Friday, July 24, 2009

The Art Of Dialog: Active vs. Reactive

Dialog. The final frontier...wait that's not right. Dialog; the bane of many writers, the reason for script supervisors, the basis of every story, every character and every moment. Even silent films included subtextual dialog. It had to be to fit on the intertitle.
But what is dialog? Is it the expression of feelings, the suppression of feelings? Or perhaps it's both and neither. Well-written dialog works in any movie whether the dialog is funny and the story is serious or vice-versa. The key abstraction to be gained from dialog in general is that it's all either ACTIVE or REACTIVE, meaning that it comes from the initiation of a idea or the reaction to it.
These two ideas can then be abstracted to include all types of dialog as noted:

1. Probing - an attempt to gain information
2. Sarcastic - an attempt to reverse the momentum
3. Abrupt - an attempt to end an interaction bluntly
4. Angry - an attempt to release tension
5. Despondent - an attempt to express negative emotions
6. Inhibiting - an attempt to disallow undermine
7. Supportive - an attempt to relate acceptance
8. Uncaring - an attempt to relate lack of concern
9. Demanding - an attempt to overwhelm opinion
10. Prohibitive - an attempt to change direction

As you can see, all of these types are defined here as an attempt as that what all dialog is: an attempt to emote to the viewer through the receiver of the active dialog and responder to the active dialog using a reactive statement.
One thing that should be noted is that this dialog can increase in intensity without changing it's "form."
There are countless permutation of the preceding but in effect all dialog CAN BE abstracted in this way. If you carefully study each of these types you will notice that they are all based in emotion. This is because cinema is emotion. We are attracted to it because it enables us to experience emotional states we normally don't.
These types of dialog are not limited to the protag or the antag, but everyone in the narrative will use these as they do elicit emotion and thereby drama. As time permits we will update this post to show successful movies that have these and unsuccessful movies that don't.
When you look at dialog using these ten types you can go back and forth with the juxtaposed types.

For every PROBING line there should be a REVEALING line.
For every SARCASTIC line there should be a SERIOUS line.
For every ABRUPT line there should be a CALM line.
For every ANGRY line there should be a NICE line.
For every DESPONDENT line there should be a HAPPY line.
For every INHIBITING line there should be an ENCOURAGING line.
For every SUPPORTIVE line there should be an UNCOOPERATIVE line.
For every UNCARING line there should be a CARING one.
For every DEMANDING line there should be a TRIVIAL line.
For every PROHIBITIVE line there should be an UNRESTRICTIVE line.

You may wonder how this works but it's the same as everything in cinema. There has to be a juxtaposed position for everything. Two people who agree make no conflict. Two people who have the same opinion make no drama.
Of course this is an abstract concept but what isn't?
The key is that dialog is the most important thing in the movie. You can have a great story but if the "personalities" don't come through the story will fall flat. I feel that this is the level beneath "SUBTEXT."
All subtext has a basis in one of these 10 types as these are a good basis for underlying meaning.

As examples we can use nearly any movie ever made to show this form.

The Dark Knight:
Begins with a PROBING question: Who is the Joker; the response: Some nut in a purple suit.

Later we get a somewhat SARCASTIC line: No I'm supposed to kill the bus driver.

This could also be considered ABRUPT in that the receiver is then hit by a bus.

Next up is the ANGRY dialog spouted by the mob banker when he runs out of bullets.

The DESPONDENT dialog starts with the MOB members who are becoming overwhelmed by the BAT on one side and the Joker on the other.

The INHIBITING dialog is indicative of the relationship between Harvey and Rachel and Bruce where Bruce states that Harvey is the better to support than Batman.

Rachel is the definition of SUPPORTIVE dialog throughout the movie where she desires Harvey's strength and helps him to maintain it.

The UNCARING dialog is the province of the Joker who speaks only in terms of hate. It would seem that the Joker would be ANGER but he's not angry, just uncaring about others.

The DEMANDING dialog definitely goes to Batman as is evidenced by all of his interactions with criminals.

The PROHIBITIVE dialog is probably most realized by HARVEY who tries to convince Gordon of the corruption in his department.

We won't map the opposite dialog responses but we live it to the THREE readers we have to do the same with other films. It will work with any film and though there will be times when characters seem to use more than one type, that is not consistent with the fact that very few people change, even in cinema. You can usually determine these types by the first lines uttered by the character and will be matched with their Personality and actions.

Well, that's all for now, but there will be more to come. In the meantime,



The Kid In The Front Row said...

Dude, you take the fun out of dialogue! Dialogue is what people say. That's all. If you write what feels true, it'll be screenwriting gold. The rest is mere details!

Christian H. said...

Dialog IS the movie. The better you can abstract all manner of cinema the better your chances of getting butts in the seats.

Shane Black is not famous for his eccentric scripts (with viewers) but his great dialog (banter). Just look at The Lethal Weapon films and you will find where Riggs and Murtaugh are in this abstract.

BTW, what would put the fun back in? Do you think that UNK doesn't try to find a way to do the same quality writing every time?

That's all this is about. My whole blog that is. I invite you to peruse and comment. Writing is about interaction after all.

Kwinnky said...

This was really helpful. I'll be re-reading this right before my rewrite.

Christian H. said...

Thanks. I'll be updating this soon but the idea is to help people find their meaning.
I, in no way consider myself a guru and though I've gotten considers for writing and as a writer, the elusive sale has yet to come.
I just hope I can help some writers the way I've been helped - with discourse.

Feel free to "steal" anything you find useful.

Lake said...

Thank you for the info. In my first drafts, I'm always in love with the discussions my characters have. In subsequent reads, I want to stuff things in their mouths to shut them up because they're boring me. I'm aware that what they say must propel a story, of course, but the statement, "Two people who agree make no conflict," explains why.