dialogue (narrative theory) The exchange of speech between characters in a film narrative and also in other forms of storytelling. Dialogue carries forward story action, developing plot and characters. It is not conversational or casual, although it appears to be and this is an essential issue with dialogue. How to construct dialogue so that it is relevant to the realism of the setting, the progress of the narrative, and in these circumstances why the characters/figures would say what is necessary to convey their character and support the plot, which brings in the issue of coherence: a character is defined by what they say, or don’t say, and so dialogue cannot just be put in place just to suit the need to develop and clarify story because this will make characters/figures unconvincing.
The audience’s familiarity with dramatic conventions enables dialogue to be accepted as naturalistic when it is not, but this has its limits and this differs between mediums and between different forms of story. Stage drama, in the form of the well made play, supports dialogue where characters talk about things. So, for a stage play it’s necessary to create a dramatic situation/setting where this dialogue about a subject can occur: this means that a story about a racing driving may be set before or after a race, or at the end of the racing driver’s career. A stage drama is unlikely to be based on re-staging the car races in a theatrical venue.
Fixing on a setting for the narration of stage play is not just the physical location, but also the temporal location in the timeline of the story and how this can allow for different characters to be brought together: a story is set at a place and time where characters can discuss the plot they want to carry out, or to discuss the mystery in which they are involved, or to decide on something that they want to do or have done. The dialogue of a stage drama although it is based characters talking about a subject still needs to progress through different stages of story action through the dialogue, so the plot is about how a decision was reached or what occurs after a decision is made, or what happened in the past and the effect this will have in the present. Stage drama support characters telling stories, about themselves, about others, about events that have occurred or might occur.
In Shakespeare’s Hamlet (1609) the play is about Hamlet’s indecision, what he should do after his father’s murder. To progress the story Hamlet meets with other characters to change and develop what he knows, and as he learns things this changes his understanding of his situation and his relationship to other characters. Also, Hamlet in his absence is discussed by other characters. So, the dialogue in this play relates to Hamlet’s understanding of events, his attitudes and emotions, and his most developed and sustain physical action in relation to the story is primarily a fencing duel in the final act. Other plays function in similar ways: Death and The Maiden (Dorfman, 1990) has a women trap and interrogate a person who she believes to be her former torturer and the dialogue is about confirming who this man is, what this man did and what should be done about him now. The woman’s imprisonment and torture is not shown in the play. Sweet Bird of Youth (Williams, 1959) Has Chance Wayne returning to the town he was run out from, and the events that caused his leaving are not shown, they are discussed in dialogue. This is a standard methodology for the stage play and not the feature film. Television drama can rely on dialogue, like a stage play, but it will have multiple scenes in different locations, often with a much larger number of characters than a stage play: a well made play, a realist theatrical drama, may only have one location/setting, with three long scenes, one for each act. This is unlike a film narrative where a scene is unlikely to last more than two or three minutes, and may well be shorter. A screenplay for a film is likely to have a seventy to a hundred scenes with the same screen time as the performance of a play.
Film dialogue uses the dialogue features of stage drama, discussing things, but rarely to the same extent, and an adaptation of a stage play is likely to be opened up: creating scenes where visual story-action occurs, reducing the need for explanatory dialogue: a narrative film can show the fight being lost, or the race being won. Film narrative in showing things offers a way of creating visual narration and this has advantages and disadvantages: the conventions of film dialogue is that it needs to appear closer to actual speech than stage drama because of the realism of film narrative and this is a challenge for story narration when dialogue is needed: it needs to be in the moment, as if the speech would occur in reality. This means that the writer cannot simply give speeches to the main characters. So, if the story of a boxing match is shown in a film, the events of a fight can be seen and what is needed in dialogue to clarify and progress the story might be given to the boxers, to the referee, to the corner staff, to spectators, to commentators, to someone watching the boxing match on television or someone who feels unable to watch the boxing match. These will be short speeches, unlike stage dialogue which needs to recount and describe events in detail, and the film dialogue will comment on events rather than recount events. What these dialogue options for the film narration of a boxing match shows is that a screenwriting has to devise the scenes that narrate a story by enabling the necessary dialogue, and in doing this characters are created/selected to carry/offer dialogue. This can seem to be intuitive, but often a story, in the first instance can be imagined quite differently to the final narration.
A character convention of contemporary film is the stoical hero who says very little, and here others will speak to explain and comment, and the hero will add one or two telling remarks. This use of dialogue effectively allows the hero’s situation and actions to be explained and the hero then confirms or changes this while remaining stoical. Also in a film narrative, to reduce dialogue in scenes the spoken exposition in one scene can lead to scenes where there is little or no dialogue because the set up for this visual action is put in place in the preceding scene. The concept that the dialogue sets up one scene for the next functions transparently in the film, it appears naturalistic, but is an important narrational device. In life people will often state what they plan to do, but this is not narration in relation to the plotting of a narrative.
When a film narrative is developed, as an idea, as an outline, in a treatment, in a script, it may seem that the characters and the scenes envisaged will be the scenes for the final film, because this is how the story is imagined, but this is unlikely to be the case, and a lot of creative work is required to ensure that the narration in the screenplay is successful. Often a film narrative will rely on having/creating a character who will ask questions, comment on events, explaining things, so a story first thought of as being about a single character will add a companion, or if not, then a range of interactions with several different characters will enable this storytelling dialogue. If a story concerns an explorer crossing Australia alone, the film narrative will establish the main character and their reasons for their journey and then they will meet several characters during their journey, making their time traveling while alone just one part of the story's narration. Other options for speech, like the explorer talking to the animal they travel with or keeping a journal can also be used. The plot of the film’s narrative, an explorer crossing Australia alone, may be outlined, and this might be how the audience would summarize the film’s plot, but this is not how the story is narrated. Because film dialogue works to appear naturalistic the storytelling in the dialogue is often deliver in small scenes, short speeches that are almost immediately discarded by the audience: the story information is carried by the momentary exchange but the audience focus is on the main dramatic action. A screenplay that consists of pages of script with long speeches is not the standard for film dialogue. There will be longer speeches in film narration when they are needed, but they will have a clear place and purpose in the plot and be based on the character in the story have a reason to talk, not on the need to explain things.
If, as an unusual circumstance the idea is to have a film narrative narrated without any dialogue, then what is shown needs to be clear for plot and character through visual action, and this presents a challenge in terms of dramatic narration: in silent films where there is only visual action, the main character will face an external challenge such as escaping, journeying, doing something physically active. Dialogues in a film articulates intention, creating character motivation, and also, crucially, interiority: what a character thinks, knows, wants. In the era of silent film this sense of motivation and interiority was carried by title cards, explanatory captions saying what the character wants to do, and also by the highly dramatic expression in the acting: facial and physical acting signalling emotions and intentions which would, in a contemporary realist drama, be considered bad acting. The conventions for realism in silent and sound films is not the same.
To consider literary narration compared to film. In a novel where there is a single solitary, non-speaking character, the narration in this medium has two options: there is authorial third person narration with the teller/writer/author of the story explaining character and plot, or alternatively, the narrator/storyteller is a character in the plot of the story so that they explain and express things: a first or second person narrator. When books, novels, are adapted into films there’s a tendency to use voice over narration for some part of the film narrative, because there is no character in the story who sets the scene like the narrator in the novel does: voice over narration is a literary device which is carried to film, but most films use no voice over narrator.
One of the challenges that screenplays face and this is particularly true for dialogue is overwriting. This is when the need to explain things is recognized but the result of this is uneconomical: the dialogue takes up too much screen time by trying to appear casual and natural: it wanders and fails to progress the plot. To manage this problem the screenwriter has to discipline themselves to write dialogue so that what is conveyed is efficiently done, and what might be said in three pages of dialogue will be reduced to a single page. The first draft of screenplays will usually run long and the process of editing and rewriting is the refining of narration, especially in the dialogue. The other issue here, in a first draft screenplay, is that much of the dialogue will have no narrative function, its chat, its conversation. On the page this sort of dialogue can seem like natural conversation, it suits the situation for the scene, what people might say in this situation, but as a film narrative this talking will be redundant and pointless. This is because while film dialogue appears natural it is always functional: even if characters speaks to waste time, this time wasting will be an element of the story, it shows a character who is diffident and this will affect the outcome of events. The concept of unity of action underpins drama: all the elements contribute to the narration and to the narrative.
To be successful as a storyteller, a screenwriter needs to be both creative in their writing and also analytical, asking questions to clarify narration: is it clear what is happening in the story, is it clear what has happened in the story, is what is happening in the scene something that forwards the story, what does the dialogue convey, how will it be understood by the characters in the scene, how will the dialogue be understood by the audience, what does the audience know, what do the characters know. The drafting, and then the re-drafting of a screenplay is an important process for clarity of narration, and it is necessary to edit and be concise with dialogue because of the critical factor of screen time: the feature film has limited screen time, roughly two hours, while the TV drama runs to a set time for each episode. This use and limitation of duration is not in place in the novel so the same story narrated in prose will be quite different to film: novels can summarize major events: the runner circled the globe, or digress offering commentary that is pertinent to the characters or the setting of the story. Film offers immediate mimetic action and so does not have the time that is afforded to a novel. A novel as read can take seven or eight hours to read or twenty or thirty hours. It's read as suits the reader, so does not have a running time, like a film.
What progresses narrative and connects the audience to the actions of a story is their understanding of character. A person goes to the bank. This is an action, to make it a story, the reason for going to the bank, the character’s hopes and expectations for a loan or another plot element is needed. In this case a simple two line dialogue can clarify the intent of the character, their want: Story Action: a customer goes into a bank. Dialogue: Bank teller: How can I help you. Customer: I really need to see the manager about a loan. Here, everyday speech will support character because intention is clarified: the need for a loan. If the intention, the reason for going to the bank was established in an earlier scene before the arrival at the bank there is no need for any dialogue before the actual discussion at the bank about the loan takes place, or even until the outcome of events at the bank is revealed. Dialogue is used for narration: the conversations that might happen in real life about a loan, mulling over the options for a loan, the customer going to the bank, different staff talking to the customer, the filling out application forms, chat while waiting, can all be excised from the dialogue of a narrative film. The habit of first time writers is to write scenes as though they are occurring in real life, without concision. This is not film dialogue.
Characters need to have a sense of what they will say based on their social identity and the social position, and a screenwriter should research for this, plan out the style of speech for each character and this can then be supported by the directing and the actor’s performance. The balance between being social specific in devising dialogue, even if the story world is fictional is that the dialogue needs to be understood by the audience. In practice full vernacular speech is rarely used, and specialized terms and jargon are used carefully, making sure that the context can be understood because it is related to what is happening in the scene or because of how the statement is reacted to. There are conventions for dialogue, for period films, for action moves, but these are also cliches and can result in stale stereotyped speeches: cliches are phrases that have been used in a range of films, and the writer needs to research and plan dialogue based on the conception of the social setting and social identity, not simply on copying dialogue, phrases and styles of speech from other similar film narratives. To develop the speech for a setting can be primarily historical factual research, or else the specific invention of a terms and language for an imagined story environment.
Where dialogue becomes individual to the character, rather than primarily part of their social identity is when there is a definite speech pattern and a particular vocabulary. The idiolect is a person’s particular style of speaking, so that in a film a character can and should be identifiable by their choice of words and method of speaking: how they talk. The screenwriter can establish a vocabulary for each of the characters in a story and their pattern of speech to be specific: short sentences, long sentences, direct thoughtful replies, or unthinking instant replies. If the first draft of a script is about getting the plot to work, to be dramatic, the second may be to hone dialogue to character. What should not be done is to leave it to acting to define idiolect, expecting the actor to make the performance individual and convincing: the written dialogue needs to offer the idiolect or it will be a case of the actors trying or not trying to make the dialogue unique to their character.
When looking at a page of script if all the dialogues are the same length for each character, and each character uses the same sort of vocabulary then there is a problem, and one of the particular issues in a screen play is ping-ponging: one character speaking and the other directly replying, speeches going back and forth like a ping pong game: this repetitiveness is not how speech is delivered in life and it should not happen in dialogue writing: ping-ponging can be seen on the page when every speech takes up the same amount of lines and the character's speeches repeat, going back and forth like a ping pong match. It’s a creative decision to decide how a character speaks, and the writer needs to match the narrative to the character: if dialogue is just written so it seems right for the scene without a clear sense of individualized speech then sameness is going to occur. This often happens in long running television serials, soaps, where the need to keep the story line going, to have a fully plotted episode week after week, starts to drive the dialogue and every character explains themselves and discusses the actions of others. A film narrative can narrate a story in this way, but this is a particular level of realism, and is not what will benefit many stories, because it makes all the characters self aware and aware of the narrative in which they are taking part.
In terms of what dialogue to write, if the character in the story is a person who panics, but says very little, this will produce different dialogue to a person who is always talking and panics: the first character might finally say something more than usual because they are in a panic, while the second might go silent because their panic causes them to pause. Either option would convey panic, because the characters and their speeches here are different to their established style of speech, and so, in order to use dialogue effectively a character needs to be established in their dialogue, and this should be clearly done at the start of the story: the character is insightful and kind, so this should be in the action of the story at the start and by what they say: if a character is only functional in the way that they are established. For instance if they arrive at a town by train, this is plot, but then a simple action or an exchange in dialogue can show character. Once this is established, then exchanges develop character: a character speaks to different people in different ways, they act and react in different ways based on a sense of their internal personality. As always the issue here is to ensure that story narration takes place within the framework of realism: so if a character arrives by train and they are returning to the town after a short trip with bad news: how can this be conveyed in dialogue, who would they speak to, who would speak to them, what would they say?
Personality is thought of as a number of internal qualities, such as intelligence, belief, viewpoint, awareness, goals, loyalties, prejudices. These need to be formulated to make the characters act as they do, and they also need to be shown. To keep a scene realistic only so much can be said, because in life we don’t keep explaining what we are doing, but story narration has to put these interior emotions on display and dialogue supports this. In a story a family loose their farm: the parents are broken by this, but the children are happy, because they did not want to spend their lives on the farm. So, what do the children say: this depends on how their emotions are understood by the writer, and how their relationships are established as characters in the story: the children could speak to their parents and say that losing the farm is not the end of things, or the children are unable to speak to their parents in this way. Also, the children may behave differently based on their different emotional responses to the situation. What happens in the writing of the dialogue in this kind of scene is that markers are put in place for the characters, and this will be seen and judged by the audience: if the characters shift away from this, effectively changing and undermining their character, then the realism of the story will fail. So, small dialogue exchanges in a film narrative can have great significance. This is the challenge of writing dialogue. It’s not a question of long eloquent speeches, or of the phrases being used in real life and therefore seeming more realistic. What the dialogue is showing about the character is a key test for successful narration, and what should be noted is that it may be only three or four sentences, just a few remarks that establish character, so dialogue has to be precise in its dramatic and narrative aims.
One of the habits of writing is to create a story through plot, so that there are a set of events, something interesting, but this only works as a dramatic realism if the action of the story is understood to stem from character: there are visual clues to character, costume and setting indicates character, and also speech indicates character. In sport the convention is to have commentators. There is the sports game being played, so what is happening in the game is shown, so effectively no commentary is needed, but in fact the commentary brings the game to life, because it individualizes the events that are happening, linking them to the goals of the players, their personality, and the player's reactions and understanding of the game in the commentary gives the game a sense of purpose and creates a narrative for the game. All of this game commentary is actually speculative: what the game players are actually thinking is not available to the commentators and so the commentary is effectively a narrative of the game: a story created as the game progresses. In film narrative, mimetic drama, dialogue will provide this function: more dialogue does not make a better story, less dialogue does not make a better story, but dialogue that give purpose to action, and indicates why characters take action does give unity of action to a story. Each dialogue is purposeful to the story: its is always part of the narration.
Copyright: Eugene Doyen 2019