How to direct dialogue
An author is like a stage director when it comes to dialogue.
Both strive to draw the audience’s attention to keywords in that dialogue. This post explores different ways to do this.
The Stage Director’s Tools
A script is primarily dialogue, except for the occasional stage directions. The director makes sense of that script for the audience. She or he will identify its themes and messages, moments geared towards characterisation, points which move the plot forward. Without the director each actor would simply speak their dialogue, emphasizing the keywords they believed to be relevant. The result would be a jumbled, chaotic mess for the audience to understand.
The director has a number of tools at their disposal to draw the audience’s attention to the chosen keywords. The same is true for the author. Below I’ve defined the tools in theatrical terms, the titles link to YouTube clips that illustrate what I’m saying here. As we go through each one, think about how you might use this tool when writing your dialogue.
The location on the stage of the characters is no accident, it informs the audience and is called proxemics. The distance between characters tells you things about their relationship. Different levels establish status, for instance, a character standing on a staircase places them higher up, granting higher status. Proxemics is a subtle medium of communication, audiences often won’t notice it. Visually you can establish themes and motifs by characters’ positions, using geometric shapes, patterns and levels.
Directors work with actors to develop subtle signs to draw attention to a keyword. Gestures might be large – the sweep of an arm to encompass everyone or everything might be used by a powerful character. The scratch of a nose is a small, potentially insignificant, gesture but, when repeated, gets noticed. Gestures are also handy methods to identify characterisation, nervous ticks tell us a lot when we see them in the right context.
The way a character moves is a process the actor will initiate but it will involve the director at some point. The way a character swaggers across the stage establishes their arrogance but the point when they halt can coincide with the keyword. Moving and stopping are excellent forms of communication. Likewise, exits and entrances. You see this on TV all the time. Look out for a conversation where one character goes to leave, stands at the door, delivers a line, walks out. Usually the camera switches to the remaining character to register their reaction. It’s better than the exit line being delivered, the character walking to the door and leaving and then capturing the reaction. Drama is lost.
This is the easiest tool to draw attention to a keyword. TV uses it second by second. In the detective thriller, the line “I accuse YOU!” leads to a close up on the face of the person being accused. We get to see the shock, the smug expression fading, the malice in the eyes. Don’t overlook the set of the mouth, the compression of the lips and what the teeth are doing. The same is true for the jawline. A disdainful snort causes the nose to flare the nostrils, the raising of the nose suggests superiority or revulsion. A casual sniff can tell us more about disdain, scorn, pride and isn’t just used for registering smells.
Good actors will experiment with how their voice delivers keywords. They will include the director in their decision-making process because it provides vital objectivity. The throaty gasp to show shock. The raise in tone to convey surprise. Increased volume tells us the word has provoked anger. A pause before the word itself draws attention. (And afterwards). The voice, as every actor will tell you, is a highly complex tool. You can make it do so many things.
Applying the tools to dialogue
The temptation, and the sign of an inexperienced writer, is to pepper dialogue with verbs linked to speech. As editors will tell you, this wastes the opportunity to describe the scene to your audience, the reader, in greater detail. Think of the dialogue as happening on stage and that you’re the director.
Step 1: What are your keywords?
These are the words, occasionally a phrase or two, which communicate significant details to the reader. These words really matter. Dialogue tends to meander aimlessly without them. What point is a character trying to make (to another person, to the reader)? How do others respond? Are there keywords here too? It helps, in your first draft, to highlight these words so you don’t lose track of them. Here’s an example to illustrate.
‘You knew all along, didn’t you? There never was any plot. The panic. The stampede. You engineered it,’ said the king.
‘Would you have agreed otherwise?’ asked the prince.
‘No. I wouldn’t.’
Question: what is the keyword in this dialogue?
Answer: the conversation is about a subterfuge, the prince has misled the king. The prince manipulated people, including the king, for his own ends. Look at the king’s opening statement and its structure, it builds to the keyword – engineered. There’s a case for arguing for a less significant keyword from the prince, ‘otherwise’. It suggests the possibility of a choice, one the king was denied. It’s reinforced by the king refusing that choice. But the dialogue depends on the idea of an event which has been manipulated - or engineered.
Step 2: Staging the dialogue
This isn’t just about deciding the location. In this context it doesn’t matter. (The throne room, a battlefield, castle battlements etc.) What does matter is the proxemics of these two characters.
First of all, ask yourself, who has the status here? Answer – the prince of course. He is the manipulator, the con man. The king is the victim. So how do you show the prince’s status? On a raised dias in front of the throne, the king on the floor below him? On a horse while the king stands at its side, looking up? The prince on the battlements, the king shouting up to him from the ground?
How close should they be? You can argue a case for considerable distance to emphasize their misunderstanding. Unless the prince is gloating – in which case get him up close, in the king’s face.
Stage 3: Emphasizing the keyword
With staging complete, the other tools can now be used to draw attention to the word, ‘engineered’, itself.
Vocally, the king might gabble his opening statement, a means of conveying his disbelief until he halts before saying the word, realising in his choice of word that he’s been conned. He might gasp the word in shock. He might gesture, with a shake of his head and by covering his mouth to suggest he wants to prevent the word being spoken. Facially, he might frown and look shocked and appalled by the realisation. Then, his movement could add a final flourish to the dialogue by walking away, turning at the last minute to deliver his final line, ‘No, I wouldn’t.’
You’ll notice that, at no point, have we needed to use verbs linked to speech. That’s because there are so many more things for the reader to discern in any dialogue. Sure, there’s a conversation going on here but there’s a lot more than that. The dialogue develops characterisation, relationships, tension, theme as well as the plot. The real question is – which of these needs the most attention?
The answer depends on identifying the keywords first and perceiving the dialogue as a script to be communicated to an audience by the director.