Category Archives: Designing Dialogue

Dialogue Techniques: Question-and-Answer & Repetition.

Dialogue
Dialogue techniques in Better Call Saul

Today, we’re continuing to explore a crucial aspect of storytelling: dialogue. This narrative component is such an important part of storytelling that it has given rise to countless of books and courses on how to master it. Specifically, we’ll explore what Dwight V. Swain calls dialogue continuity in his book, Film Scriptwriting – A Practical Manual.

Swain affirms that one of the markers of good dialogue is continuity flowing from a question-and-answer format, and the repetition of words. That is, lines of dialogue which acknowledge the ones preceding them. There are several ways to do this. Let’s focus on two of the most common techniques: the question/answer structure and repetition.

Repetition couched in a questions and answers.

Repetition, embedded in a question-and-answer format, can be a powerful tool in creating continuity and mounting tension. By repeating a word or phrase from one line to the next, and demanding answers to questions, writers create a flow that keeps the conversation cohesive and engaging.

A good example of this technique can be seen in the Better Call Saul episode, Chicanery. There is a courtroom scene where Jimmy (Saul) McGill cross-examines his brother Chuck McGill, a brilliant lawyer himself. Chuck claims to suffer from a mystery illness which makes him sensitive to electrical currents. The courtroom lights, except for the Exit sign, have been switched off, and all electrical devices such as cellphones and watches, removed from the courtroom.

Chuck is accusing his brother Jimmy of unlawful practices and wants to have him stripped of his law licence. Jimmy’s only defence is to have his brother appear so mentally challenged by his phobias so as to render his testimony against him unreliable. This scene masterfully uses the question-and-answer format, as well as some repetition of words to build mounting tension, only to have it released at the end, showcasing Jimmy’s mastery of the set-up.

Example from Better Call Saul, Season 3, Episode 5: Chicanery:

  • Chuck: The further away it is, the stronger the source has to be to have an effect.
  • Jimmy: Got it. Got it. So If I had a small battery, say from a watch or something, and I got it close to you, close to your skin, you’d know.
  • Chuck: I would feel it, yes.
  • Jimmy: Can you feel more current from any particular direction right now? From that back wall? Or from over there? Or up through the floor? Can you tell us where the nearest source is, right now?
  • Chuck: (Growing suspicious). Jimmy, do you have something in your pocket?
  • Jimmy: Yes, I do, as a matter of fact. (Takes out a cellphone from his pocket). My cellphone. From this distance you should feel it, and you don’t, do you?
  • Judge: Mr. McGill. You were warned to leave your electronics outside.
  • Chuck: It’s alright. It’s alright. May I? (Takes the cellphone from, Jimmy). Just as I thought. There’s no battery in here. You removed the battery. That’s a sorry little trick, isn’t it?
  • Jimmy: Yea. You got me Chuck. Dead to rights. I removed the battery
  • Chuck: God Jimmy. Don’t you know by now, this is real. I feel this? It’s a physical response to stimuli. Not a quirk. What do we have to do to prove it to you?
  • Jimmy: I don’t know, Chuck. Could you reach into your breast pocket and tell me what’s there?
  • Chuck: What now? (Chuck fumbles in his pocket and removes the cellphone battery that Jimmy has had one of his employees placed there surreptitiously. Chuck throws the battery on the floor).
  • Jimmy: Can you tell the court what that was?
  • Chuck: A battery. (Realising he’s been tricked.)

Jimmy explains to the court that he had one of his men, Huell Babineaux, plant the fully charged battery on Chuck when he bumped into him in the passage an hour and forty three minutes ago, disproving Chuck’s claim that electric currents make him feel ill, and undermining his testimony against Jimmy. The question-and-answer format, the repetition of the word battery have all served the flow and continuity of the scene, and have helped to bring it to a crescendo.

Embedding the repetition of words into a question-and-answer format, then, is an effective way of creating mounting tension while maintaining continuity. The technique keeps the conversation focused and dynamic, ensuring that each new line flows naturally from the previous one.

Other Techniques

While repetition and the question/answer format are powerful tools, there are other ways to enhance your dialogue, too, such as extended pauses, misdirection, a change of subject, and subtext which can add layers and depth to the dialogue. Regardless of the technique, however, the key is to ensure that your dialogue flows.

Summary

Repeating words embedded in a question-and-answer format is an effective way to create mounting tension and dialogue continuity in your novels and screenplays.

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Pace your story right!

Controlling pace in Fury Road
Controlling pace in Fury Road

What is story pacing, and how can we manage it using just six techniques? Let’s explore this subject through the exciting lens of George Miller’s action film, Mad Max: Fury Road.

  1. Balance Fast and Slow Pacing to allow for Reflection.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a rollercoaster ride of relentless action. Yet, within the high-speed chases and explosive battles, there are moments of reflection. Take Max’s haunting flashbacks, which grant us insight into his character. These slower interludes provide us with the necessary time to reflect, find respite from the chaos, and engage with the characters and themes on a deeper level.

Just as this film expertly balances fast and slower pacing, ensure your own story allows time for reflection as a ballast to the action.

  1. Time to Develop Character Goals and Show Character Interaction

Fury Road introduces a diverse cast of characters, each with their distinct traits and goals. Being a fast-paced action film, not a lot of emphasis is placed on the lead characters’ arcs—although Max does have to learn how to go from selfishness, seeking only his own survival, to working with others for all to survive. Furiosa might lack a strong arc but she does have a powerful goal—to save her companions from the horrific life they’ve known. This in order to find inner redemption for having waged war in the Citadel’s name. Interestingly, Nax, a supporting character, undergoes the biggest growth.

“Writers must learn to deal with exposition and backstory unobtrusively and adroitly if they are to succeed.”

Even a fast-paced film such as this finds the space and time to reveal the psychology of the characters through the subtext of their interactions. Although Max and Furiosa do not start as friends they are forced to co-operate as the story progresses. As Max slowly earns Furiosa’s trust she begins to rely on him, delegating to him some of her duties as the driver of the War Rig. By the time they arrive at the home of the Vuvalini, Furiosa has come to regard him as a companion and colleague. Carefully defined character goals and their interactions, then, afford the writer an opportunity to manage the pace to help create a compelling narrative.

  1. Using Dialogue and Action to Control the Pace

Utilise dialogue and action strategically in your own writing to control the flow of your story.

Dialogue and action in play an important role in regulating a story’s pacing. Immortan Joe’s commanding speeches, Furiosa’s determination, and Max’s silent resilience play an important part in orchestrating the story’s tempo. As the characters interrupt their frenetic pursuits, their words modulate the pacing.

  1. Regulate Time through Details

Fury Road meticulously zooms in on intricate details, such as the guitar spewing fire, the War Boys’ rituals, and the desolate landscape. These details slow down time by immersing us in the world’s minutiae, if even for a moment. The focus on details also deepens our connection to the narrative by having the world appear more replete.

Use detail in your own writing to immerse your readers and audiences into your story world, and orchestrate the pace.

  1. Withhold and Reveal Information to manage Suspense and Tension

Fury Road also demonstrates how withholding and revealing information affects the story’s pace. The film reveals pregnant details about the characters cryptically and in drips-and-drabs—their goals, their world, and the plot, keeping us in suspense—itself a time-modulating technique. The sparse but strategic exposition not only sustains out engagement, but it also increases the tension and alters our perception of narrative time.

As a way of managing the pace of your own story, consider when to withhold and when to reveal information

6. How Story Structure Controls in Pace

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, Fury Road uses a simple but distinctive story structure—a relentless chase operating within the well-established structure of a beginning, middle, and end. Narrative structure dictates the overall pacing through its stipulation of specific beats: The introduction to the ordinary world, for example, is such a beat. It can have, relatively speaking, a more leisurely pace, depending on the genre, where as the inciting incident (another beat) usually speeds things up by hinting that all is not well with the world of the protagonist. And so on. Story beats, which vary somewhat from template to template, all follow a similar pattern, and form the backbone of the tale, creating a sense of urgency and rochestrating momentum. The story is structured as a cohesive journey, with each action sequence building upon the last, until the inevitable crescendo and climax at the end. Followed by the calmer resolution.

Which story structure template best suits your story? Syd Field’s? Joseph Campbell’s and Christopher Vogler’s? Blake Snyder’s? Robert McKee’s? Although these experts are largely in agreement, they arrange some of the beats a little differently, which affects the pacing.

Summary

Use six techniques to control your story’s pace. It will help you write a tale that engages your readers and audience from start to finish.

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Five Techniques for Great Exposition

Great exposition in Arrival

Ever wondered how to inject great exposition seamlessly and unobtrusively into your story? Here are five techniques to help you do just that!

TECHNIQUE 1: Emotion as Camouflage.

One way to camouflage information is by pulling at your audience’s heartstrings. This is how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind does it, and does it brilliantly. The film introduces us to Joel and Clementine, who have had their painful memories erased. As their memories are rubbed out one by one, emotions take center stage, rendering the exposition less intrusive.

EXAMPLE SCENES: We see Joel and Clementine being initially happy together. Then, as they begin to argue and confront the erasure process, we learn about their troubled history. Their emotional rollercoaster uncovers their past without the need for dry exposition.

You see, emotion is an effective way to capture the audience’s attention while you convey essential information. Additionally, transmitting backstory through your characters’ feelings and reactions avoids spoon-feeding your audiences.

TECHNIQUE 2: Layer Information.

Next, let’s look at how to Layer information. It might sound complex, but it’s a game-changer for exposition. Here again, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a masterclass in how to use this technique. The film employs a Multiform or non-linear narrative structure, presenting fragments of the story out of order.

To apply this to your own writing, reveal exposition in drips and drabs, and out of chronological order, if suitable. This approach keeps your audience engaged, eager to connect the dots in an attempt to comprehend the bigger picture. Indeed, this layered approach to writing exposition increases our need to figure out what is happening in the story—it becomes the very point of the tale. It hides in plain sight the fact that the entire story is about making sense of the backstory.

EXAMPLE SCENES: In the movie, we see glimpses of Joel and Clementine’s relationship at different stages, forcing us to piece together the story’s puzzle. This non-linear approach beautifully unpacks their past, making it more captivating and suspenseful.

TECHNIQUE 3: Use Objects as Memory Triggers, symbols and metaphors.

Remember that old trinket you found in your attic, which suddenly brought back a flood of memories? In Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, objects serve as memory triggers. Joel revisits key moments by interacting with his fading memories.

EXAMPLE SCENE: When Joel finds a forgotten Valentine’s card, it takes him back to a cherished moment with Clementine. The card becomes a powerful symbol, unlocking emotions and memories that had been erased.

Employ objects in your own stories to trigger the memories of characters and reveal exposition. Objects offer a unique and relatable way to convey the past and connect your readers and audiences to the characters on a deeper level.

TECHNIQUE 4: Keep exposition short.

Brevity is key. Consider the film Arrival, where the backstory of the extraterrestrial visitors unfolds through subtle clues and linguistic exploration of alien modes of communication, encouraging your audience to use its imagination and critical thinking to make sense of the story.

“Exposition, although necessary in providing essential information to readers and audiences, ought to be rendered deftly to avoid appearing heavy-handed and on-the-nose.”

TECHNIQUE 5: Distract through action:

As writers we know all about, Show-don’ttell. This means that instead of merely informing the audience through direct dialogue, we should also strive to unveil our backstory through the actions and behavior of our characters.

In the film Unforgiven, a retired gunfighter, William Munny, now a down-and-out hog farmer, accepts a contract to kill a couple of ‘no good cowboys’, who cut up the face of a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey. Munny is shown to be jaded, unable even to stay on a horse or hit a target with his gun. By contrast the sheriff, Little Bill Daggett, the man Munny is up against, is a tough, formidable opponent who seems more than a match for the hog farmer. The looming clash between the two men—the core tension in the story, is set up through a masterful use of exposition rendered through small acts that reveal much of what we need to know about the plot and characters.

So there you have it then, five powerful techniques seen operating in three successful films.

Summary

Write great exposition by using emotion, layering information, using objects as memory triggers, being brief, and revealing backstory through action. These techniques will help to make your exposition more engaging, emotionally resonant, and memorable.

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Show Don’t Tell – in a Nutshell

Show don’t tell. What do you see?
Show don’t tell. What do you see?

Most stories comprise of both telling and showing. If telling explains, simplifies and summarises by compressing time and space, showing reveals and dramatises, allowing readers or audiences to piece things together for themselves. Let’s look at five ways, with examples, of how to show not tell:

1. Narration

Sometimes a writer compresses actions and events through narration to speed up a story. Even so, catapulting the reader into the scene by showing rather than telling, even in narration, can increase reader involvement.

Telling: The boy felt terror when he heard his uncle, cane in hand no doubt, approaching his room. He always came to his room with his cane. The boy’s tiny stomach contracted into an even tighter knot and his fear grew.

Showing: The boy heard his uncle’s footsteps grow louder. He squeezed his eyes shut. The cane swooshed through the air, each practice stroke sounding closer. He pressed his palms against his ears, and, shivering, counted back from ten.

2. Dialogue

Dialogue, especially subtext dialogue, can reveal a layer beneath the literal meaning of the words.

Telling: “You thought I wouldn’t notice, Tommy? The number of coins in the orange pot on the top shelf? The pot I thought you couldn’t reach? You think I’m stupid? You thieving, ungrateful brat.”

Showing: “Get a load of this, Tommy. Ferguson caught his nephew stealing from his wallet. Thrashed him real bad. Should’ve cut his hand off, I says. Boys shouldn’t steal. Anyways, fetch that orange pot from the kitchen cupboard, will you? On the top shelf. The one with the money you pretend not to know is there.”

3. Setting

A setting that uses vivid sensory details can help the writer to show not tell by having the characters, hence the reader, experience the environment through the senses more directly.

Telling: The angry, ominous Arcus clouds were full of lightning. A terrifying storm was brewing. He had never feared storms before. But he feared this one. He feared he would not survive—unless he could tie the loose sails back on the mast before the storm hit.

Showing: The boat bucked under his feet and lightning lit up the Arcus clouds. Loose sails hissed and flapped savagely above him like wounded behemoths. He’d have to secure them to the mast immediately or die trying.

“Show don’t tell is the indispensable technique of accomplished writing.”

4. Use Details – but not to many

Don’t be too ornate or over-descriptive. Less is more.

Too ornate: He was heavy-set, with thick eyebrows and the forehead of a Neanderthal, muscles bulging with the threat of deadly violence, and a voice as gruff as a wheel-less barrow grating on cold grey concrete.

More apt (especially for a screenplay): He looked and sounded like a concrete truck churning over a full load.

5. Showing by describing action

Telling slows your story down. Yet, you still need to introduce characters, environments, and provide background information. So how to do it? Through action that shows while characterising or creating tension.

If you need to introduce a character who has to get from A to B on a train, instead of having him while away the time by describing the passengers and the thoughts this triggers, build tension by having him notice someone bothering another passenger through small actions—sniffing her hair, whispering in her ear, squeezing up against her, and the like. The scene will get you from A to B in no time while maintaining momentum.

Summary

Although telling is necessary in order to cover the large narrative terrain of a story, showing involves the reader or audience in a more direct way.

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Masters of Subtext

As Good as it Gets - Screenplay: James L. Brooks, Mark Andrus masters of subtext.
As Good as it Gets – Screenplay: James L. Brooks, Mark Andrus masters of subtext.

I just can’t stop talking about the necessity of becoming absolute masters of subtext. Dialogue that ripples with subtext jumps right out of the page and declares to the reader—I am an accomplished writer. Keep reading.

If direct dialogue tells us about the literal meaning of the words—their denotation—subtext reveals the meaning behind the words—their connotation. Subtext is a far more engaging way of having the character reveal information because it lets the reader or audience into a secret, or at least, into the deeper layer of meaning that makes them feel more connected to the characters and the story. It does not spoon-feed the reader, as would direct dialogue.

“Masters of subtext stand out from the crowd. They are consummate writers of dramatic speech.”

There are many ways to write subtext, one of the most important being The Cover-Up. It may use a change of subject, a lie, a misdirection, a question, a threat, and the like, to achieve its goal. These techniques occur downstream, but first let me remind everyone that there are three chief areas to any dramatic text: 1. direct text, 2. its deeper meaning, and 3. when this meaning is to be conveyed to the reader or audience.

In As good as it Gets, we see Melvyn, who despises dogs, put the neighbour’s animal down the garbage chute in the hallway outside his apartment. We should note that the subtext can be (1) revealed before the actual subtext dialogue occurs, (2) during or (3) after the dialogue. Notice that here we already know that Melvyn has done the deed before the exchange with his neighbour, so we experience it as a Cover-Up.

INT. APARTMENT BUILDING (NEW YORK), HALLWAY – NIGHT

SIMON, the dog’s owner, rushes down the hall just as Melvyn is about to enter his apartment.

SIMON: Verdell? Here, good doggie…

He notices Melvyn at the end of the hall.

SIMON: Mr Udhall…excuse me. Hey there! Have you seen Verdell?

MELVYN: What’s he look like?

Here, Melvyn uses the technique of The Cover-Up by asking a question. But since we already know that he has stuffed the dog down the chute we know that he is lying. To spell it out: Melvyn’s denotation is: ‘What’s he look like’, feigning engagement. But the actual meaning is: ‘I got rid of your dog and I’ll lie so as not to get caught.’

Imagine if the scene had started with Simon looking for his dog. Melvyn’s question about what the dog looks like would then appear as if he was being helpful. When the truth was revealed later that Melvyn did indeed do it, the subtext would arise introspectively. Both instances would involve subtext, but the former is perhaps stronger because it occurs at the present moment. But that is something for you to decide in each particular instance.

SIMON: My dog…you know, I mean my little dog with the adorable face… Don’t you know what my dog looks like?

MELVYN: I got it. You’re talking about your dog. I thought that was the name of the colored man I’ve been seeing in the hall.

Again, because we know that Melvyn is the culprit, we experience the deception more acutely—every line promotes the Cover-Up, which demonstrates the sort of man he is. In other words, we learn far more about his character from the subtext than direct, denotative speech could reveal. Such is its power.

Summary

Masters of subtext – the sure sign of the accomplished writers. Study its various techniques until you master them fully.

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The Character Triad

What is the Realisation-Decision-Action character triad and how does it help you write your characters?

The character triad is masterfully rendered in the Breaking Bad television series.

The triad focuses on character development, and while, dialogue and plot are important in helping to conjure up the magic in a story, it is convincing character action that keeps the tale moving. That’s where the realisation-decision-action triad comes in. It is a game-changer for creating memorable and believable characters. Here’s how it works.

At its core, the triad reveals how a character responds to a problem or event in a story. First, the character has a realisation – they identify the problem and gain insight on how to solve it. Then, they make a decision about how to act on that realisation. Finally, they take action.

“The character triad combines a realisation and a decision of how to solve a problem with the action itself, rendering the action authentic and convincing.

Let’s take a look at how this works in one of the greatest TV shows of all time – Breaking Bad. In episode 6 season 3 Walter learns that Hank is close to discovering Walter’s link to Jesse by locating the RV meth lab. Here’s how the triad plays out:

Realisation – Walter realises that Hank is on his trail and is about to uncover his identity.

Decision – Walter decides to have the RV destroyed before Hank can find it and connect it to him.

Action – Walter rushes to Clovis’s lot where the RV is located and decides to have it pulverized in a nearby junkyard.

But of course, it’s never that simple. Jesse learns/realises that Walter is about to destroy the RV and decides to try and prevent this. He rushes to the junkyard, leading Hank, who has been following him, straight to the RV and to Walter.

Unable to get away without being spotted, Walter and Jesse lock themselves inside the RV in a blind panic.

What happens next? You’ll have to watch the episode to find out!

So, there you have it – the realisation-decision-action character triad on a roll!


Summary

The function of the character triad is to establish a cause-and-effect relationship between the characters’ thoughts, decisions and actions.

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How to hide exposition.

Inglorious Basterds provides us with a great lesson in how to hide exposition.
Inglorious Basterds provides a great lesson in how to hide exposition.

Why hide exposition?

One of the most difficult things to do well in writing is to integrate exposition (essential information without which the reader/audience is lost), in a way that maintains the forward thrust of your story.

Halting the narrative to provide background about a character or event is sure to lose you momentum. Yet, supplying detailed information is often unavoidable. The usual way to establish back-story, reveal plot, and explain character motivation, is by way of dialogue, whether directly through declaration, or indirectly through hint, implication, and subtext. Sometimes, however, these techniques are either too delicate, or not delicate enough, to carry the full burden of information. Dramatizing exposition by tying it to a structurally important event such as an inciting incident, turning point, or a character reveal, is one way of ensuring that forward momentum is maintained.

“Always try to hide exposition.”

In Inglorious Basterds, a film written and directed by Quentin Tarantino, Colonel Hans Landa’s (Christoph Waltz) reputation of ruthlessness and Machiavellian intelligence is essential in building him up as a fearsome Nazi antagonist. The inciting incident occurs when Colonel Landa arrives at a dairy farm in the French countryside in search of the Dreyfuses, a missing Jewish family, who he suspects is being sheltered in the area. Landa quizzes the dairy farmer, monsieur LaPadite (Denis Menochet) about the possible whereabouts of the Dreyfuses, claiming this to be the last step before he closes the book on their case. While the interrogation provides an ideal opportunity for exposition, Tarantino’s handling of it is nothing short of masterful. In having Colonel Landa ask that LaPadite sketch-in the Colonel’s own background, Tarantino infuses the scene with additional tension, irony, and ramps up the stakes — all without interrupting the forward thrust of the story:

Landa: Now, are you aware of the job I’ve been ordered to carry out?
LaPadite: Yes.
Landa: Please tell me what you’ve heard.
LaPadite: I’ve heard that the Fuhrer has put you in charge of rounding up Jews left in
France who are either hiding, or passing as Gentile.
Landa: I couldn’t have put it better myself. Are you aware of the nickname the people of France have given me?
LaPadite: I have no interest in such things.
Landa: But you are aware of what they call me?
LaPadite: I am aware.
Landa: What are you aware of?
LaPadite: That they call you, “The Jew Hunter”.
Landa: Precisely. I understand your trepidation in repeating it (…). Now I on the
other hand, love my unofficial title, precisely because I’ve earned it.

Landa’s dialogue reveals that he is a cunning interrogator, entrusted by the Fuhrer to ferret out Jewish families hiding in France. His pride in his job is obvious. This is a man who enjoys manipulating, hunting, and killing — an antagonist whose back-story makes him a worthy opponent for any protagonist. In designing the exposition in this manner, Tarantino accomplishes several things: 

1. He transforms the mere flow of background information into dramatic irony by forcing LaPadite, who is afraid for his family, to talk about the feared and hated Landa in neutral terms.
2. It provides important information about Landa’s job in France, and the reason for his being in LaPadite’s house.
3. He establishes Landa’s reputation as the Fuhrer’s feared henchman.
4. Finally, it allows him to illustrate Landa’s vanity in his own reputation, deepening and colouring the Colonel’s character.

Summary

Hide exposition through the veil of emotion. Crafted well, exposition deepens character, contextualises plot, and moves the story forward.

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Significant action or dialogue?

The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue
The film delivers the story more through small but significant action than dialogue.

DIALOGUE, like significant action, is a crucial part of the writer’s toolkit. It promotes the plot, and, at its best, draws us into the inner life of the characters.

Sometimes, however, scenes are better served through action alone.

Who can forget the laconic Spaghetti Westerns featuring Clint Eastward as the cigar chewing, dead calm, gunslinger whose draw is faster than lightning? As he faces man after man, daring each to draw, the tension is conveyed through the biting down on cigars, through unflinching gazes, and through twitching fingers hovering above holstered guns. No need for dialogue here.

In 2001: A Space Odyssey the pervasive feeling of awe at the trajectory of intelligence from ape to spacefaring humanity is conveyed through the silent appearance of the featureless Monolith. Its presence at key moments of evolutionary history creates a depth and gravitas in the minds of the audience that is ineffable.

“Deciding whether to favour dialogue or significant action in a story is, more often than not, a stylistic choice.”

Some of the most seemingly innocuous, yet telling moments that reveal character, come from Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver where Travis’ (Robert De Niro) silent, sardonic smile, suggests that he is disconnected from the world better than any words can.

When a pimp, played by Harvey Keitel, tries to have a locker-room conversation with him regarding the hiring of one of his girls (Jody Foster), Travis can only stare silently at him, refusing to participate in the verbal banter.

Some stories, of course, are predisposed to character action without dialogue. In war or action films the power mostly comes from the relentless movement of men and equipment, where the only sounds are those of exploding shells, small arms fire, or thundering car and truck engines – Saving Private Ryan, the Mad Max films, Apocalypse Now, Fast and Furious, and countless of others.

Sometimes words seem to mock their very presence in a scene, becoming placeholders for that which cannot be expressed – mysterious, indecipherable, perhaps even an obstacle to meaning itself.

Remember the confusion arising out of Jack Nicholson’s indecipherable utterance in the last moments of Chinatown as he walks away from the crime scene, prompting the lieutenant to ask him repeatedly what he said? Neither the lieutenant nor the audience ever get to hear the answer to that.

Summary

The absence of dialogue often adds power to scenes by shifting the focus on significant action.

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How to write effective dialogue

Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds
Effective dialogue in Inglorious Basterds

So much has been said about how to craft effective dialogue that it is difficult to take it all in. This article distills the best advice into four powerful techniques

In his book, Film Scriptwriting – a Practical Manual, Dwight V Swain, stresses that dialogue performs four main functions: It provides information, reveals emotion, advances the plot and exposes character.

1. Dialogue reveals new information: Tell the audience what it needs to know to follow the story. The trick is to do it subtly. 

Inglorious Basterds is a great example of how to provide information while maintaining the tension. At the start of the movie a Nazi officer, Colonel Hans Landa, interviews a French farmer, monsieur LaPadite, about the whereabouts of a missing Jewish family in the area—a family that the farmer is secretly sheltering under the floorboards where the interview is taking place! The tension and irony are palpable.

“Effective dialogue performs several functions, and does so in a seamless way.”

2. Dialogue generates emotion: Whenever possible, dialogue should generate emotion. Failure to do so makes for flat, listless speech. In the above example, each line spoken by Landa heightens the stakes for LaPadite and his family, since discovering the Jewish family under the floorboards will lead to disaster.

3. Dialogue promotes the plot: Dialogue should advance the plot, but it should do so surreptitiously—it should not expose its purpose. Initially, it seems that Landa is merely questioning the French farmer and will leave at the end of the interview. But as the questioning continues it becomes clear that Landa already knows the truth and is merely prolonging the questioning to torment the farmer.

4. Dialogue deepens character: Lastly, dialogue should characterise the speaker and the person to whom it is directed. Colonel Landa, seems, at first, to be cultured and polite. The interview initially feels more like a conversation between friends than an interrogation. LaPadite, although reticent, is encouraged to participate in the exchanges. But the niceties are only superficial—part of the cat-and-mouse game that the german is playing with the farmer. This characterises him as a sadistic tormentor and the farmer and his family as helpless, passive victims.

Taken together, then, these functions make for effective dialogue—a great addition to a writer’s toolkit.

Summary

Effective dialogue performs four functions—it provides information, exposes emotion, advances the plot and reveals character.

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The inner life of characters in stories

The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.
The book teaches how to craft the inner life of a character.

We’ve all heard that dialogue should not be direct – that it should hint at the inner life, the emotions, attitudes, grudges, and wounds beneath the surface layer of speech, rather than merely convey information. But how do we achieve this in our writing?


In a previous article I talked about ‘dactions’ – that’s my word for combining language with gestures and actions to enhance meaning. Here is an example taken from Deborah Harverson’s chapter in Crafting Dynamic Dialogue (Writer’s Digest Books):

“Aren’t you thoughtful?” She took the rose he’d handed her and walked to the sink where she kept her vase. Two other roses rested in it, one from the week before, wilting slightly. Both were peach, matching the tight bud in her hand. He loved to give her flowers but dismissed red roses as cliché. “I stopped by Sue’s apartment today,” she said, turning on the water, her back to him. “She had a rose on her kitchen table.” She reached forward, past the running water, past the vase, to the switch on the wall. Resting her finger on it, she turned and smiled sweetly at him. He’d stopped in the doorway, one glove off, the other dangling from his fingers. He wasn’t tugging on it anymore. “A peach rose in a tall vase,” she said, “right there next to her violin.” She poked the bud’s stem into the garbage disposal then flicked the button. The grinder roared as it sucked the flower down, flecks of peach petal flicking free, but he heard her clearly: “You told me you hate musicians.” 

The inner life is key

Halverson notes that this is a deeply wounded woman whose pain manifests through quiet statements, the last one ‘making you cringe from the intensity of its delivery.’

The rose becomes the nexus for all sorts of emotions—love, betrayal, hurt. It is transformed into a symbol of infidelity. Rather than her directly accusing the man of infidelity through yelling and dish-throwing, she shreds the rose to convey her pain and anger.

One would do well to remember this advice. Subtext, combined with small, telling actions reveals the inner life of a character, delivers more punch, without melodrama or direct violence. Anger passes; a calculated response suggests an unsettling resolve that may be far more damaging and permanent.

Exercise: Locate a passage in your own work where two or more people are at loggerheads. Have one character respond in a way that suggests resolve rather than rage.

Summary

Combining gestures with a calm response to a situation can paradoxically generate stronger emotions that reveal the inner life of the characters.

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