The Perfect 10

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Apologies for the late arrival of the next instalment, it's been extremely busy here... But here's number 8:

Exposition and Expression

Or in other words: dialogue. In truth, i think it's almost impossible to teach or learn how to have an ear for characters and their voices. It's perfectly possible to learn how to edit it, improve it, polish it up and make it leap off the page - but only if you have that instinct to hear it and voice it in the first place.

I've read a lot of scripts where the structure is tight, the story is right, the genre and tone spot on etc - BUT where the dialogue is wooden and without life and personality. And I've read scripts where the structure is loose, the story quite confused and all sorts of things are wrong with it - but where the characters step off the page immediately because the writer has really caught their voice. In truth, i think i'd generally rather have the latter kind of script. Because it really takes a true writer to do the latter.

Strong dialogue expresses character. It isn't just words - it breathes life into character. It gives them lines, sayings and sentiments that we remember for life and want to say back to people in order to impress them at parties, in the playground, in the office. (Around BBC Television Centre and Broadcasting House there are numerous walls and screens with great quotes from great characters - because the currency of that great dialogue is so strong.)

The converse of this, therefore, is that poor dialogue is there purely and simply to relate and explain information for the purpose of plot and story exposition. If this is the sole purpose of your dialogue, then you need to do something else with it - or something else with the scene. Often, expository dialogue tends to mask the fact that there is no real drama in a scene - so if you can find a push and pull, a conflict, a beat of story for your scene, then there will be a better dramatic reason for the dialogue to be there. Even better, the more ways you can find to put information across through action and story, the more your dialogue will be the sole domain and medium of your characters expressing themselves.

It sounds obvious - but real people don't tell each other things they already know in obvious ways, and neither should your characters. Real people also don't always say what they mean, don't always mean what they say, and don't always know what they mean and what they mean to say when they open their mouths to speak. Ordinary conversation isn't dramatic dialogue - but good dialogue should at least be able to take on board the idiosyncracies and complexities of real, ordinary people when they try to (or try not to) express themselves. Real people say the best lines that most writers could never conjure up, which is why many writers happily steal from real people.

Subtext is just about the hardest thing you as a writer will need to master. Because subtext is what is being said and expressed beyond, behind, below and in spite of the words actually spoken. Subtext is the silent language that people use when words either don't say enough or say too much. Subtext is story and character that can't simply be vocalised. If you can work meaningful subtext into a scene, then you are doing something really quite special.

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