Showing posts with label Craft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Craft. Show all posts

02 March 2020

Talking About Dialogue Part 1


My wife Barbara claims she has acted in about 80 productions, but I'd say it's at least twice that many. Since we met, she has played Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest, Martha in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, several Shakespearean roles including Feste in 12th Night and Paulina in The Winter's Tale (I directed both of those) and one of the neighbors being spied upon in the Hartford Stage Company's world premiere of the stage adaptation of Rear Window starring Kevin Bacon. She also had a cameo in the remake of that film starring the late Christopher Reeve. Since she also has a reputation for being very good at learning lines, we found ourselves trying to explain what makes dialogue effective...or not.

Last Wednesday, we earned a little extra cash by acting in a training video for caregivers. We've worked with the director and crew before, and they're great: patient, organized, funny, and very good at what they do.

We met the "nurse" in our scene Tuesday for a read-through and shot the six-page, eight-minute scene the next morning. We arrived at 7:30 a.m. for make-up (They had to age me ;-))) and finished a little after noon.

People who aren't used to the routine say, "JEEZE, why so long for eight minutes?"

Well, we had to do five camera set-ups, one on all three of us at a table, one of Barb and me, and one of each of us, which will be edited together later for the best flow. That meant moving the camera and furniture in a small space and tweaking the lights and microphones for each different angle.

Another problem was that because the video is for training caregivers to follow specific guidelines, the nurse's lines had to correspond to the language on a checklist and a training manual. They don't flow trippingly off the tongue and they get repetitive. That means actors can get lost, especially when you start and stop a few times.

I had two speeches that were completely different, but my cue lines were 22 and 20 words, 18 of them the same. For one take, the director wanted to start at one of those cues, and I had to ask, "Is this my first or second response?" because that was the only way I could keep them straight.

If you're writing a short story or novel, that's not a big deal, but if you write for the stage, it becomes crucial. You need to write lines the actors can learn. Remember, we had only one rehearsal and a four-hour shoot to get everything correct five times.

Most of what we say today is geared toward plays, but you can apply it to stories and novels, too.

There are two ways to link (connect) lines so an actor can remember them. When Character A reacts or responds to Character B, it draws the audience into the scene and gets them involved. You can do this with either an ACTION CUE or a LINE CUE.

An ACTION CUE is an event that prompts the character to speak. For example, there's a knock on the door, and the character asks, "Who is it?" If you're writing a story, you can use an action tag here.

When she heard the knock on her locked door, Sarah asked, "Who is it?"

A LINE CUE is the word or sentence the actor talks back to. KIND playwrights (They are rare) often repeat key words in consecutive speeches between two characters. Repetition is best if it's an important verb or noun in the first sentence. If it's not a repeat, a synonym will help.

Sometimes, Character B's speak begins with a sound or letter that was prominent in Character A's speech.Strong Consonants like "P" "T" or "S" are common because they're so audible.

Questions and answers are usually easy to remember. So is cause and effect, where B says something as a response to what Character A did or said. This is a lot like the ACTION CUE.

Chris Knopf uses repetition and synonyms when his series character Sam Acquillo talks with local cop Joe Sullivan. The two paraphrase and mangle each other's previous lines, sometimes turning them into puns or malapropisms. It's funny, but it also adds tension and energy because it shows the two are listening to each other while they butt heads.

American English gains its meaning and nuance from rhythm. In dialogue, the two strong positions are the beginning or the end of a sentence, especially the end. That's where you should put the speech's main point (see what I just did there with the slightly unusual word order?).

I'm afraid the case is past human skill. Prayer is our only resource now, John.

That's weak. The important word (prayer) gets buried in the middle. Try this instead:

I'm afraid the case is past human skill, John. Our only resource now is prayer.

Can you hear and feel the difference?

I saw another such face a year later is weaker than A year later, I saw another such face. 

If you use names--usually direct address--in dialogue, a name at the beginning of a speech tends to make a stronger line, probably because it focuses attention more quickly. It helps indicate the relationship (power) between two characters without the audience being aware of it.  A name at the end tends to be weaker because it creates a falling rhythm.

Henry, please pick up that book      is stronger than      Please pick up that book, Henry. 

If you're writing comedy, put the point or punch at the end. If you want a laugh, you need the joke in a strong position.

Who was that lady I saw you with last night?
That was my wife; that was no lady.                                    (Why aren't you laughing?)

Let's be practical, too. If, in spite of the weak position, the punch gets a laugh early, that laugh will drown out the rest of the line. The audience might miss information. It's also hard on the actor. Think about the action/line cue when you're setting up a joke, too.

Dialogue helps everyone understand what the goal is and how the character tries to achieve it. It also can show the nature and magnitude of the obstacles.
A:  What time is it?
B:  Two thirty.                      
A asks the question to get information. B answers because she has the information and wants to help. There MAY be more going on here– flirting, a power game, whatever. Maybe one character is suggesting that the other one is late...again.
A:  Are you hungry?
B:  Yes.
Is A a nurturing mother, a sadistic torturer, a waiter, or something else?
Is B a child, a captive, a customer, or a potential love conquest?

An indirect answer can add tension.
A:  Can I go in and see him?
B:  Over my dead body. (Or, Not without a warrant, Or, Not until he regains consciousness, Or, Haven't you done enough damage already?
Using specific words and images will make it easier for an actor to learn his lines and develop his or her character, too.

We'll talk more about dialogue and character next time.

11 December 2012

The Dark Valley of Unpublished Stories


As I have mentioned in earlier postings, I have a few unpublished stories concealed in my trusty desk.  It's not important how many; we're not bean counters, right?  No, we're writers, artists of the highest order, sensitive people who see the world a little...oh, alright then, more than ten, but less than fifty.  How's that?  And yeah, a couple of novels stuck in a drawer somewhere.  You happy now?  Sheesh!

Sometimes, when I've run out of writing ideas, I take a little walk down memory lane and enter the valley of unpublished stories.  It's usually twilight in the valley and a little misty.  The path, overgrown and difficult to follow, threads its way through years of literary endeavor; an elephants' graveyard of lofty aspirations.  Here and there, nearly hidden in the undergrowth, headstones lean drunkenly, lichen covered and barely discernible.  Approaching with a mixture of dread and nostalgia, I wind my way through their titles: Anti-Intruder, Wisdom (I must have been channeling De Maupassant when I picked that title), Green Messiah, The Writer's Wife, The Book of Yaroes, etc...   All so young...so beautiful...and they never had a chance.  What a loss to the world, I cry.

Then, when I'm feeling especially foolish, I'll dig one up and flip through a few pages.  That's when I get the cold water in the face and couple of sharp, stinging slaps for good measure.  Not every time, mind you, but a lot.  So I get a little flushed and ask myself, "You did not submit this...did you?  What were you thinking?  Your writing sucks, dude!"  Said walk through the valley comes to a screeching halt and I get busy with the old shovel and spade.

They're not all bad, of course, and some show a little promise--some more than others.  But they all offer a few lessons in writing, as well as illustrating a little personal history.  It's a bit like thumbing through the high school year book--yeah, that's you alright...but not anymore, Sonny Jim, not anymore.  My choice of subjects is revealing in terms of where I was in my life at that time.  Happily, my efforts appear to improve as they march through the years.  Two reasons occur to me for this: Firstly, practice makes perfect--my craftsmanship improved with repetition, as well as a lot of trial and error.  Secondly, I hesitate to say I've grown wiser, but I've certainly matured since I began, and the writing shows it, I like to think.

One thing that I notice is that in the earliest stories I relied more on atmosphere and a sense of place than I do now.  They were more like walk-through paintings, murals, perhaps--action and dialogue were clearly aspects of story-telling with which I was less comfortable.  As the years passed it became evident that my confidence in those areas improved, though I still approach dialogue with trepidation--sometimes it flows well, and at others it's a struggle.  I hear that I am not alone in this.

Writing action sequences has become one of my favorite things to do now.  It seems the easiest to me, which is probably why I like it--you don't have much dialogue to worry about, the setting is generally already established, and it's a great way to reveal aspects of the characters without a lot of obvious narration. 

My stroll through the graveyard of stories reveals that I have almost consistently avoided use of first-person.  It seems that, from my earliest days as a writer, I have side-stepped this convention, in spite of the fact that some of my favorite stories are told in exactly this way.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps some psychological insight might be contained in this observation, if only I had the psychological insight to do so.  Writer, know thyself.  Or is it better not to?  Do we become too mannered the more self-aware and, possibly, self-conscious that we become?  Or is it liberating in the sense of making one comfortable enough, and confident enough, to make the most of one's own talent and experiences?  I am of two minds on this subject, as I am on so many when it comes to writing.  Mostly, I just want to write, and write real good, without having to work too hard at it or know myself uncomfortably well.  This seems funner to me.

But the revenants in the Valley of Unpublished Stories seem to say otherwise.  "Go thou from this vale of tears," they command.  "Go dwell in the sunlight amongst your progeny...and work, work, damn you, so that this sad place will have no further interments.  We are your victims, do not increase our number--even if it means that you work like a dog and have less time for drinking than you'd like!  Learn from us and never, ever, repeat the mistakes that brought us to this forsaken place.  And, oh yeah, on you way out close the gate behind you and pick up that candy wrapper--that wasn't here before."

I not only close the gate, I put a padlock on it.