he says, I'm going to leave you alone, I want you to get mad, I don't want you to protest, I don't want you to write, I don't want you to write to your congressman, because I wouldn't know what to tell you to write. I don't know what to do. And at the ends, he says, you've got to say I'm a human being goddamnit My life has value. Now you cannot read that slowly. It is it is written with that sense. And a good great dialogue means that anyone can read it and sound relatively good. So when I read that, it probably wasn't awful, right? I mean, there was I was getting in the rhythm it now I'm a terrible actress, I, I got a C and actually, in graduate school, I was not allowed to go to the next class because you had to get a B to go to the next class. So I mean, that's we're talking about pretty bad. But when you have this kind of great dialogue, do it it starts the actor in that rhythm and then you hope there's a great actor who's going to go further and start getting nuances, you know, as well. And when you get into accents and dialogues, and dialects, then you have different rhythms like the Irish rhythm, we have a quote from riders, the SeaWorld together now Miko, and Seamus tonight, and you get this Irish lilt, or the Cockney as a song. There's a room somewhere far away from the cold night app is Ed resting on my knee and the all these details when are the H's dropped when do people not say the IMG When did they say gunna instead of going to which tells us educational level tells us informal versus formal speech. So the writer needs to be aware of all those layers and sometimes that means the research you you go someplace you say I just got to listen for a while and then I have to repeat those rhythms to myself and get them inside me. So when I write I am waiting for that person in that particular rhythm. Yeah, I

Alex Ferrari 15:05
realized, even in my own writing, but when I've read other people's scripts that a lot of times when it comes to dialogue, sometimes they'll just go, Oh, it's gonna go there. Or they'll use a slang but there's no there's no basis for it. They're just kind of like on the on the whim. It's kind of like just your jet. It's like jazz. They're improvising as they go along. with certain that's, that's where you start seeing like, Oh, that's, that's not working that character. And then there's when you don't feel that connect, that that straight line from the beginning to the end of the movie with that character, from that character's point of view. So if Marcellus Wallace from Pulp Fiction, all of a sudden starts talking in a Cockney tempo, or, or in an extremely educated, not, you know, you know, Harvard level Professor authorial dialogue, like dialogue, it doesn't work at all for that character. But sometimes that's where writers make a lot of mistakes. You agree?

Linda Seger 16:03
Yes. And they just think that in order to have informal, vocals, audio speech, as opposed to what's written, they have to put them in the gunners in the one as an insult, but it doesn't fit that character, because you're trying to clarify, that's not an informal character. That's, that's the professor that was talking. And it doesn't mean a professor will never say Glenna. But it does say you want to establish that professors a different person than, let's say, the rancher who might have different than only those kind of informal speeches, but also certain patterns. And now I live in Colorado, and cowboys will say, You see what I'm saying? Now, you really can't see what they say, all the time. And in Colorado, people say cool, almost like it's spelled ke wl as opposed to cu, which might be a more jazzy way of saying it. So you, when you go into another culture, sometimes what you want to do you're not only listen, but get file folders and start saying this is my kabwe speech. This is my educators speech, this is what I heard a scientists say, so that you have that to draw on. When you're doing that kind of character. You can say, let me open my, let me open my folder. Because I have to write my children's dialogue. And I am just trying to think where to go with that. Wait a minute, I copied down children's dialogue over the last 10 years. So I can look, you know, I can look at it.

Alex Ferrari 17:58
If you look at a movie, like Shawshank, which is a movie I talk about constantly is one of my favorite scripts, and movies of all time. You see all the individual cons in the film convicts that are playing around, they each have very specific voices. You know, Andy, obviously, Andy and Morgan Freeman and read, they have their specific tone. It's always funny, I always loved the story that red was originally Irish, and set the name red. But when Morgan Freeman, he got the part, which makes that character so much where it's just thing. But these other characters have their specific tone accents, points of view even. And it's just such a wonderful collage. I think that's one of the reasons why that that works. So well, even to the old man that, you know, at the end, you know, spoiler alert, the hangs himself. He has a very specific point of view, because of the time period and his age and all of that. So, I mean, do Greer, that's a good example.

Linda Seger 19:02
Yes. And it's a good thing for writers to watch movies like that several times, then to also read the script. Usually, you can get the script pretty easily. If you can't find a go to scripts city in Los Angeles, because Dan will send you whatever, you need to have to read it and then read it to yourself and read it out loud to begin to feel the difference between these different characters. And then when somebody writes a script, decide this morning, I am only going to do Amy's dialogue. And I'm going to look at everything of Amy and make sure she's consistent and interesting. And I'm going to shade it in and new onset. Now this afternoon, I'm going to do Jim's dialogue and just work on that and then say it out loud because the other thing with dialogue, you need to be able to say it and there's a lot of tongue twisters. That writers put in that they really don't mean to. When I was in college, I was in a great play Hecuba. And I had one line of dialogue. Only one because I wasn't the connectors. And the line of dialogue was, surely no man could be so callous. And so heart of hearts that he could hear this woman's heartful heartless cry and not be touched. Wow, cannot say that line of dialogue. Well, they finally took it away from me. So I was simply an ugly person in the chorus. And the person who then was handed the line. She couldn't say that line well, either. So there are times when you why it's really important for writers read the whole script out loud, and find those places where the actor simply cannot say it no matter how good that actor is.

Alex Ferrari 21:00
Yeah, I was watching the behind the scenes of Star Wars, the original Star Wars. And Carrie Fisher was just saying, George wrote this dialogue that's so hard to you just like rattle off. Oh, General stuff, I heard your file extension. And it's just this whole thing. It's like you, you can write they say you can write this crap. But you can't say

Linda Seger 21:21
yes, yes. And, and you have to help the writer, the actor with that, which is another reason why john and i, in this book, recommend people take acting lessons that writers should have that experience to say, Now I know what it's like to think through this role, and try to get all my clues on how the character is who the character is. But I also need to know how to read a line. And I end to assess whether or not that line can be said and carries the meanings that we want it to.

Alex Ferrari 21:59
Now can you talk a little bit about how dialogue can help reveal the world of the character? Because it's something that a lot of times I think it's lost opportunities when it comes to writing dialogue?

Linda Seger 22:10
Yes, well, we all live in a context. And we have backgrounds and in different careers, for instance. So in the writing world, if I said to you, well, you know, I think the first turning point is a little late, you would know what I'm talking about. But if I said it to someone else, they might say, Wait, are you talking about ballet? There's a movie called The turning point is, no, I'm not talking about ballet. And one of the trick is to find the specific dialogue and make it clear enough that you will know what I'm talking about. So my co author john Rainey and I are both musicians, we both play piano, we would do duets, breaks. And so if I said to you, I think we should do a glissando at the end of this. Now, you might say I don't you in the audience might say what in the world is the glissando? So I might say, let's do glissando here. And then I put my fingers on the keys, and I roll all through the keys, you know, like 20 keys, this foolish and say, Oh, now I know what a glissando is, or I come out of the horseback riding world. So if I said to somebody, a character, do your flying lead change in the middle of the circle? It's a Well, a lot of people don't know what a flying lead changes on a horse. But if I had a close up of a camera and say now, and you see the horse shift its feet, like a little skip. You say, Oh, yeah, that's it. So there are times you take a word or a line of dialogue and say, I got to illustrate this, because many people won't know what it is. Other times you might have a medical person, just roll out all the dialogue with all these words you've never heard of and you think it really doesn't matter that I need to know what's going on with the person's esophagus. What I need to know is when the doctor says get this person to er fast. After saying three lines of something, I have no idea what he's talking about. I got it. I said I I don't need to know exactly what this is in this case. And what happens a lot of times this writers get so deeply into having the specific vocabulary that no one knows what they're talking about. Or they are so concerned about the clarity, that they don't get the specifics. So One of the things john and i talked about is that dialogue is communication, and expression. And you're always balancing the thing to say what is the audience need to know? How do I clarify it, while still expressing each character very, very clearly.

Alex Ferrari 25:18
Very cool. Now, one of the other things I find with dialogue, especially when I'm writing is the conversational aspect of it, it sometimes becomes a little too sterile or a little too academic, meaning that it's your writing like your your writing dialogue, as you would write, not as you would speak, what advice would you give to make dialogue a little bit more conversational?

Linda Seger 25:42
Well, one thing in screenwriting, the dialogue is like a tennis ball. You never want it to be in the other person's court for very long. So it goes, you know, we could say it goes back and forth from one character to the other. And generally, in screenwriting dialogue is about two or three sentences, before the ball gets sent back with the next piece of dialogue, the other person, so there is a flow, sometimes in novels once in a while, and films and screenwriting writing, you will see a longer speech

Alex Ferrari 26:17
turned to notes,

Linda Seger 26:18
it's pretty, you know, it's, it's pretty unusual to see that. So you're always looking for what that flow is, which makes it more conversational. And then you are looking for the words that make it more conversational. So we probably are not going to use any really, really big words in this interview. But if I'm writing, I might decide to do some big word because I think it's kind of carries a lot of levels of meaning, or it's sort of a delicious kind of word. So you're, you're always balancing this. But another thing is simply to listen to people talk, write it down, and then say, Ah, this and see if you can figure out from what they say something about the specifics. So many years ago, I interviewed one of the writers of Rain Man, and he kept using words where I said to him, Are you a Buddhist? And he said, actually says I'm a Presbyterian. But he said, I actually feel very connected with Buddhism, because words, let's, let's say a word like detachment or a word like mindfulness, you know, you start hearing these words, and you say, Oh, I'm getting hints about something about that person. So it's always saying, because dialogue is so refined, you know, you're saying what's, I can't do my eight sentences? How do I really hone this? So you start honing it for those specifics? And so much of dialogue writing is you rewrite any rewriting rewrite to you, you work for the right word, you go for the right rhythm, you say it doesn't quite sound like a Alabama person. Okay, I need to do a little more research on Alabama. And oh, now I need to do research on scientists at Alabama. So in many times, you say, Who can I talk to? Who would know about this? Or who can I have read this? To feed back to me, you are off. So for instance, in the hutterite grade dialogue book, we have a chapter on accents and dialects. So I found a acting coach in New York, who teaches people accents and dialects. And she graciously without even charging me agreed to read the chapter and give me feedback on that chapter. So you don't want to just throw something in there. In the same thing, I sent that chapter two my friends in England and said, check those few references to England. And then, you know, john was working on it and he knows all the southern stuff. And he had a friend who knew about dialects too. So you always think about how do I make sure I got it right. And how do I make sure I got it artistic.

Alex Ferrari 29:38
Now, there was a there was a it was very interesting in regards to dialect. If you remember Forrest Gump Tom Hanks, who obviously won the Oscar for that amazing dialect. Originally the dialect the director Robert Zemeckis wanted him to if wanted the kid who played little forest to follow Tom and try to earn but sounds like No, his his accents perfect. And he actually started finding that accent. But it was interesting how he just like the the tones, the beats the he wouldn't have been able to come up that without having little forest around. Yes,

Linda Seger 30:14
yes. Yeah, and that is one of the things the listening and sometimes called the flavor of the speech. So there are times when you get so deeply into the dialect, that you can't understand what the person is saying, I've seen British movies as I, I have no idea what I made they. And they are so clear about their expression, and maybe people in England understand what's going on. But I need subtext, you know, in subtitles. But that is, you know, when one of the things is sometimes said is you get the flavor of the Southern accent, because if you did Tennessee, too much, you might be like a foreign language. And, you know, the certain Southern accents has no idea what they're talking about. So you say okay, what what do I need to go after I need to go after maybe dropping the H's or I need to go Be careful of my infjs. Or, you know, or use the d sound instead of the th sound, which you might find in Huckleberry Finn, for instance.

Alex Ferrari 31:26
But do you actually when you're writing the dialogue, do you suggest dropping the H in the dialog as you're writing it? Or do you suggest that how's that work?

Linda Seger 31:34
Well, there's there's different opinions on this. But I think if it's still understandable, when you read it, then I would say yes, you know, give as much of a flavor as you can in the script itself, then you expect that the actor will then go to a coach, if it's not sure what their background is. Mary McDonald, you know, who's in Dances with Wolves? She was in another. I think it was when she did passion fish. And she said, the director said, Mary, you have just crossed from Georgia, North Carolina, your accent? So you really often need that coach to say no, no, that is not sounded that way. And think about people who are so good at doing these, like Meryl Streep, for instance. Just a master and of course, as a coach.

Alex Ferrari 32:31
Yeah, I mean, I've seen movies that have a strong Boston accent that I can't understand or in the, you know, by you, in the by you like that, that accents so strong, they just like I need subtitles, I literally will turn on closed captioning, right?

Linda Seger 32:47
Yeah, I think that standard English is actually considered from Iowa. And there are people like us from Wisconsin in the Midwest who think we don't have an accent. When I went to college, and people said, Are you from Canada? I said, why would you think that? Well, it's certain words, I say, that's kind of like Canadians came down into northern. It's like

Alex Ferrari 33:12
Canadian ish. It's like, it's like a little bit of a flavor, if you will. You're not a full aboot. But you're getting close.

Linda Seger 33:20
Yes, yeah. And one of the things they said, I think in the Full Monty is they said that the accent was actually 30 miles away from where it took place. And it cuts the size. Because it wasn't exactly i think it's a Sheffield accent. And then in Billy Elliot, they consider trying to tone down that accent when they did the New York play. And there was such an uproar. They said No, we'll just try to get the kids to enunciate well enough but these you know, all these accents, very, very specific from one, you know, one place to another.

Alex Ferrari 34:00
And it does add a tremendous amount of flavor to a character when you when you give them those accent. I mean, like we were saying with Fargo, I mean and other. What was that movie, though? The one the town with Ben Affleck.

Linda Seger 34:14
Oh, yes.

Alex Ferrari 34:15
I mean, I mean, I've heard the Boston accent before I've gone to Boston and something but in that movie, it's so it's so there. Yes,

Linda Seger 34:25
yes. And one of the things with accents and dialogues, dialects also has to do with you have to be careful about it falling into cliche, right. So for instance, Huckleberry Finn has eight different accents in it. But as the light and as the pike county and it's in the black, lower educated black and lower educator widen and it does sometimes get a critique of that. But one of the books I love looked at was this was this was Hurston classic thunders forget her per se. But it was her book about the last slave that came in the last slave ship in 1860 and died in 1927. And she interviewed him and really looked at his language. And what's interested me was his language. In many ways. It was much like Huckleberry Finn, the de dat indem. And I tried to do some research on this because this is this a stereotype? Or did they actually hear this, but the research I did said that is what happens because certain cultures can't say the same words we say in English. So green says the Japanese culture, the elves use really hard to say the LC you can't say lollygag

Alex Ferrari 35:59
Yeah, I don't know when the last time I use the word lolligag is but obviously I need to use it much more often. It's like cornucopia cornucopia, like you need to get how often do you use that word.

Linda Seger 36:10
I had a Japanese doctor and as a chiropractor, and he would actually ask me to give him some good l words. So he can practice. I'd throw off these kind of words. And I can't do a double r like for Spanish. So I guess I can do is pero which is different than the word for dog which has the rolled to ours. So that would be if I made my VC bolts in Bethel. Yes, you can do that. And the thing we also understand to some extent is that we grow up and we train our models to do certain words, because that's what we learn. We know in our culture, and then we try to do another language. And a lot of people like me, can't do it. Because I didn't grow up with another language. And there's there's certain of those tongue things that I'm not able to do. But you did. Excellent.

Alex Ferrari 37:13
Yes, well, I've been I am a Cuban man. So so it took me I lost my I lost my art when I was a kid. And then now I actually have I've picked it up later in life. But before it was barrel barrel for a long time until I finally got got that AR. It took a second but I got it. And you were talking about stereotypes. One of the most famous Cuban stereotypes of all time is not only Ricky Ricardo, but also Scarface, Tony Montana. And both of those guys. You know, Ricky spoke, Ricky Ricardo spoke like, spoke like a acumen of that time period. But then Tony Montana took it completely to the stereotypical side. I still love his performance. And even though he's an Italian man, Mr. pitino, but it was almost cartoonish. Yes, in the way. And that whole movie is very big and cartoonish, in general, with the violence in the way it was portrayed. But talking about going into, into almost parody, it was getting close to parity.

Linda Seger 38:22
And we suggest in writing great dialogue, that people don't shy away from accents and dialects that they actually take that as a challenge. And you do your research. And you listen and you say how am I going to write this to get the flavor of it? And how is the actor going to do it to actually add some other details as well. So I think what happens people get scared, but then they aren't differentiating their characters well

Alex Ferrari 38:52
enough. Exactly. Now, one of the biggest mistakes I've made when I started writing that I got called out on and that every time I read a script, or we do coverage on a script is on the nose dialogue, discuss on the nose dialogue and how the heck to avoid it.

Linda Seger 39:12
Yes, well, sometimes you need to write it on the nose to say, yes, this is what this is what I need to get across. I'm going to Milwaukee and we're going to take route 80. So say I got that. And I might have to write that in the first draft, maybe even the second or third. But now I'm going to go back and I'm going to start honing and tweaking and finding ways to do that more interesting. One of one of the chapters in your talking to me, is about the mission or the intention or the objective of the character. And one of my favorite pieces of dialogue comes from the fugitive, where Sam Jared says your fugitives name is doc Richard Kimble, go get them. Right now, what he's really saying could be the first or second or third draft is is it could have been go find him or your job is to go get him is to go find him and arrest him. Or, but go get them that's what you say to a pitbull that the you know, in so you get this immediate thing. Sam your artists a pitbull and he will not let go of the person he is after. So you could imagine someplace along the draft after writing the text, say I No need to do it that it layers. So how do I write a sentence? What do I want to say about this character? How might he say this? versus somebody else who's not like a pitfall but somebody who's maybe more intellectual? And so you, you hear all of these the Listen up. You know, a guy is someone who says guys instead of fellows who says fellows instead of Hey, you all so you're saying I might have to go through that stage of writing it on the nose. One of the people who endorse this book is prima Silverman, who was the first woman to win an Emmy Award. And she wanted for The Mary Tyler Moore Show. And I asked her he Relenza said, Well, how often do you rewrite dialogue, she said, This morning, it was 22 times. Now she's a comedy writer, I honestly don't know if it was 1912, or 20 to 22 probably sounded better than that morning. But what she's saying is, you don't just write it and say there it is. You rewrite and rewrite, I often have a saying even with my writing, book writing nonfiction writing, if I have not rewritten the sentence 10 times, it's probably not good enough. And I just say you can just rewrite and rewrite because you're going to switch the rhythms and you're going to say I don't like that word. It's not rich. When john and i were writing this book, done had a tendency sometimes to use big words. And I certainly wasn't going the dictionary. And if I don't understand that, probably most people will. And so sometimes we'd say, okay, you can use the word, but you have to define it right out. Like a nice phrase that makes clarifies you know what it is? And so, I think, finally, at the end out of humor, I said, How about this, john, is, you can do one really big word in this whole book that no one will understand, but only one is that okay? Yes. So we had, we had a really good relationship, writing this book together and pulling these different ideas about writing and about dialogue and different you know, all these different techniques, etc, that you have to pull together when you co write.

Alex Ferrari 43:30
Yeah, and I agree with you, when I was writing my books, as well, I, I will, I'll write one just to get so there on that night, there was the fiction what there was a kind of autobiography. And then there was the nonfiction book. And with the nonfiction you just write off, just get it all out, get everything out first, and then go back and you start, you get start, you know, you add it, I like to say you, you're laying down the foundation, you putting up the framing of the house, and then and the walls and then slowly you go back and you start painting the walls, you start decorating, you start putting things where you want it to go, but but the base is there for you to kind of go go and do that work. And it is super important. And I think that is one of the mistakes of especially screenwriters make don't write their first draft. I'm like, Okay, that was easy.

Linda Seger 44:13
For me to say no, you're just set the beginning stage now. 50, the very,

Alex Ferrari 44:16
very, very beginning. Now, what are some other things you should avoid when writing dialogue?

Linda Seger 44:24
Actually, the last chapter is about what we call the red flags. And a red flag is sorry, or Yes. It is I've read Yes, in a in a script with an exclamation point. So yeah, and so all these kind of cliches that are saying you know very much on the nose. Sometimes people write screaming in the parentheses Next, the character's name when it is very clear. But if you see if the dialogue is get out of here, you're probably not going to see it.

Alex Ferrari 45:11
Or, or could depending on the performance choice. And if it works, it might be much more terrified to say,

Linda Seger 45:17
Yeah, yes. The actor might then approach that line and say, What am I going to do with that? So it's all of or the one that says, you're going to be okay, you're lying on the ground, you've just been shot and ready to do your last breath was for that or the person? be okay. The best thing to say is, you are ready to die. Last, not, not last phrase. Is there one last word you want to say, at that moment? So you it's really avoiding a lot of a lot of cliches. I think the other thing in writing one has to be careful about something I said in many, many of the scripts I consulted on, be careful of indefinite pronouns. So What'd he do? Well, no, wait, there's three. He's in the room, which he are we talking to? And so there's that unclarity of writing that people sometimes do and say, I don't know what you're talking about. Go for clarity and communication, if needed, and then find interesting way to maybe repeat that he or his name, whatever. Another thing is introductions. JOHN, this is Mary. Mary. This is john John's from Chicago. Oh, I've been to Chicago. What do you do there? Well, I, I call it date chat. You know, first day chat is say, Oh, no, no. You know, we played john and i would play around with things like, you know, I'm going to Chicago and the woman says, Why would you want to go to Chicago when there's so much fun here? There's like have fun with your dialog and say, How do I get these layers? Under I get all the you know, what do we see what's what's beneath? Was was me that, I guess, you know, I have a book I'll call writing great subtext, you know, writing subtext. And so subtext is that underlying meaning, and then you talking to me is we have a whole chapter on subtext and getting the rumblings and undercurrents that go into what are you really trying to say here?

Alex Ferrari 47:50
Now, there was a chapter that in your book that absolutely intrigued me and I have never even thought about this, but I think it's something we should definitely talk about. How do you write dialogue for animals, aliens and other critters? Yes. Oh, that

Linda Seger 48:04
was such a fun chapter. So one. Because it is true. People say, I'm never going to write dialogue for animals you say you probably will. You might have a dog in your movie. At least give them a wolfin out Worf enough. Bow Wow. And figure out when they say one sound versus another it because dialogue is the is a communication of sound, it does not have to be a word. If you say to your dog, will you go get the paper and the dog goes woof, woof and then goes get the paper and is he's ready to put it down. He grows, there is communication. And I'm always surprised how many times there are animals in a movie. And the animal doesn't have the dialogue. Like for instance, in both c Seabiscuit and Secretary it was animals. The owners kept talking about how wonderful those horses were. There was no communication, there was none of the little thing or the or the snorting or all the things that animals do. So when john and i started talking about that factor, we started going back to what do we know? fuzzy Oh, because I had horses for 13 years. I went to my horse trainer, I said, let's talk about all the different sounds like a horse will actually squeal sometime. It's all sounds like a pig. Well, it usually means you're hurting them really stepped on his long tail or a splitter or something like that. And I had a course where the first time he isn't a horse show trainer rode him, he got to the middle of the arena. And he lit up this plane tip May, that it was like, Where are my friends, I'm all alone in the middle gear. And you knew exactly what was going on with that horse that at that moment of uncertainty. So one of the things people need to do is to actually analyze, what do I know? And if you don't know a lot about that animal, go and talk to people who know those animals. I worked on a dragon script one time when the dragon didn't do anything. And so I applied my horse knowledge to say, Well, here's a number of different things because the dragon is sort of like a horse, but not sure

Alex Ferrari 50:49
why not. That's

Linda Seger 50:53
another thing I did before writing that chapters when my cat would purr, I would, I would, I would actually vocalize with the cat. And then I go the piano to see what note is he purring on. And it was the eight below middle C and said okay, if you wrote a cat, you want to get that? It's perfect. I mean, babe is so great. Let me see if I can quickly find the bin here. Because one of the things that's so fabulous about babe, is that the like the sheep, goat Ma, yeah. Talk about the one sheep is the MA. And you have this animals chapter so? Yes. So so like, for instance, and babe. Ma says a heart a gold and the sheep respond hard gold. And the kopecks. The cat says pigs don't have a purpose. Just like ducks don't have a PR. That's that. I mean, what a justice. It's such a marvelous movie to look at to hear how every animal is differentiated and thinks what are the sounds that that animals vocal cords make? The little vocal cords is a big, you know, then arrival. The aliens have this very particular. It's not only a deeper sound, it's almost like a fluttering sound of the vocal cords.

Alex Ferrari 52:40
Yeah, like a predator too. I mean, the predator has those those things, even aliens and those kind of characters. Now are you specific? So baby, something specific, obviously, because the animals talk in that. So obviously, you would need dialogue there. But when you're writing an average, not average, but a normal script that has an animal that has an animal being an animal, like a dog or a cat or horse, are you suggesting you'd like horse or whatever the character of that that animal's name is and you put by or wolf?

Linda Seger 53:08
Well, there's two ways of doing it. One has to do it in the description and say the dog rolls. And then the owner. JACK says, Stop it. It's okay. Good, quiet down. You know, another one is that jack that the dog you have dog flicker the dog Fido. And under, there's girl. And then jack says quiet down. And it's, I think it's okay both ways. And some of them it has to do with whether or not you're trying to get a flow of dialogue, right, back and forth. Because the page will give more of a sense of the flow of you write it like dialogue. And, and also to be aware of how many different animals have far more ways of communicating than we, you know, we think we do. I mean, I'm surprised with the cat. I could literally as we were unlocking the door, the cat would meow and I'd say Here we are. And cat would meow. And I mean literally there was a back and forth with meow. And and then you tune into what kind of reality do at any one time? Because they do have different kinds of meals as well?

Alex Ferrari 54:24
Yes, they do. Yes, they do.

Linda Seger 54:26
But if you I think that part of what we're saying is if you are going to have an animal in your script, use the animal is to actually use it as part of the dialogue and the richness of what you're writing. And you just have to turn on the TV to see how many animals are advertising things these days from a pig so the L's two boxes two.

Alex Ferrari 54:53
I always tell people if you want to make a successful movie, just have a dog save Christmas and it's gonna get sold.

Linda Seger 54:59
Oh yes. As they say, in Shakespeare love the bit with the dog. Don't forget the bit.

Alex Ferrari 55:08
Exactly. And I wanted to ask you, you also talked about something in your book called visual dialogue, creating a visual with a dialogue. Can you kind of touch upon that a little bit? Yes, think

Linda Seger 55:18
of how often we use sensory words to say something like, it's a great day, or I am in the pink today, or I slept like a log, or, you know, we, we use a lot of sensory language. And one good thing to do is to start thinking of that because it makes the line of dialogue pop. It's one thing to say, well, well, I mean, I can say I'm a little down. That's a sensory, but I can say I'm a bit blue. And blue is low. Is is sort of different. What you get is that image that goes with it, and is Oh, yeah, I'm getting a little more information. I loved and ordinary people when the the boys said, it's a great day. So much better than saying, Oh, I'm not doing or how are you doing today? I'm not too good. But if you say it's a great day, Oh, my gosh, this is so rich. No, so interesting. And so a good exercise is to write down all those sensory words that we tend to say Anyway, you know, it all handed on a high note. Or, you know, whatever my husband's favorite phrase is, it's not over till the fat lady sings. Right?

Alex Ferrari 56:47
These are all cliches, and you have to be careful not to be cliche about some of this as well.

Linda Seger 56:51
And sometimes what you do is you play with the cliche and you twist it in a slightly I think in Steel Magnolias is a line about, you know, his feet are planted firmly on the quicksand

Alex Ferrari 57:10
and they're different Absolutely. And it pops it pops a lot I was thinking of and I mean, I've Tarantino has he writes so visually, but he uses pop references to kind of help along with those visual things. So like, I'm going to walk the earth like came and kung fu like Yes, yes, you're you're there so quickly in your head. And there was all it was gonna be cool little Fonzie are all gonna be cool little Fonz. He's like, everybody got that right away. It was pretty amazing. But yes, something along those lines is just talk about being visual.

Linda Seger 57:43
I love James Brooks. movie as good as it gets. Yeah. And how they take the cliche, like there's a line where Simon instead of saying Do you know how lucky you are? He says, Do you know where you're lucky? Interesting. It's kinda like I like the same but it's a little twist on it. And there's a lot of we have stuff in the book from Steel Magnolias considers Just so you know, it's just so rich. Even weezy says I can't get enough grease in my diet.

Alex Ferrari 58:26
I mean, that's, that's general for everybody. I'm assuming. It's like, um, Martha's not Martha Stewart. I'm Julia Child's like, everything's better with butter. Well, yes, me You could put shoe shoes and base it in butter and fry it. It's gonna taste better. Right, right. Um, so So what are you up to now, Linda, after this book? What's the next thing for you?

Linda Seger 58:51
Well, I officially retired on June 1 from consulting and seminars. So the focus is now on books. One of and I'm going to show you first what we're doing. You see, these are called sacred notes. We will remember the cliff notes that we all read. Yes. So these are coming out the first of every month and this is the third one which will be out July 1. So we've done African Queen, and sideways in this third one is Shakespeare in Love your $5.25 online and they're generally pretty close to 5000 words. So they're Wow, there's actually no like books. Oh, yeah. So they're not a book or anything. There's, and they're written in order for people interested in film, to say, what are the things that that film does that I can learn from? What was the challenge of writing that script? And how did they solve that because I want to learn from the masters. So everyone is is what I would call a A great example of something specific. So my next one is going to be Jojo rabbit. Yeah. And I will be starting to work on that because I have to have them done by the 15th. And then I send them to the publisher with some toasts, and the woman publishers legwear Houston, who's the daughter of john Houston. And she is just great. She's, I've really been enjoying working with her. So first of every month, and yeah, you can find them either by going on my website, Linda sager.com, or going on to remember, exactly, it's the

Alex Ferrari 1:00:48
cash. I'll put it in the show notes

Linda Seger 1:00:50
on my website, Linda seger.com. I'll, and you can also just look up Sager notes, but just go on Linda sager.com. And you'll see the informational Sager notes. And then of course, the dialogue book. Yes. And so I'm turning my attention to some other books as well. I want to, I want to write about creativity and spirituality, which has been leading for 30 years. And I'm going to write another book for Allegra. On her company on the doing a thing called the things the stuff they never teach you. And so I'm going to write a book on how to teach a class in a seminar. And, and so, you know, but the sacred notes are, are out as of June 1, so we did to June 1, then we're doing one a month.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:49
Nice. Well, it seems like you're busy. Seems like you're busy.

Linda Seger 1:01:52
Yes. Yeah. I'm not without anything to do. And I'm playing a lot of piano.

Alex Ferrari 1:01:58
And one last question, I try to ask all of my guests, and you haven't had this one before? What are three screenplays every screenwriter should read?

Linda Seger 1:02:09
Ah, yes. Um, that's a very good question. I tend to always end up putting witness on that list. Because it's such a perfect structure. And it is so good at kind of getting into another culture and you know, community. And I think I'm a deus I call Amadeus, the, the big diamond of the Emerald. I call stand by me the little little diamond. And then I think it's an interesting thing for people to say what scripts spoke to me? And was, was there ever a movie that changed my life or impacted me or taught me something new that change? You know, attitudes, and maybe just read that one? And to better understand how it affected two people sometimes asked me, they said, was there ever a movie that changed your life? And I said, Oh, yes. City Slickers city. This city slickers got me back to riding, horseback riding, and I went on a cattle drive up to city slickers. And then that got me into riding around the world. I mean, I wrote in France and Italy and Spain, and you know, lots of Wyoming, I took riding vacations I entered or shows, I mean, I just did that for quite some time. And so any of those movies where you say, they're just great movies, I would put one more on the list, because we have a whole chapter on theme. And we use the movie, The Defiant Ones, and trace how the theme keeps changing and transforming through that whole film. It's a really in depth analysis of how you can work with the theme through dialogue. And that's a great movie to watch this great movie is great script to read.

Alex Ferrari 1:04:14
Linda, it is always a pleasure having you on the show. Anytime. You're always welcome back. It is I learned so much every time I talk to you. So thank you so much for coming on the show and and dropping the knowledge bombs on the tribe today. So thanks again.

Linda Seger 1:04:27
Yes, thank you. It's always a pleasure for me as well.

Alex Ferrari 1:04:31
I want to thank Linda for coming back on the show and helping us write some amazing dialogue that pops off the page. If you want to get links to anything we spoke about in this episode, including a link to the book, please head over to the show notes at bulletproofscreenwriting.tv/079. Thank you so much for listening guys. I hope this episode was of help to you on your screenwriting journey. Thanks again, as Always keep on writing no matter what. I'll talk to you soon.


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