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Panel thoughts on dialogue and character voice

Watch Michael Lengsfield, Molly Naylor, Tom Benn and Christabelle Dilks discuss the role of dialogue and voice in the scene.
[Michael] Okay, now we want to continue the discussion with a quick look at dialogue and voice, so we’re going to start by considering what do we think makes good dialogue? Tom? [Tom] I think that dialogue is useful as just a way for characters to articulate what they want - their goals. And I think the best dialogue for me is when they do it, not necessarily literally. I think drama is most engaging when its operating on more than surface level, when it’s more than just literal. And I think yes, a character should open his mouth - his or her mouth only to sort of, state what they want, but like people in real life.
We don’t always do this in the most efficient way - we say more or less than we mean and mean more or less than we say. And I think that’s a lot of where the dramatic action comes from - these kind of misunderstandings, and people not being brave enough, or too brave, or too bold. And all these kind of , sort of, the conflict that can come from that. I think the best kind of dialogue, for me, sort of, contains that displaced emotion where people are talking around the things they want rather than on the nose directly about it. [Christabelle] I completely agree.
I think subtext is absolutely vital and you want to give the audience credit for finding out what’s underneath that character, underneath what they say on the surface. [Michael] Let’s unpack that a little because I think you said - you hit on about three different areas that are all
really important to that: the first thing is that the dialogue is actually trying to achieve something and that when we when we do it, often the thing that we really want is the one thing we can’t say it’s … we’re civilised - we don’t say - we learn to disguise what we want. We displace the emotions. We ask for something that may help us get that but we don’t say directly what we want. So, the first thing is that there’s action in it, someone’s trying to do something with it. They’re not trying to reveal their inner self, they’re trying to get what they need. [Christabelle] I still remember that Stanislavsky method of physical actions.
I used to find that so useful as an actor, and it really works I think, for dialogue, that a line of dialogue is actually somebody trying to do something. [Michael] Yeah, absolutely. [Christabelle] … prod or provoke or undermine or … [Michael] Right. Our emotion is displaced; people argue about you know, crazy things. They don’t argue about what they really feel, let’s say, in a relationship, because the big issues are just too painful to address head-on. And then subtext comes through that will contain a relationship, right. That will condition how this is understood. It will provide a whole context for it, without being necessarily anti dialogue, it’s something else underneath it.
[Molly] Because that’s how we show what’s happening in the scene, because we can’t express relationships through dialogue because it’s too clunky, it’s too expositional and it’s not how we explore truth in real life. We don’t ever talk about each other in relation to what we are, so in a film we have to show that. And how do we show that? Because we’re not going to say that, so it’s about subtext and it’s about action and it’s about all the things going on. [Christabelle] What’s not said. [Molly] What’s not said. [Michael] Christabelle, again. [Christabelle] Yes. In terms of what I really love when I watch films that I love.
I love to see films in which the screenwriter has managed to nail individual voices and managed to make them completely different from one another, and I think that just takes a good ear doesn’t it? I know I find it hard myself to write dialogue, really hard, painful, dreadful. But I I know that when I’ve listened well and characters kind of, spring off the page and I think managing to differentiate the voices is really … important. [Michael] Yeah, I think that’s really important to me too. It can be perfectly serviceable as long as it has a clear dramatic purpose but it really sparkles when we find true individuality in the voice.
[Christabelle] And do you think, maybe not too many lines of dialogue? I mean I don’t know the longest scene - it’s really instructive, isn’t it, to watch things and just notice how long each scene played for, but rarely more than a minute or two. [Tom] I think it depends on the voice. There are some great stylists, you know, Aaron Sorkin - the opening of The Social Network is just pages, reams and reams of dialogue, minutes on end. And it works because I guess you buy into that - there’s almost a brand there . It’s sort of, the exception to the rule that you know, you’re seeing it for the writer, rather than the director with something like that.
But they are very much the exceptions to the rule. As a rule less, tends to be more with dialogue, particularly in Cinema. That’s maybe less true television. [Michael] So, we know what we like - how do we do it? What are the steps for us when we’re working with characters to create believable dialogue, and to differentiate the voices? [Molly] They can’t just be mouthpieces for our thematic intentions. They have to be doing their own thing and communicating in a way that they communicate, that’s credible to the character that you’ve created. I don’t think it’s about them being, even realistic, necessarily but it’s just about them being convincing. [Michael] What do we do to make our characters convincing?
[Molly] We have - I suppose it’s our job as writers isn’t it, to be observational - to observe people and the way people communicate and not recreate that. I’m not talking about doing that verbatim but doing it in a way that that communicates a bigger truth. And you’re gonna ask again how to we do that? [Michael] I like the observation that if you do listen carefully, you’ll find that there are different rhythms and there are different ways of speaking. That’s a good a good place to start with that. Tom, how do you start?
[Tom] I think - I don’t know it’s how I start but I think it’s important to remember, at least for me that you know, it’s not a novel, you know, this is dialogue that’s going to be performed, and so that the line itself needs to leave room for an actor’s interpretation. How a line is delivered can you know, could say the opposite of what the literal meaning of those words are, you know. So having - giving that room for interpretation to an actor and then sort of, vicariously, through the audience as well. How they’re going to interpret that is going to make it feel more convincing.
[Molly] Yeah, and we can use scene directions to undercut what they’re saying, or to heighten what they’re saying, or to change what they’re saying. So that’s something we’ve got to be thinking about all the time, as well. [Tom] Information’s going to be altered. The meaning can be altered - it doesn’t have to be literal. [Michael] I think it has to come from an individual person. People are from somewhere, they have - they develop their own idiolect. They were you know, raised in a particular circumstance, educated to a certain level. They hung out when they were kids with other kids, who spoke in a certain way.
[Molly] So, as writers we have to remember to go outside sometimes - be in the world and listen to people and the way people talk and try and interact with a range of people, not just ourselves and other writers. [Tom] Again, it depends on creative intentions. I mean, Tarantino’s characters and the way they speak, it doesn’t seem to represent anything from life. You know, he’s sort of reacting against characters from other films. And so you know, it’s suddenly a more insular world, you know, they’re not reflections of life. They’re vehicles for ideas and things he wanted to say about cinema and different genres and he’s re-contextualising them and then they become new and interesting, through that.
[Christabelle] Not that interesting, though. [Tom] To some people - they’re certainly interesting to him. [Christabelle] Clearly! [Michael] No, come on that’s … this is interesting work. [Tom] It’s just a different intent, right? He’s not drawing from life. He’s drawing from Cinema. [Michael] Absolutely, tremendously. It’s been tremendously influential, or it was in the United States - that was tremendously influential. And just the fact that it was interesting enough to hear characters speak.

Our educators discuss the role of dialogue and sub-text – what is said and what is not said – and what it reveals about character. They go on to explore different approaches to developing clear and convincing character voice.

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