Wednesday, February 17, 2016

What TV Dramas Can Teach Us About Dialogue

On the advice of one of my crit partners, I’ve gotten into the habit of watching a few television dramas with my back to the screen. By not having my eyes telling me what’s happening, I can focus entirely on the dialogue, figuring out how the writers manage to pack so much information and emotion into so few words. Back in July, I posted that dialogue in novels isn’t real dialogue, it’s code for real dialogue. And now I’m slowly beginning to crack some of that code.

One of the best dramas for this technique is Suits, one of my favorite shows on cable. I won’t describe what the series is about, other than to say it involves lawyers suing each other a lot, but I’ve already noticed one trick the writers use to keep the pace moving. The nonverbal information dump.

Let’s say one of the characters has just had a confrontation with the antagonist, and when he returns to the office he yells at/complains to/argues with his partner about it. The thing I’ve noticed is that the character never repeats what happened during the confrontation, other than a quick one sentence description that hardly does the confrontation justice. The writers do this because the audience has already seen the conflict and would be bored by a rehash of events, but the trick is that, despite the lack of communication, the second character now behaves as if he has a perfect understanding of that confrontation.

I remember first seeing this technique in episodes of X-Files back in the day. Mulder and Scully would often be chasing mysteries in separate locations, and as soon as one of them discovered some vital clue, they would call the other and let them know. But the calls would always be short and sweet, with very little in the way of real details. Scully may have just discovered that the creature they’re tracking is sensitive to a certain wavelength of light when applied in a certain pulsating pattern during a full moon, but all she would usually say is that the creature doesn’t like light and be done with it. And, voila, Mulder would automatically know everything Scully did and act accordingly. Totally unrealistic, but it kept the story moving.

So always remember, good dialogue is not just about cutting out the boring parts, or keeping the words tight, or having characters talking at cross purposes. It’s about delivering information to the reader in a way that maximizes its entertainment value.

Even if that dialogue wouldn't come close to working in real life.

ChemistKen


16 comments:

  1. I'd never really thought of that, but you're totally right. You don't want to repeat something that the reader (or viewer) already knows. That would be boring and slow things down.

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    1. My crit partners are constantly having to remind me not to repeat, even when it seems like the natural thing for the character to say at that moment.

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  2. Too true. One of the techniques I've come to love in literature is a quick one-liner in the prose to inform the reader that character A tells character B what happened, followed by dialog. We always have to be conscious of what is shown.

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    1. Yep, I've been stressing over the Show Don't Tell rule for so long, it's often hard for me to do something like that without feeling guilty.

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  3. I've never thought about using that technique but now I want to try it. My biggest pet peeve is when dialogue on tv constantly feels like things people would never really say in real life.

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    1. It's true, the characters never sound like real life people, but I suspect if they did, TV shows would probably be pretty boring.

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  4. I think I'm guilty of the rehashing. I'm going to have to go back and look at my stuff to see how bad it is.

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    1. I wouldn't even know I'm doing it if not for my critique partners.

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  5. Best thing to do is read actual scripts. There should be plenty of them floating around online. Read how the dialogue flows between characters. Especially if you read a script for a show you're not familiar with--see how dialogue shows you character. If done well, it shouldn't all sound alike or interchangeable. Dialogue in TV and books is shorthand. The conversations aren't realistic, they're concise. So many writers try to write the way people actually talk, but it's boring! It doesn't make for a good story! Get to the point and then get out. That's how we learned it in screenwriting anyway.

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  6. Great advice. Dialogue can be really tricky, especially to make it sound natural.

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  7. I used to write plays, so dialogue is used for way more than its purpose in fiction, as it has to. I don't know if that's why I have no trouble writing dialogue, I even love it, but it could be. I remember a college professor of mine telling my class that no written dialogue in any story-telling is realistic. At the time, I found it blew me away, but now I see how true that is.

    When people talk, they repeat themselves a lot, or I know I do and so does my family. It might be normal, I hope. I don't know why we do it. Totally unacceptable in fiction, unless it is needed to remind the audience of something. In stage plays, the dialogue tells you who, what, where, when and how. It's not a good idea to do that in fiction, but it's a good idea to use it for some of those things.

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  8. That's a neat technique. I'll have to try it! It is tricky to get dialogue sounding natural and yet have it be entertaining.

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  9. You definitely don't want to rehash what the reader already knows in dialogue, but it does bug me when a character automatically knows what the other one is talking about when they really shouldn't.

    In my writing, I usually do something like this:

    Sally explained the confrontation to John and asked, "Do you think I did the right thing?"

    That way it doesn't clutter up the dialogue, but it's clear John received the recap.

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  10. Thank you, Ken! That helps. I think I'm guilty of trying to rehash information in dialogue which isn't helpful to the reader. Thank you for sharing that example from X-files, it helped me see how to get the "summary" into it without overdoing the details. Great post!

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  11. Excellent point, Ken. And in real dialogue, no one gasps after something huge is revealed, but it's still useful for dialogue in a book.

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  12. That's very true about the dialogue in TV. I must admit I love watching TV because I do learn a lot about writing by doing so, almost as much as reading.

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