Raise your hand if you’ve never struggled with dialogue. First, you’re lying, and second, if you’re not lying then you aren’t pushing yourself to improve as a writer.
Well, there are a few pieces of advice I picked up from my screenwriting and acting days:
- Dialogue is the last resort of the desperate storyteller.
- People are always pursuing objectives; understand what your characters want from one another and you’ll know why they are saying what they do.
- You can only have two people sitting on a park bench talking about the nature of art if one of them knows there is a bomb underneath the bench. (This last one is paraphrased from another source but it’s been a long time since I heard it; I no longer remember where it was.)
The first one mainly applies to screen and stage, since they are visual media and you have someone’s performance and action on screen to carry the scene when there is no speaking. On a page, the text is there whether it is dialogue or narrative, so the rule isn’t as hard and fast as it is for the screen, but in general, if you are falling back on dialogue to do the storytelling, then you need to re-examine your plot structure.
There’s a perennial piece of advice for writers which states: Show, don’t tell. Put simply (actually, how can it be put simpler than that?) your objective should be to have your characters take actions that demonstrate their desires and personality, rather than describing them on the page. You may have also heard this as Direct Characterization and Indirect Characterization. We should know that the villain loves dogs by the fact that he has a bronze statue cast of every dog he’s owned on display in the front hall of his downtown Metropolis office tower, and that their pedigree is lovingly etched into their plaques. In addition to being a unique quirk, it reveals more about the character than just: “he liked dogs.”
It is the second two that I will be focusing on in this series of articles. Number 2 relates primarily to Status Transactions and Premises, while number 3 can be summed up as Subtext.
Keith Johnstone introduced the world to the concept of “status transactions” in his book on improvisational acting, Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre I was introduced to Keith Johnstone’s work during my screenwriting class with Doug Heil while at UW-Oshkosh. (You can find Doug’s own book on screenwriting, Prime-Time Authorship, at Amazon.com) Impro is a book for actors and directors, but in it he posits that human interaction can be described in terms of relative social status. The way we interact with one another on a status level says more about who we are than the actual content of our speech or actions.
In other words, the difference in relative social status of two characters and how they react to that difference is more important than what they say or do.
I’ll break down the part that’s most important for writers concerned with dialogue:
- High status roles and low status roles are determined relative to one another. A parent has higher status than a child in that a child is expected to defer to an adult’s authority, and outsiders will most likely think the child is being disobedient rather than that the parent is being unreasonable. An older child has higher status than a younger. A well-respected grad student may have more recognized status than a tenured professor due to past circumstances. (Already you can see how status can drive dramatic tension!)
- When interacting with others, people will attempt to raise and lower their perceived status, either to achieve an objective or to return to their comfort zone. In Johnstone’s own words:
A person who plays high status is saying, “Don’t come near me, I bite.” Someone who plays low status is saying, “Don’t bite me, I’m not worth the trouble.” In either case the status played is a defense and it’ll usually work.
- People have a status they are most comfortable with. Some people are not comfortable being deferred to. Some people reject any efforts to overrule their opinions. We all have a preferred state we wish to be in, and sometimes circumstances force us outside that state.
[When a status play works] It’s very likely that you will be increasingly conditioned into playing the status . . . You become a status specialist, very good at playing one status but not very happy or competent at playing the other.
- Drama comes from either a disagreement over relative status, a reversal of expected status, or characters forced outside of their preferred status. Just think of how much character drama is based upon conflict between lovers or coworkers who cannot get along, or the classic fish-out-of-water scenario where a character is suddenly invested with a great deal of authority, or has an empire they have built taken away from them. (Brewster’s Millions is a brilliant example of this.)
Let’s play with this a bit. We will be using Julie, Seth, and David as our sample characters.
Julie pushed open the doors to the board room. The meeting of her fellow directors was already in progress.
“It’s about time you got here,” Seth said. He threw the copy of the report on the table and shoved toward Julie’s seat.
Julie picked it up to read without sitting down. She skimmed to the report’s conclusion. Seth started speaking but Julie held up a hand to silence him until she finished. “Change of plans,” she said. “We’ll be going with David’s proposal.”
“What?” Seth shouted. “David’s never even seen Denver!”
“It’s the continental U.S. How different can it be, really?” David asked.
“Plenty. Do you remember—”
“That’s enough, you two,” Julie said. “Seth, I understand your concerns, but Taiwan just isn’t feasible right now. You understand why, right?”
Seth opened his mouth to protest, but instead he nodded and took his seat.
Let’s break this down.
The first thing that happens: Julie walks into a meeting already in progress. We aren’t certain of Julie’s actual status relative to these people yet, and Seth immediately takes her to task for being late. He is deliberately trying to lower her status and raise his own. With that one sentence he is saying, “You are late and deserve less respect,” and, “I should be the respected authority here because I am allowed to pass judgment upon you.”
Next, Julie ignores his criticism. She could dispute him, but that would involve accepting the premise of his statements. If she argued with him at all, she would be acknowledging that he has the right to pass judgment upon her. (More on premises next time!) As soon as she does that, she is demonstrating that he was correct that his status was higher than hers. By ignoring him completely, she rejects his status claim as being beneath notice.
Then she silences him with a gesture. She has now turned the tables entirely: she no longer needs to speak to make him respect her authority. By his silence we know that Julie is the real authority here, and that Seth’s power play has failed.
When she announces her decision, it rekindle’s Seth’s desire to spar with her for control. Now he has not just his prestige among the board at risk, but his position in the company: if David’s idea is chosen, David’s status rises and he misses an opportunity. So he needs to reassert himself and make Julie back down.
Since he already accepted the lowering of himself a moment earlier, he then tries to drag David down to his level by calling him ignorant.
David, not as disciplined as Julie, disputes his claim by observing that he has all the knowledge he needs. It is a weak claim, and Seth has successfully dragged David down with him. As we see in the next moment, Julie separates them like bickering children: she now sees both of them as being so far beneath her that she can address them in an infantilizing manner.
Her final question to him, “You understand why, right?” is a direct challenge. But it is also a trap, because if he disagrees he is saying he does not understand. (Again, more on premises later) Instead, he lowers himself further by allowing her to speak to him in a parent-and-child manner reminiscent of “You understand why it’s wrong to steal from the cookie jar, right?” The poor treatment may leave lasting damage to their relationship going forward, but it may also stave off future status struggles long enough for them to put their “plan” into action in Denver.
Next time, I will be examining conversational premises in greater detail and addressing how accepting and rejecting premises plays into dramatic dialogue.