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Story Design Tips: The Art of Dialogue, Part II

Dialogue theory, borrowed from the theater, looks at the characters as if they are vectors in an equation.

Dialogue is more than it seems. A visual dialogue (where you can see and/or hear the characters) is different from dialogue on paper. The latter is written only with words on a two-dimensional paper or screen. The former is written on human canvas. As such, human canvas can hold a lot more than a page does.

The rules of creating visual dialogue are therefore different, and the result is different, as well – allowing richness on many levels at the same time. To reach that richness, we need to understand how it works. However, ignoring how it works makes the dialogue (even one that would seem great on paper) seem vacant and one-dimensional.

What we’re doing in this series of Story Design Tips articles about dialogue, is borrowing knowledge from the theater, which has more than 2,500 years of theory about dialogue and how dialogue works. The nice thing about theater theory is that it is constantly tested on live audiences – if it works, the theory survives; if it doesn’t, the theory is dead in the water. So this is theory that’s been tested and retested. And it works.

Last week, we talked about how dialogue is much more than words. In fact, the words are mere shadows of something called ‘actions’. Whenever we have a scene with characters, each character must enter the scene with a purpose. There’s something she wants, something she will try to get, someplace she’ll try and get to. The way the characters try and achieve those purposes are called ‘actions’, and we covered them last week.

Character purpose translates to vectors

Today we’re going to talk about the purposes of the characters, the desires, the needs. Most of you no doubt know enough about rudimentary physics or math to know what a vector is. A vector is, basically, an arrow representing a force (in physics) that has both a direction and an intensity. Now I want you to think of a purpose like a vector. It has intensity X (strong, weak, medium, unbearably strong, etc.) and it also has a direction (a person or object at which this need will direct is directed).

Here’s the neat thing about vectors. You can take two different ones and mash them up into one vector that is somehow a sum of the two. Now try and imagine that you can do the same thing to a character’s purpose. Not only can you do that, you have to do it.

Desire and impediment

In life, to each desire we experience, there is also an impediment we experience simultaneously, something that blocks us from immediately letting loose and trying to get what we want in the most straightforward way. For example, if a man sits in a bar and sees a beautiful woman sit at a table, he may want to jump her right there and then. However, he won’t do it, because something in him (the impediment) gives a push in the opposite direction. One vector (desire) leads him one way, while another vector (the impediment) leads him the other. A man who needs money won’t rob the man who passes him by (desire vs. impediment), a man who feels momentary anger towards his boss won’t murder him right there and then (desire vs. impediment), etc.

To each desire, there is an impediment. You, as the story designer, must be aware of both, and must tailor the character’s behavior accordingly, taking into account the intensity and direction of both.

2 simultaneous desires

It’s also possible for a character to have two simultaneous desires, for example: kill the villain vs. get the girl. However, the character can only do one thing at a time. His actions will be determined by the ‘sum’ of both desires, taking into account the relative strength and intensity of each.

How is this useful?

Once you’ve gotten used to checking each of your characters in the beginning of every scene for a desire, once you’ve gotten used to checking for impediments and/or simultaneous desires, and once you’ve gotten used to summing them both neatly into one complex desire, you’re going to have to remember that now you have to translate that desire into actions in the scene, actions that will be carried out from the beginning of the scene to its very end.

It is these actions, carried out according to a human set of desires, impediments, and simultaneous desires, that will lend your dialogue strength and reality, depth and humanity.

In these two articles I summed up the very basics of dramatic dialogue, dialogue written on human canvas. This kind of dialogue will fill the screen with the full strength of human interaction, emotions, behavior, and complexity.

Lastly, not only do these actions and behaviors change the content of the dialogue, it also changes the way the characters move, talk, and behave. Next time, we’re going to talk about what to do visually with characters as they perform these actions.

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