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Story Design Tips: How To Save Bad Dialogue

Sometimes dialogue is bad and there’s no way to change it. You can still save the scene.

Guy Hasson

July 19, 2011

4 Min Read

Over the last three weeks, we’ve covered dialogue theory from a different viewpoint. The theater has been developing theory about dialogue and how it works for the last 2,500 years, and we’ve been getting a crash course in its highlights. We covered actions, treating actions as vectors, and what to physically do with the characters when they talk. This time we’re going to borrow another theory from the theater: how to save a scene when the text is bad.

Other than these, there are also cinematic ways that can save a scene. If you do something fascinating with the camera, basically anything fancy, you’re likely to hold your audience rapt, almost no matter what is being said. There’s a lot of cinematic theory about this. We’re not going to cover it. We’re going to stick to the methods you’re more likely not to have heard of.

Tip #1: Use ‘business’ 

‘Business’ in the theater is basically anything a character does that busies that character: packing a suitcase, rearranging a room, trying to get the salt as it passes from one person to the next.

A classic way to ‘save’ bad dialogue is to make sure that the characters busy themselves with business as they say the text. On the one hand, you can have it be something personal (like packing a suitcase or folding laundry), but there’s a more interesting solution, and that is creating business which busies all the characters in the scenes, and knitting a teeny, tiny story within the scene itself.

For example: Say you’ve got a bunch of bad guys about to start a heist in your game. There’s a lot of information you need them to say, so the player will get the back story as well as the personality of the characters. But the text is bad and you haven’t found a way to fix it.

Here’s one solution out of many: As the scene starts and the weapons are being handed out, there’s one particular weapon that catches everyone’s eyes. As they’re speaking, they’re passing it from one person to the next, and each time a person holds it, tries to look through its sites, tries to see how it handles, etc., someone is trying to take the gun away for him.

It’s such a small thing, but it keeps the players’ eyes and attention peeled, as the dialogue is being performed. The actions in this case have less to do with the text in the dialogue and more with the little scene you’ve just constructed.

Another solution to the same scene is to have one guy take out a weapon as weapons are handed out, and to look at each and every person talking through the site. It makes everyone nervous, fidgety, and could make for some interesting interactions and reactions as the dialogue is being said.

Remember to close the scene by also closing your little story with something surprising, or at least interesting. For example, the guy holding the gun could accidentally let a bullet fly, and graze the cheek of one of the bad guys. Anger ensues, but no one is harmed.

Tip #2: Find a grain of suspense regardless of dialogue

There’s a classic example for this in an Indiana Jones movie (I never remember if it’s the first or the second one). Indie, the hero, is having a rather boring conversation with some other guy. The information is important, but there are no interesting ‘actions’ (see definition) there. What did Spielberg do? He found a grain of suspense regardless of the dialogue.

Indie and the other guy are eating dates, and one of them has been poisoned. Spielberg focuses our attention solely on what happens with the date: will Indy eat it or won’t he? Indy plays with the date, and eventually throws it in the air in order to have it land in his mouth (I recall the scene from memory, so please excuse me if it’s inaccurate). All this while, the audience is riveted to the screen because it needs to know if his hero will die or not.

This part wasn’t really necessary for the plot. It was necessary to save the dialogue.

You can save bad dialogue just as creatively.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this crash course in advanced dialogue theory borrowed from the theater. Next time we’re still going to cover dialogue, but we’re going to move from the advanced to the basics. We're going to cover some basic don'ts.

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