Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thoughts on Writing Dialogue

What do we talk about when we talk? I mean in life, not just in movies.

To be schematic, we talk about three things.

1. Actions. What we're doing. We make plans. We argue. We decide. We describe what will happen. We talk about how things worked out in the past.

2. Feelings. I liked this. I didn't like that. I love him. I hate her. When this happened, I was disappointed. When that happened I was surprised. 

3. Chit-Chat. Nothing. Ephemera.  How about those Knicks? Do you suppose it will rain again tomorrow? I had the worst breakfast. Did you see Steffie's new hat?

So if you're writing dialogue, you have at least three kinds of dialogue you can write.

Plot-driven movies focus on actions. The characters talk endlessly about what did happen, what will happen, what they plan. How they will get the bomb on the truck, what kind of poison they will use, how to get the money wire transferred to a offshore account, etc.

This can be interesting. It's notably interesting when there's conflict: no, that plan will never work! Or when the action is uncommon, and therefore the details are interesting to a non-specialist. 

  • What exactly is an offshore account--and how does it work? 
  • How do poisons really work--and how do you get them in someone's sushi or sake?

 I have no idea--and so it would be interesting for me to find out.

Psychological movies focus on feelings. I never liked my mother. You hate me but won't admit it, etc. Think Bergman. All that endless talk about feelings. It can be rather trying. 

From this point-of-view, you either have 'superficial' people talking about doing things, or you have 'deep' people talking about thoughts and feelings.

It's the chit-chat that gets the short shrift.

Most writers think there should be no chit-chat. It wastes the audience's time. It has no meaning. If it doesn't add to the plot or the characters, it has to go.

But at a certain level, the greatest writers use the most chit-chat. 

Waiting for Godot is a nice example. The characters talk about what's happening--which is mostly what does not and will never happen. 

  • What should we do? 
  • What are we doing? 
  • When is Godot coming? 
  • What did we do yesterday? 
  • What will we do tomorrow?

Plot. Actions. It's negative plot and negative actions--things not happening and not done. And that is the clever bit.

And then the rest is chit-chat--very little about feelings, except the occasional "come to me that I may embrace you." And yet Godot is a great drama. Because so much about life emerges around the actions and through the chit-chat. 

Take Chekhov for instance.  So much chit-chat!

  • His characters talk about birthdays and tea. 
  • They talk about who is rude and who polite. 
  • They talk about philosophy. 
  • They quote poems and Latin sayings. 
  • Characters clip articles from the newspaper. 
  • They talk about who wore what. 
  • They talk about neighborhoods they used to live in. 
  • They talk about trees and deforestation.

Yet Chekhov is a great writer! How can he fill his plays with chit-chat?

Because Chekhov is very clever. And he knew and loved actors. And a terrific actor, even a good actor, can inject meaning and feeling and intention and nuance in anything. I'd bet every Chekhov play has a character ask for a glass of water. (It happens in The Seagull and The Three Sisters.) Or "what time is it?" Why? Because a great actor can fill that line with the character's whole life.

In The Three Sisters Masha is having an affair with Vershinin. This is only mentioned aloud once. But all the characters know it's happening. And when Masha and Vershinin talk about poetry and philosophy and Masha's late father, they are making love. It's part of their relationship.

So this is Chekhov's method and assumptions--which I think are the best. 

  1. He assumes actors can read. He assumes they read the whole play first and figure out what's going on--what the actions are.
  2. He includes lines where the characters express their feelings--but intermittently and usually not when they are feeling what they talk about. 
  3. He assumes that actors will act the actions.
  4. He assumes that the actors will read about the characters' feelings and put them underneath the actions.
  5. He assumes that actors can fill all the chit-chat with the actions and the feelings.

Chekhov knew what good actors do. 

Writers, even beginners, need to become aware of how good writers and actors work, so they can aim for the same achievement. The writer gives the actors information about the whole life and what is happening so that the actors can put some things under the surface.  The information does not tumble out for the audience so that everything is "clear," but rather so the audience remains interested by the unfolding itself.

A little bit of mystery goes a long way. But the writer needs to know how to use dialogue to communicate not only to the audience but also to the actors.

--Edward R. O'Neill

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