Storytelling is Emotion Trading

Every writer experiences writing workshop fatigue. However,  we must continue to explore new avenues of expression and ways to bolster the quality of our scripts and keep them fresh. I’ve recently started taking acting classes. After all, when we write a script, we want to attract acting talent to it, right?. This approach also helps establish the mis en scene, the point of each scene. That is what an actor hones in on before they utter a single word. Quite often, they only have a few pages during auditions with little guidance where they’re at in the story, so make everything clear.

It is true that writing dialogue is a lot like taking vitamins. A tiny amount can make you healthy, but too much can be toxic. So when your writing teacher tells you to trim your dialogue to it’s bare bones, listen to them. Very few actors like seeing a wall of text, unless its a monologue for the stage. Waffly, or on-the-nose dialogue, is as unattractive as an unrelenting flirt. Many actors see dialogue as words on a page that are used as a guide. So being word perfect isn’t vital.

Then examine the subtext of your dialogue. What is being said as opposed to be what is really being said. One of my acting colleagues had to ask someone the time in different contexts during an exercise; in the first was she was trying to annoy a colleague who was struggling to meet a deadline and in the second there was a man she’d like to get to know better. Same words, different tonality. Actors love this and so do us writers. I remember once writing “her boyfriend’s hypercritical dragon of a mother enters. Even Satan hates her “Carnie: “You look nice”.

Given that film is about an emotional experience for an audience, dialogue must serve the same purpose. My acting coach asked his actors to dissect the dialogue to determine where the emotional changes happen. And given that we are emotional creatures, emotions can jack-knife through a range. This keeps writing exciting.

Let’s go back to our boyfriend’s mother. First we find out he doesn’t think much of her either. Then we find out she was in prison. Later we find out that she was forced to abort her child when she was a teenager. Think about how we react to such a person as their story unfolds. Think of the possibilities for dialogue and think of the emotions we need to convey. First we hate the mother, then we may feel anger, followed by intrigue and later by sympathy. How’s that for richness? I remember the dialogue I wrote. Carnie: I don’t want kids. More trouble than they’re worth. The mother slices through her with a stare that could melt a glacier. Four words, huge meaning!

Writers use the term “goal” and “motivation” to describe character. Actors use “desire” and “pursuit”. They can be used interchangeably because they essentially mean the same thing. It’s a great help to write from a non writer’s perspective. After all, film making is a collaborative process.


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