Tag Archives: dialogue

Supporting Dialogue in Novels and Screenplays

Dialogue and action in novels and screenplaysDialogue in novels and screenplays is one of the most indispensable items in the writer’s toolkit.

Written well, with an appropriate relevance to character and a sufficient use of subtext, dialogue is one of the most economical ways to progress a story.

But dialogue on its own, no matter how skilful, can succumb the talking-head syndrome that will destroy the tactile texture of a story. Few writers can get away with excessive dialogue at the expense of action – with the exception of a Woody Allen or Quentin Tarantino.

For most of us, supporting dialogue with telling bits of action, no matter how small, is the way to go.

Dactions for novels and screenplays

Dialogue-supporting actions, or, dactions, as I playfully call them, fall into two broad categories according to their functions, which, directly or indirectly, serve to intensify what is being said.

If Tom, for example, is threatening to kill James while cutting meat on a chopping block, then the action directly enhances the dialogue.

If, on the other hand, Tom is threatening James while lovingly brushing his poodle’s coat with a brush, the action enhances the dialogue indirectly. Indeed, such an indirect enhancement can be even more menacing, precisely because of the air of normality with which the threat is delivered.

Nor does the action have to come from the characters who are doing the talking.

In The Nostalgia of Time Travel, two brothers sit chatting in the kitchen in the presence of a young boy who is retrospectively relating the tale to us. The conversation is punctuated by the boy’s observations of his mother’s seemingly pointless folding, unfolding, and refolding of clothes in the adjoining room.

This action undercuts the supposed friendly conversation taking place in the kitchen, although the boy does not yet understand the reason for his unease. Indeed, the boy’s nativity, makes the discomfort more subtle, increasing the tension for the reader.

Summary

Dactions ramp up the meaning of dialogue between characters, while simultaneously adding an element of tactile physicality to novels and screenplays.

Talking the Story

Writer

Trish Nicholson

Today I have the honour and privilage to host a special post by a truly erudite and inspiring writer: Trish Nicholson.

Trish writes narrative nonfiction and short stories, some of which have won international competitions and are analysed in her latest book Inside Stories for Writers and Readers. She is also a social anthropologist and author of travelogues. Trish lives in New Zealand. You can follow her on Twitter @TrishaNicholson and visit her tree house on her website at http://trishnicholsonswordsinthetreehouse.com

Take it away Trish…

Trish: Thank you Stavros. I’d like to start with the idea that although film and the short story may each employ different strengths to tell a particular tale, what they share is greater than their differences.

“Short story and film are expressions of the same art, the art of telling a story by a series of subtly implied gestures, swift shots, moments of suggestion…”(H .E. Bates).

Dialogue is especially significant in this respect. By eavesdropping on what they say, readers and viewers hear characters’ desires and intentions directly from the source. Crafted with care, verbal exchanges demonstrate character traits, emotional states, relationships with twists of deceit, manipulation and asymmetry, and they reveal facts and motivations that push the plot.

‘Talk’ that achieves none of these is idle chatter that clutters the story and slows the pace.

In Inside Stories for Writers and Readers, I unpick dialogue in a couple of stories, explaining the role of each spoken phrase. The following excerpt shows how much can be conveyed through a few lines of dialogue within a 100-word micro-fiction. In this story, a couple sit at a table in a train-station café. A tramp occupies the same table and lifts his T-shirt to scratch flea bites.

“Let’s move,” you hiss.

We learn the character being quoted is probably intolerant of tramps. A tag had to be used because no one has spoken up to that point and there are three people at the table, but the ‘hiss’ not only tells us how the words were delivered, but that the narrator seems to have a negative attitude towards the comment, or the speaker – to use ‘whisper’ instead, would have given a whole different meaning and character hint.

“There’s still an hour,” I say.

It is unlikely that the tramp would have spoken this, so the tag is not necessary in that sense, but it provides the symmetry of ‘you said/I said’ to point up the rejoinder that deliberately ignores the subtext of the other speaker as to the reason for moving: there is underlying tension here.

We’re starting over: going on a second honeymoon – to Torquay.

This suggests problems in the past but the inner voice of the narrator is optimistic, and gives vital plot information – where they are going and why.

“You’re always so obtuse.” I feel your spittle spatter my face.

The choice of ‘obtuse’, while apt anyway, was made especially for its spittle-delivering qualities. The use of ‘always’, like ‘never’, is argumentative and again indicates a history of conflict. The spittle comment is not needed as a speech tag, but it up-grades the speaker’s anger and paints a visual picture of the scene.

You get the Brighton train.

The narrator’s inner dialogue describes an important action in the plot, and the one word “Brighton” tells us there will be no second honeymoon (the significance of “Torquay” earlier). [The Last Train].

Summary

Dialogue helps us to create vivid scenes; to emulate the immediacy of film by revealing crucial aspects of our stories directly through the words and actions of characters.

Stavros: Once again, I want to extend a special thank you to Trish Nicholson for agreeing to share with us her considerable knowledge of the craft of writing.

Trish: It’s been my pleasure Stavros.

Story Maps

Map

Mapping the Creative Process:

In looking at the writing process it is often helpful to have a snapshot or map of the lay of the land in mind. Below is one such map. (For a detailed definition of the listed terms, kindly consult the archived posts on this site.)

The Map

Most stories come from the generation of multiple ideas, ideas which are filtered and distilled down to a core of sufficient worth. In The Matrix the core idea is “What if the world we take to be real is an illusion?”

But an idea without a story is impotent. This is where the story concept comes in, followed by background and setting, which help the writer determine the genre.

At this point, log-lines and the one-liner help to focus the story concept and produce a working title.

The next stage involves a large and powerful leap—the synopsis. In writing the synopsis one determines and explores the main character and supporting cast— the backstory, biography, character traits, motivation, need vs want, goal and transformational arcs, where appropriate. Simultaneously, one builds a plot inflected by structureinciting incident, pinches, turning points, mid point, climax and resolution.

Now the writer is ready to identify and create possible subplots, central conflicts, obstacles to the story goal, suspense, pace, central imagery, and emotions.

That done, the writer is ready to create the treatment, followed by the step-outline, before turning to that all-important, but malleable first draft. It is here that dialogue comes to the fore, dialogue that ought to be authentic, purposeful and born out of the character’s already-defined traits.

By the end of the obligatory or climactic scene, the writer has exposed the main theme of the story—the winner of the battle carries the theme. In The Matrix, for example, human instinct and heart trump artificial intelligence.

Of course, the first draft is the first of several, as discussed in previous posts, but it does, at least, represent the first exposure of one’s story to the cold light of day.

Summary

Keeping a map of the overall creative process in mind is often helpful in supporting the writing of the first draft of a story. This post names the components of one such map.

Writing is Rewriting IV

Dialogues gentlemen talking across a tableThe famous screenwriter William Goldman once said: “A good writer is not someone who knows how to write—but to rewrite.” In this forth post of our five-part series, drawn from Raymond G Frensham’s book, Screenwriting, we turn our attention to dialogue.

The Art of Dialogue

Good dialogue is never just about relaying essential information—moving the plot forward by fostering the outer journey. It’s also about the inner journey of the characters; its about revealing the reasons why characters act and say the things they do—the subtext that reveals their motivation.

In reviewing your characters’ dialogue look out for the following problems:

1. Are your scenes flat and listless? Are they governed by dialogue that lacks pace, spark? Try injecting emotion, humour—yes, even in drama, a prediction, a challenge, or replace it with silences in which we are shown rather than told things.

2. Is the dialogue in a scene interchangeable between characters? Could I take a phrase from one character and put it in the mouth of another without anyone noticing? If so, your cast and the way they speak, their viewpoint, background, and values, are not unique. Could you imagine interchanging the dialogue of Bart, Homer, or Marge Simpson? Of course not! That’s because these characters are strongly and uniquely defined. Re-examine your own character biographies and ensure that your characters are individuals driven by their own goals. Each character should have his own way of speaking that simultaneously reflects both his inner and outer journeys.

3. Are the major dialogue exchanges in your story governed by contrasting values, conflicts and innuendo? If not, they ought to be.

4. Does your dialogue ramble? Does it meander, seem unnecessarily “talky”? Cull unnecessary dialogue and pare down what remains to the bone. Good dialogue is sharp and precise and moves the plot forward while revealing the reasons for the views and actions it expresses, through subtext. (Please consult this blog for additional posts on subtext in which I provide specific techniques for creating vibrant, interesting dialogue that bristles with verisimilitude).

5. Try not to express plot and intent through direct on-the-nose dialogue. The cinema is not the place to showcase your skill as a soliloquy writer. Can you reveal plot through subtext rather than through direct statement? If you can, do so without hesitation. “I saw your girlfriend kissing a toy boy in the kitchen at your birthday party,” is better than “I’m sorry to hear that you and Marcy aren’t getting along lately.”

Summary

Writing good dialogue requires a good ear and an understanding of the medium you’re working in. Listed above are some of the pitfalls to avoid when rewriting dialogue during the forth draft of your story.

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More on Dialogue Subtext

Road sign

Subtext

For our purposes, subtext in dialogue, as we’ve learnt from previous posts, is the layer of meaning hiding beneath the obvious. Subtext is what makes dialogue rich through hint and innuendo and is an indispensable part of accomplished writing.

Although there are many techniques for generating subtext, in today’s post, I’d like to explore two important ways which may assist you in doing so.

The Lie

Often, a character talks about actions or occurrences as if they’ve actually occurred in the manner described, when he or she is, in fact, lying about them. There are several ways to do this. The wider sense of a lie in terms of subtext can be characterised by a sense of evasiveness, obscurity, deceitfulness, deviousness, denial, sneakiness, slyness, trickery, scheming, concealment, craftiness, denial, change of subject, and the like.

So, when one character asks of another: “Are you telling me the truth, yes, or no?” and the other character replies: “Have I ever lied to you before?” one has the sense that the answer is evasive because it fails directly to answer the question, parrying instead, with another question.

The overall context of the subtext in this example, is, therefore, The Lie, but is specifically modified by a sense of evasiveness, although any one of the other modifiers in our list could suffice, depending on the context.

Manipulation

Another useful category for subtext is that of manipulation. Here the character says one thing when her or his real purpose is surreptitiously to manipulate another character in order to achieve a certain secret objective. Specific instances that are associated with manipulation are: being corrupt, conniving, concealing, sowing suspicion, secretive, crafty, underhanded, shifty, shady, unethical, and the like.

Fred: “I thought you told me your wife was visiting her parents in New York for the week while you looked after the kids?”
Jack: “She is.”
Fred: “Strange. Must’ve been mistaken then.”
Jack: “What do you mean?”
Fred: “It’s nothing. Sorry I mentioned it.”
Jack: “Spit it out.”
Fred: “Well…It’s just that I thought I saw her getting into a limo on Sunset Boulevard early this morning as I was leaving a club. Clearly I need new glasses.”
Jack: “I thought you just got new glasses.”
Fred: “I did.”

In this example, Fred sows the seed of suspicion by suggesting Jack’s wife might be playing around without Jack’s knowledge. He offers a flimsy excuse for being wrong, then destroys the excuse by implying that there’s nothing wrong with his vision.

Summary

Lying and manipulating are two layers of subtext that enrich any piece of dialogue. Use these techniques, when appropriate, to imbue your dialogue with rich layers of meaning.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

And the Secret to Writing a Good Story Is…

Babies Kissing

Secret Ingredient

What does it take to write a good story? The facile answer is: many things – maturity, insight, observational skills, a good ear for dialogue, an understanding of story structure, and so on. But is there one element without which your story would be significantly weaker? When I joined Elmo de Witt Films in the early nineties as that company’s resident screenwriter, the experienced South African director gave me a piece of advice that I’ve been mulling over ever since: a story that doesn’t solicit emotion is headed for failure or, at best, obscurity.

Emotion and Story: Why should we Care?

A story filled with events and characters who leave us cold, leaves us cold, period. It may be filled with wonderful ideas and insights about life, science, religion, philosophy. But, who cares? If you want to write about any of those, publish a paper in an academic journal, write an editorial in a magazine, or deliver a talk at the local philosophical society. A story is, of course, capable of transmitting deep, world-changing ideas, but only if we care enough about the events and characters in the story to delve deeper into the text and ferret such ideas out.

Caring about Fictional Characters and their Situation

So how do we create characters that audiences and readers care about? This is a skill that we foster and nourish throughout our writing careers. It doesn’t come overnight. The centuries are littered with tomes addressing the subject, and countless of modern-day blog posts, including mine, proffer aspects of the craft. Needless to say that any blog on effective character creation rests on a similar foundation – the use of emotion to draw us into our characters’ lives. Without wishing to diminish the depth and complexity of the subject, I offer one way, out of a myriad of others, which may assist you in kick-starting your thinking on how to approach the challenge of creating characters that we care about: Make your character (1) a worthy/interesting/caring person (2) who finds herself in a situation of undeserved misfortune/peril, which (3) worsens as the story progresses. This is the first step in creating empathy for your character, and therefore, in getting to know and care for her.

Summary

One of the most important requirements of a successful story is that it solicits an emotional response from its readers and audiences. Only if we are emotionally involved in a tale will we care enough about it to spend time trying to understand its deeper layers – the themes and ideas it espouses.

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If you enjoyed this post, or have a suggestion for a future one, kindly leave a comment and let’s get chatting. You may subscribe to this blog by clicking on the “subscribe” or “profile” link on the right-hand side of this article. I post new material every Monday.

What is Subtext?

Subtext, in writing, refers to the treasure that lies buried below the surface of a story — its inner meaning. If the “text” is concerned with surface detail — that which can be seen, heard, touched, smelled, or tasted, the “subtext” carries that which is implied, hinted at, or intuited through depth, subtlety, and resonance. Subtext, in the wider sense of the word, operates across different categories such as genre, symbolism, setting, character, vocation, and dialogue, since all are able to transmit hidden or interior meaning. In this post, we shall be focusing on subtext in dialogue.

Saying One Thing and Meaning Several

In dialogue, subtext arises whenever a character lies, hides something, seduces, plots, is merely polite, or is simply unaware of the deeper implications of what is being said. The common denominator is that additional information is presented in a subtle way. Inevitably, subtext acts as a kind of foreshadowing, awaiting for that aha-moment to reveal its true meaning (usually, around a turning point). In Basic Instinct, crime writer Catherine Trumell (Sharon Stone) is interrogated by detectives about the murder of Johnny Boz, a retired rock-star. Her subtext, which targets Detective Nick Curran (Michael Douglas), bristles with veiled threats and sexual innuendo:

NICK: What’s your new book about?
CATHERINE: A Detective. He falls for the wrong woman.

The implication is that her new book is about her and Nick.

NICK: What happens to him?
CATHERINE: She kills him.

This contains a veiled threat and a warning, but also a lure in its hint of a possible sexual liaison (“He falls for the wrong woman”). Later in the interrogation:

NICK: You like playing games, don’t you?
CATHERINE: I have a degree in psych. It goes with the turf. Games are fun.

Catherine not only invites Nick to engage in a-cat-and-mouse game over who killed Johnny Boz, she also engages in a kind of foreplay prior to having sex. Because the audience, like Nick, is aware of the deeper meaning in this (Catherine is already a suspect), the dialogue serves to foreshadow the pay-off in which Catherine, after having made love to Nick, reaches for the murder weapon beneath her bed, only to hesitate and make love to him again, instead. The suggestion is that Nick too will be killed when she’s had her fill of him.

Summary

Subtext in dialogue occurs when characters hide something, lie, seduce, plot, are merely being polite, or are unaware of the deeper meaning of what is being said. Its function is to create depth and resonance in the story, as well as to serve foreshadowing.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, leave a comment and let’s get chatting on the subject.

Five Ways to Increase Tension and Anticipation through Dialogue

Scarab, The Level, and how to harness the power of anticipation in dialogue.

As promised, here are some essential techniques for creating anticipation in your stories, culled from classes I teach on screenwriting. Although there are many more techniques for achieving this, I discuss five that I use over and over again in my own work, and in my novels such as Scarab and The Level: 1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered. 2. Reputation that causes interest. 3. Countdown.  4. Warnings. and 5. Hope of possible escape out of a bad situation.

On The Level

In my previous novel, Scarab, I tapped into the prevailing mystery associated with the Sphinx of Giza in order to create an overall sense of anticipation and intrigue in the story. In my forthcoming novel, The Level, I create anticipation and anxiety by focusing on the ability of dialogue to increase tension.

In The Level, the protagonist, Sam Code, wakes up in a pitch-black room strapped to a chair. He can’t remember who he is or how he got here. A woman dressed in a black burka approaches him carrying a paraffin lamp and warns him that he needs to get out of his current predicament before the power comes back on. She also tells him that he has to get off the island where he is being held, before dawn, or he’ll be killed. The dialogue between them is cryptic, full of suspense, and keeps us guessing as to how it will all end. Here’s an excerpt from the second chapter:

“I can’t come with you. You do understand that?” she said.

“Why not?” Sam asked, somewhat taken aback.

She hesitated. “I’m sorry Sam. I can’t answer that question. But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when that happens.”

“Just tell me what the hell’s going on!”

“What you need to know right now is that the power will stay on for an hour. You must find your way out of this facility before the lights go out again. There are many doors to many rooms. Many dead ends. And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who’ll be looking for you. If they find you they will kill you. But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island. What happens after that depends on you.”

“Why? Why would anyone want to kill me? What’s so special about me?” Sam sounded more anxious than ever.

“The truth is that you are very special Sam,” she said. “You just don’t realize it yet.”

“Then explain it to me,” he pleaded.

Ashanti hesitated yet again, as if weighing up the reasons for keeping the information from him against the consequences to herself for telling him.
“You have something they want,” she said at last.

“What?” Sam pressed her.

“A key.”

“A key to what?”

“A key to a very special door.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You will.” Ashanti leant over and kissed him on the cheek.

Creating Anticipation through Dialogue

Here’s how each technique works:

1. Questions that are left hanging or are only partially answered: Almost everything that Sam asks Ashanti is only partially answered or sidetracked: “I can’t answer that question”, or, “You have something they want”. This causes Sam to exclaim, “I don’t understand”. Unanswered questions create a sense of intrigue and anxiety in the reader. We, like Sam, want answers to these questions, and so we keep reading in an effort to find them.

2. Reputation that causes interest: “And there are a lot of people with terrifying skills who will be looking for you.” This causes us to worry about Sam and wonder about the sorts of skills his hunters possess.

3. Countdown: “But I can tell you there’s a generator that’ll start up in ten minutes. The power and lights will come on. You can’t be in this chair when it does.” This sets up a time limit during which something has to happen. Although we don’t know the details, we believe Sam to be in imminent danger.

4. Warnings: “If they find you they will kill you”. We are left in no doubt as to the outcome, and because we like Sam, we worry about him and keep turning the pages to see if he’ll survive.

5. Hope of possible escape from a bad situation: “But if you manage to escape, head North. You’ll come to a small harbor about a day’s walk from here. There’ll be a boat. Get on it and leave this island.” The search for the answer to this question drives the entire story. Will Sam manage to get to the boat and escape from the island or will he be found and be killed?

In Conclusion

These, then, are five simple but powerful techniques for injecting anticipation into your dialogue, changing otherwise static scenes into exciting page turners. If you’ve enjoyed this article, and have any questions or requests that you wish to be covered in a future blog, please leave a comment by clicking on the “comment” text at the end of this or any other entry, and let’s get chatting!

The Craft of Dialogue

In this series of articles I’ll be exploring some essential writing techniques that I’ve garnered over the years. Some, have migrated over from screenwriting, but they are applicable, with a little modification, to the novel or short story.

Today’s topic is how to add resonance and depth to your story through metaphor in dialogue.

In film, as in the novel, dialogue provides a plethora of opportunities for hooking the reader into the story early, developing character, and developing plot. One of the ways to deepen the reading experience, to create a sense of resonance in your writing, is through the use of metaphor. Metaphors may appear in several forms – as visual, olfactory, and auditory objects. In this blog we shall be touching on their use in dialogue.

Make Metaphors Unobtrusive

The first thing to say is that a metaphor shouldn’t draw attention to itself as a literary device, since that would snap your reader out of the immersive experience you are trying to create. What it should do, other than embellish character, is quietly seed or explain some previous and/or future moment in your story. This could take the form of foreshadowing the “reveal” — the moment in which some previously unexplained or hidden motive or event is shown for what it truly is. Structuring reveals is an indispensable part of creating momentum in your stories, but that is the subject of a future blog.

Allow Metaphors to Stitch your Story Together

The cardinal rule in writing is, as we’ve often heard,  “show, don’t tell.” I would rephrase this to read: in showing, rather than telling, it is preferable to reveal the hidden truth in your story in a measured and purposeful way — in the case of dialogue, through a series of related but widely interspersed metaphors. Dialogue is a prime candidate for metaphor since, metaphor, by its very nature, carries more meaning than ordinary language. Additionally, metaphor in dialogue is less obtrusive than in a descriptive block, since it can fly under the radar as part of a character’s speech idiom. Metaphors, once fully unpacked by the reader or audience, act as invisible threads, stitching your characters and story together into a seamless whole.

Metaphors in Chinatown

There is a wonderful bit of dialogue in Chinatown between Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) and Evelyn Mulwray (Faye Dunaway) in which Gittes notices a black spot in the green part of Evelyn’s eye, prompting her to remark, “Oh, that…it’s a flaw in the iris…”. This admission of a flaw, of course, is about much more than the structure of her iris. Like a fracture in a beautiful diamond, Evelyn’s secret is not visible at first glance. The idea of a flawed diamond with its added capacity for diverting light fits snugly into the idea of flawed moral and physical perception. It points to how easy it is to miss the truth even when it is in plain sight; how easy it is to camouflage from one’s self, and others, a shameful secret in one’s life.

Yet, the “flaw” as a metaphor for imperfection or sin, which may lie at the heart of the beautiful and the rich, also points at the heart of the plot. In Chinatown, it finds expression in one of the greatest lines in movie history, when Evelyn admits to Gittes that Katherine is both her sister and her daughter. This is something that we have failed to spot, just as Gittes failed to see that the gardener’s remark to him earlier — “Bad for glass” — was not referring to the broken eyeglasses at the bottom of the pond at the Mulwray home, but to the fact that saltwater is bad for the lawn. Had Jake allowed for the Chinese tendency (a linguistic flaw?) to pronounce “l” for “r” — “glass” instead of “grass” — he might have understood that Hollis Mulwray, Noah Cross’ former partner, had been drowned in this very pond, at the bequest of Cross, and his body dumped near a storm-drain pipe to make it look like an accident. It is only when the characters and the audience come to see the truth for what it really is (Gittes “seeing” that Noah Cross has instigated the murder and that he has fathered Katherine by sleeping with his own daughter, Evelyn), that the story can reach its dark and somber conclusion: that the rich and powerful are forever hidden from the law’s ability to bring them to justice.

In Summary

Strategically placed metaphors add depth and resonance to your story, yet should never draw attention to themselves as literary devices. In Chinatown, the failure to see the truth is hinted at through metaphorical objects such as cracked eyeglasses, a flawed iris, as well as in dialogue – in Evelyn’s mentioning of the flaw in her eye, and in Gittes mistaking “grass” for “glass”. As metaphors, they seed and explain actions and events as part of a well-structured reveal. Used well, metaphors enrich character and help stitch the various parts of a story into a seamless whole.

In my next blog, I will be discussing the many ways in which dialogue can help to build anticipation and tension.

See you then!