The art of writing dialog often confuses first-time writers. (Acting dialog carries similar challenges. Another story for another time.) Though it may seem contra-logical, the most important thing to remember is that when writing dialog, words don’t matter. I recently coached a talented writer by Zoom. She asked if we could read a scene she’d written and sent me her sides to review in advance. When our appointment rolled around, I had the printed pages in front of me. We were ready to go. Except …
“Quick question,” I said. “Where does this scene take place? What are the characters doing before they start talking to one another?”
The writer frowned. She hadn’t pinned that down yet, she said.
“Okay, another question. Who are these people to each other?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, how do the characters know one another? What’s their relationship?”
She wasn’t quite sure.
“Final question,” I said. “What do these two people want from each another?”
The writer chewed her lower lip. “Is all that important?” she asked.
It sure is. We’ll go into why in a minute. Notwithstanding the above, the writer’s work was excellent. She has incredible raw talent. We read through her scene a few times and had a blast. But the experience got me thinking about the essentials of writing a scene. So I figured I’d jot down a post in case this material might help anyone else.
Dialog is the Last Thing You Write in a Scene. A lot of writers don’t understand the statement above. But it’s very important. Think of it this way: Words are like Christmas ornaments. You can have a bazillion of the loveliest, most glittery ornaments on earth. But if we don’t have a tree to hang them on, it won’t make a damn bit of difference. The tree, in this case, is the structure of our scene. And structure boils down to three elements, which I’ll call:
Circumstances, Relationships, and Intentions.
In a minute, we’ll unpack each of these elements. For now, however, consider this: Yes, words matter when writing a scene. But they matter a lot less than why, where, and when your characters start speaking in the first place! Remember: why a character speaks and what he or she hopes to gain by speaking is always more important than the actual words they say. Think about it. In life, isn’t it true that some (if not most) of the words we say are things we don’t really mean? As in:
“Hey, that’s funny.”
“I like it.”
“I hate you.”
“I love you.”
The dirty truth about words is that they’re a recent human development. Anthropologically speaking, members of our species were wooing, hurting, healing, deceiving, and threatening each other long before we concocted language to approximate these intentions. This is the primary reason why I say: When writing dialog, words don’t matter.
It’s much more important to pin down a scene’s infrastructure — its Circumstances, Relationships, and Intentions — before writing a single line of dialog. Writing a scene can be like marking a painting. First you rough out where everything goes. This is some of the most important work — and it has nothing to do with paint!
Defining the Scene’s Circumstances
What are the Circumstances of our scene? To understand the Circumstances, we must answer important questions, such as: Where and when does the scene take place? What’s going on as the scene begins? What went on immediately previous to the scene’s beginning? Each of these points is important because they inform the dynamics between the characters. For instance:
Where and when does the scene take place? What if a scene took place late at night in the bedroom of a colicky infant? The baby is finally sleeping. Will the characters speak at full voice? Hell no. They’ll be whispering the whole time. (This Circumstance can be especially interesting if the characters get upset with one another.)
What’s going on when the scene begins? Suppose one character is urgently writing a freelance assignment that’s due in the next ten minutes. The burden of this Circumstance — a deadline — will inform how she interacts (or fails to) with anyone speaking to her.
What went on immediately prior to the scene’s beginning? Suppose our characters just made love and pledged their undying loyalty to one another. Or one of them just found out that their lover’s been having an affair. Or a phone just call came through with the message that someone’s beloved parent has died.
Do you see how each of these Circumstances will effect how the scene plays out?
Our job as writers is to pin down the Circumstances of a scene before we write any dialogue. Because the Circumstances will inform how our characters act and react toward each other. Pinning down the Circumstances of a scene is like filling in background colors to a painting.
Defining the Characters’ Relationships
Now we must ask ourselves, what do our characters mean to each other? On this point, we must be careful. For instance, we can’t take the exit ramp and say something trite like, “They’re married.” That means nothing at all. Consider this explanation, which my co-author, Bill Esper, gave in our book, “The Actor’s Art and Craft“:
“What does that description — husband and wife — tell you about the way these two people behave or feel toward one another? Absolutely nothing, it’s too general. Show me ten thousand marriages and I’ll show you ten thousand different relationships. Some spouses are best friends. Some are merely business partners. Some are devoted companions. Some despise each other. Others are just in it for the sex.”
In this case, Bill was talking about how actors should view relationships. But it turns out writers should also pay heed. Relationships are defined by emotional connections. And unless we’ve pinned down the precise emotional connection two people have to each other, we really don’t have a Relationship. We just have noun. For instance, a novice writer might say, “Well, my characters, Fred and John, are brothers.” A seasoned writer would ask, “So what?”
The fact that Fred and John are brothers tells us nothing useful about them. We know that they have the same parents. Big deal. It’s not dramatically operational. Therefore, it can’t inform and enrich behavior. However — what if we pinned that down …
From John’s perspective: “Fred is a conniving jack-wad who once stole my last dollar so he could buy drugs. Then he took my brand new car without asking and crashed it into the mayor’s front yard. I’ve been humiliated by Fred for years. I hate him. He’s ruined my life … “
Well, well, well. That’s a very specific perspective, isn’t it? But remember. Relationships are a two-way street. Let’s do this exercise from Fred’s perspective. What does Fred think of John?
From Fred’s perspective: “John is an angel, my saving grace. I know I’ve done really horrible things and I know he hates me — he should. But he’s always been there fore me and I’ll never forget that. I owe him my life.”
So, yeah. Okay. Fred and John are brothers. But what’s more important? Their lineage? No. Their lineage tells us nothing. More important to writing is knowing how the characters feel toward each other. In other words, knowing their Relationship. Once we pin the Relationships down, we have a much better idea how the characters might speak to each other. Once we do this, dialog pretty much writes itself.
Are you starting to get the idea? Are you starting to see that, when writing dialog, words don’t matter?
Defining the Relationships in a scene is a very important step we must take before writing a single word of dialog. The more clearly and specifically you define the Relationships of your characters, the more your scene will begin to take shape … before you write any dialog!
Last — but certainly not least — we need to define our characters’ Intentions. We can figure out their Intentions by asking ourselves questions like: What do our characters want? What are they willing to do to get what they want? How and when will they know they’ve got what they want? And so on.
We must always remember that everyone always wants something. If we didn’t, we’d never open our mouths to speak. What we want might want be something concrete … like a raise at work or a chicken mole taco. On the other hand, what we want might be something less tangible. Something emotional. Like validation, for instance. Admiration. Guidance. And so on. But the rule is that human beings always want something. And therefore, so do our characters. Whether or not our characters get what they want from each other defines their behavior toward one another — and thus the arc of the drama.
Pinning down the Intentions of each character is another essential writerly task — one we must do before we pick up our pens and write a single word of dialog. Defining our characters’ Intentions helps us track — moment by moment and beat by beat — whether they got what they entered the scene to get … and therefore what they’re willing to do next. Intentions add even more life to our scene. Please note, however: the scene isn’t finished. The final details always arrive in the improvisatory act of writing!
For anyone interested, a lot of the ideas found in this article are notions I first got exposed to when training as an actor. As it happens, writers and actors share a lot of the same vocabulary. And the work these two types of artist produce informs each other in highly interesting ways. This is just one reason why I recommend that all aspiring writers — playwrights, screenwriters … yes, even novelists — read my book “The Actor’s Art and Craft,” co-written with my friend and mentor, the late Bill Esper. It’s a fun, informative book that can open many doors for curious artistic minds.
Once you’ve finished “The Actor’s Art and Craft” be sure to read our followup book, “The Actor’s Guide to Creating a Character.” Again: writers and actors alike will profit from the techniques these books outline. For now, however, I hope you see more clearly how writing a scene is less about dialog than it is about working out the Circumstances, Relationships, and Intentions of our characters. Once we do that, we often find that the dialog writes itself.
Here’s hoping that all your creative endeavors bear fruit.