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.