Danusia Iwaszko, ebullient and inspiring playwright/director, has just taught two workshops for us on the psychological action that generates dialogue. Scriptwriters have only the dialogue to tell the story, illuminate character, and engage the reader/audience emotionally. They rely on intelligent acting to add gestures and tone. Prose writers also have at their disposal the narrative, description, the character’s inner thoughts and motivations but if the short story writer or novelist approaches dialogue as if it’s their only means of communication the resulting lines will be more powerful.
Danusia provided us with the tools to get behind and beyond the words and identify why a character says what they say, the motivation, what actors call the psychological action. Every line is prompted by a conscious or unconscious desire on the part of the character to inspire a particular reaction in another character, be it fear, lust, admiration, envy or guilt. This is not about how a character says something (we are sticking to Elmore Leonard’s rules here and eschewing adverbs, she stated adamantly) but what his psychological intention is: to intimidate, belittle, charm, seduce, placate etc. No one should be talking for the sake of it, just to provide information or exposite plot, though they can do all those things at the same time as affecting another character.
Dialogue doesn’t have to be witty or dramatic or clever, though it can be all those things for different characters at different times. Really powerful dialogue can be repetitive and circular – think Pinter’s characters, echoing and over-lapping each other, bringing subtly different nuances to the same words and phrases.
Danusia extolled to us the virtues of a well-placed “Huh?” or “Huh!” or even “Huh…” “Mmmn” and “Uh uh” can also be pretty useful. You can get verbose and go for “Whatever” or “Okay” too. If the psychological action has been thought through by the writer to provide context, the “huh” works because we know what the character is doing with the ‘huh’.
One of my best lines of dialogue was lifted verbatim from a police documentary in which the Drug Squad raided a young black man’s home. The cops gave the usual official spiel about warrants and intoned the caution as decreed by the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984 to which the young guy responded, “Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.” His psychological action, his intention, was to make the police feel undermined, deflated, disempowered. It conveyed great disdain, utter contempt, world-weary “been there got the tee-shirt” boredom, resignation, uncooperativeness, a whole life experience. I would never have written this line without hearing someone say it in real life. It beat the hell out of “It’s-the-fuzz-okay-pigs-is-it-because-I-is-black-I-ain’t-done-nuffink-it’s-a-fair-cop-I’m-banged-to-rights-I want-a-phone-call etc etc.”
So next time you wrote a dialogue scene, be it for stage, screen, or prose, remember the Power of Huh!
Danusia Iwaszko will be teaching some workshops on our new monthly Stage & Screen course starting 13th October 2012.