Writing the dialogue for a screenplay, my favorite medium, has much in common with writing passages of dialogue in popular mainstream fiction. It’s sparser, and the layout is different, but the basic characteristics are the same — except in one important regard.
In both cases, the writer’s aim in dialogue is to illustrate character traits, or to trigger emotional responses, or to entertain, usually all three.
Note: it isn’t to convey information about a character’s backstory and relationships or to lecture the audience/reader with exposition that ought to come in gradually, elsewhere. Dialogue that departs from the present moment in the characters’ lives — where it steps outside that moment to tell the story, as if the speakers are aware of those looking in through the “fourth wall”, and they need to explain it all to them — that can be an real irritation. It amounts to talking to down to the audience/reader; and it bespeaks a writer who hasn’t taken the time find a subtle and imaginative way to get the same information across, if it’s even necessary to know it.
In today’s popular fiction, as in today’s screenplays, the idea is to show in the actions and reactions of the characters what they want, what they value, where the story is going and what the dialogue means.
In order to keep the tension going, the opposite approach is also useful: not to show or say what would be expected, as when a character fails to react. A trope of the horror genre is to give the audience information about the monster that makes it far more dangerous than previously known, information unknown to the hero or heroine–then to send the sympathetic characters on a maneuver certain to engage the monster at its worst. Patrons in movie theaters often shout a warning to them, so engaged are they in already knowing what could happen and hoping it won’t. When the audience knows, or wants to know, more about a character or situation than the world of the story reveals, this multi-layered subtext enhances the experience of the audience/reader as long as they can discover it for themselves. For the writer, it raises the quality of the work, holds attention, and keeps curiosity high about the next page.
Subtext permeates material written for a camera’s perspective, and it also colors popular fiction. Especially in comedy, it’s part of the game, part of the fun, to suss out clues to the hidden meanings and subtle dynamics of interchanges between characters. These clues often come in the form of body language, voice volume, personal “codes”, unconscious gestures, spatial positioning, and facial expressions. And the nonverbal signals can work together, combining to repeat and emphasize or to shade and modify what is meant; or they can totally contradict the verbal message being sent.
Because the camera focuses so much on an actor’s face these days, writers who frequently watch contemporary movies have the benefit of seeing many different faces in extreme close-up. One can look back at the last fifty years of films and see that the camera has gotten ever closer to its subject, where a twitch of an eyebrow or the wink of an eye conveys something beneath the surface. The best actors are masters of this, filling every moment they’re on screen with fascinating nuanced expressions. If these signals are supposed to be part of the “message” of a scene, the unspoken dialogue, one would think that a script would tell the director and actor to be sure it’s performed and captured correctly, yes? Not so.
The important difference between popular prose fiction and screenplays is this: describing telltale nonverbal expressions and gestures belongs in the work of the fiction writer. But it must be eliminated from the work of the screenwriter!
“Don’t direct!” is a rule cited frequently to screenwriters. “Directing” here means stating exactly how a segment of dialogue is to be spoken, what the actor’s expression and gestures should be, and how the hearer is supposed to react. It can also mean saying where the camera is supposed to be and how the actors move.
In a screenplay where an actor, a studio gatekeeper or other in-house reader is expected to read and rate it, the writer can suggest attitudes and emotions in movements meant to show subtext underlying the characters’ behavior and expressions, but it must be done with an extremely light touch. Too much, and it steps on the toes of the director and the actors. They are all professionals, they have imagination and insights, and they will collaborate about how to play a scene, about what the writer’s words mean. They may even find a meaning the writer didn’t realize was there in the words on the page. Script readers are very sensitive to this.
Fiction writers get to ignore that rule. For them, the question becomes how to enrich and deepen passages of important dialogue by doing just that: directing the reader’s attention to the unspoken communication that helps them see and understand the scene.
Inserting a description of a character’s facial expressions is one way to suggest emotions and reactions, as well as to enhance the pacing of “talky” scenes. To break away from the face to a character’s movements or body language can detract from the intensity of some conversations; it can also read as “stagey” and artificial in the middle of an argument. How many times have we read scenes where conflict comes to the surface and one character “slams his hand down” on something, or “storms out of a room” or “slams a door”? But putting in a brief reference to a character’s facial movements keeps the intensity up.
Another reason to include facial expressions in passages of fictitious dialogue is that they can cure a problematic scene, if nothing else works, and even improve it. When a string of dialogue sans attribution threatens to get the reader confused, that confusion could be cleared up with “He said” and “She said.” But it can also be erased by describing something about the face of the character who is speaking that is completely different from others in that scene.
In addition to the expressions that pass across a character’s face, writers can use the observation that people touch their faces unconsciously all the time. How and how often varies according to culture and age, providing the opportunity for comedy again. These movements can also hint that something lies below the surface, beneath the apparent dynamics of a situation that is not what it seems.
Scientists working with facial recognition software, law enforcement agencies like the FBI, and artists like painters or sculptors all see a face in its parts as well as in its totality. The eyebrows can distort a face into a scowl, or they can lift with delight. The nose can wrinkle with distaste or disgust (two different emotions) as well as moving to lift one nostril only, as part of a sneer. Without changing anything else on a “neutral” facial palette, one zone of expression can express a wide range of meanings via subtle changes in muscle tension and shape.
This gives a fiction writer a huge number of options. Descriptions of characters need not be dumped into an introductory paragraph, all at once, but can be teased out via all the nonverbal communication that ensues naturally in a scene, including facial expressions.
For the screenwriter, the script has to be so good that the reader’s emotional responses can be predicted, so good that the pleasure of reading this particular script begins at once and doesn’t stop until “Fade Out”, with the reader happily imagining how the lines will sound and perhaps even imagining how specific actors will play the best roles.
Screenwriters and writers of popular fiction would both do well to remember how, with a camera so close to the actor’s face, it becomes a tapestry of movement. It’s really where the action is now.
Cash Anthony is an award-winning Houston screenwriter, author, editor, and director for stage and film. Her short stories have appeared in A Death in Texas, Dead and Breakfast, A Box of Texas Chocolates, Twisted Tales of Texas Landmarks,Underground Texas, and Deadly Diversions. She holds a B.A. in Plan II and a J.D. from The University of Texas at Austin.