Dialogue v Narrative

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Yesterday, my friend Marsha posted a short piece on her blog—Why the Face (WTF)—where she discussed her challenges in writing narrative/action for a scene and how she found scene writing to be so much easier if she started the dialogue.

“On its own, free of formatting and figuring out what characters are doing physically,” she wrote, “it lets me really get into what these people are actually saying to each other.”

When I read this, I thought, what a fascinating approach as mine is the complete opposite.

When I start a scene, I can go on ad nauseum about the setting and what the characters are doing or how they are behaving, but I find actually expressing the characters in dialogue to be daunting. When I do start writing dialogue, I find that I am writing exactly what my characters are thinking (on-the-nose) or that their emotions and motivations are incredibly superficial.

When I describe a character’s behaviour, however, his or her emotions surface more slowly through unconscious tics. The tensions that I intone in my mind’s eye then inform the word choice when I start to write his or her dialogue. It is as though I have to psych myself into the character’s body before I can express his or her desires and impulses to the fullest.

What makes this ironic is that while discussing this with Leela, another friend, she reminded me of the days when I first started writing sketch comedy, and all I could seem to manage were a series of “talking-head” sketches. At that time, action was unimportant to me as I felt the only way to bring my point across was through words.

On paper, my sketches could be very engaging, whereas on stage, they were significantly less so. Thus, I needed to learn the power of the unspoken word. Apparently, the pendulum has swung full tilt and I am now in the process of finding a happy medium. (No wonder writing is so tiring.)

Ultimately, like a good Oreo cookie, the best screenwriting comes from the combination of solid narrative (icing) and solid dialogue (cookie), so I am glad Marsha has my back and I have hers.

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