What is a Story, and Why Does It Matter?

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Part 5: Dialog - A Great Tool to Help Tell a Story

The first major movie with sound was made in 1927. For a few decades before that, people watched silent movies. They weren't silent because none of the characters in them talked to each other! The technology to sync sound with moving images hadn't been developed yet. The actors/actresses talked, but the audience had to read their conversations in subtitles. Can a story exist in which no one talks to anyone else? Maybe - but it's a rare story indeed. Characters communicating with each other is a vital part of almost all stories.

Dialog, in any form - discussing, arguing, joking, pleading - is a potent tool that we can use in creating scripts. But not all dialogs are equal. Some are interesting, some boring. Some sound natural, some unrealistic. Some touch people, others might repel them. How can we create effective dialogs for our scripts, that hold the listeners' attention and help them understand the message?

When I teach about creating good dialogs, we discuss the questions and points listed below. If your script-development team and partners ask themselves these questions when preparing material to record, always with the specific target audience in mind, you will develop increasingly effective dialogs for scripts.

1. What is our purpose for this particular dialog?

  • To make an interesting introduction
  • To connect parts of the script together
  • To use dialog for an entire script

2. What is the theme of this dialog? What are we trying to communicate to the listeners? This will affect:

  • mood of the dialog (serious, cheerful, encouraging, warning, etc.)
  • pace of the dialog (fast-paced, slow and steady, etc.)

If there is more than one dialog in the script, they may have different themes, thus, different moods and paces.

3. What is the setting where the people in the dialog are speaking with each other? The dialog will only IMPLY the setting, but it's necessary that you, the creators of it, know WHERE and WHEN the dialog is taking place. How will you indicate this in ways that sound like natural speech?

  • a. place the dialog is happening
  • b. time the dialog is happening (time of day, or era in history, depending on what's important)
  • c. atmosphere of the dialog (a sense of fear, frustration, joy, anticipation, etc.)

4. Who are the characters? What is the purpose of each one?

  • struggling character and steady character - One is asking questions, and the other answering them. Purposes: inform, encourage, teach
  • struggling character and struggling character - Both are asking questions and trying to figure out answers. Purposes: helps audience relate, helps to expose the problems and needs audience is facing
  • good character and bad character - Debating each other, having an argument or dispute. Purposes: Ideas and attitudes of good character(s) can contrast with those of bad character(s)

5. What is the relationship of the characters to each other?

  • strangers - Why are these strangers talking with each other? What is gained by making the characters strangers?
  • people who know each other - Use the trust level, respect level (or lack of it) of their relationship to allow characters to talk about deep and important issues

6. What will indicate the characters' personalities and roles? In real life, people have personalities, so it's natural for characters in dialogs to display personalities.

7. What is the INCITING INCIDENT? What makes the characters begin communicating with each other?

NOTE that the first sound in a dialog does not have to be speech. It can be the sound of something happening (for example, a dish breaking), or a non-verbal sound from the character(s) (for example, groaning, laughing).

Effective Dialog Sounds Like Natural Speech, but is Carefully Constructed to be Interesting:

1. Gives listeners enough information to sense the CONTEXT of the dialog.

2. Does not try to give the listeners information by making the characters say things that people would never say in real life. (Not - "I like the red dress with a green belt and black buttons that you are wearing today, wife." "Thank you, husband. Is that blue shirt with white buttons that you are wearing today new?")

3. Copies the way people really talk:

Many times, sentences are short.

Often sentences are not completed or aren't grammatically correct.

Sometimes people interrupt each other.

People use figures of speech. (Be careful about this. Only use figures of speech that your audience understands.)

4. Keeps the story moving forward:

The dialog isn't there just to fill time. It helps tell the story in an active way.

Choose words carefully for maximum effect.

Dialogs do not have to start with greetings! Instead, begin with the INCITING INCIDENT - Something happens that makes the people in the dialog want/need to communicate with each other.

5. Uses the characters' personalities and words:

To make the meaning of the content more clear

To help reach the listeners' emotions and minds

To make the recording more interesting and relevant to the listeners

Listening to good TV shows and movies (not silent ones ) is a great way to hear examples of effective dialogs. Notice how they reflect the points listed above. As visual media, they don't have to imply the setting by what the characters say, but other aspects are similar to what we can do to make our dialogs more powerful. In the end, we depend on the Holy Spirit to bring messages to life in people's hearts. But our part is to do the best work we can to make that possible. We can continue to challenge ourselves to develop greater skill in script development.

Part 6 Why Does It Matter? Thinking It Through in Review, the final part of this series, will give your team a set of questions to think about and discuss together.

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What is a Story, and Why Does It Matter? - A series of articles by Clair Rulison on the role of stories in GRN scripts