By Darius Dunn
Any real drama geek will tell you that, the best dramas spend much of the narrative examining the central theme. Seeing how dramatic films are based on the theatrical tradition, dialogue is the primary means for examination. It establishes character, displays motivations, and raises tensions, all while exploring the central theme. Poor pacing is often a malady of dramas that misuse dialogue; as, the “Show don’t tell” maxim usually causes the development of a film’s theme to suffer excruciatingly slow progression—if not rendering it utterly indeterminate. In such instances, when the tension finally mounts into a climax, what should be an intense spectacle often disappoints audiences, rather than rewarding them for their intellectual and emotional investment. To address this issue, the best writers and directors use the characters’ thoughts, expressed through conversation, to quickly depict who they are and what motivates them. Every discussion that follows, even if it doesn’t seem that way upon first introductions, is hard at work progressing the central themes and conflict the creators mean to examine. As an example, let’s look at HBO’s hit series, Westworld.
In season 1, episode 5 titled, Contrapasso, Ford, Chief Operations Officer of the theme park, discusses motive and narrative, ironically, with The Man in Black. During this conversation—SPOILER ALERT—Ford questions just why it is that The Man in Black wishes to access the “Center of the maze.” To which, The Man in Black responds, after much careful consideration (also delivered through the character’s dialogue), that he’s looking for “…something true.” Thus, his central theme emerges: he’s looking for authenticity in a world of fantasy. This existential crisis doesn’t reveal itself in reckless behavior on the part of The Man in Black. It isn’t after many minutes of wordless brooding into dusk, or silently contemplating his reflection in a troubled pool that his central premise is revealed. No, the subtle expression of his theme is not obscured by “Show don’t tell.” To wit, the writers’ subtle use of dialogue discloses theme.
Because dialogue is the action in dramatic films, moments that show the audience what drives the character is time wasted. For example, after the audience enjoys The Man in Black running amuck, seemingly on an aimless quest for chaos, dialogue exchanged in the previously mentioned scene clearly contextualizes his quest as the character’s voyage to personal meaning. Without this dialogue, and only relying on symbols, the frivolous nature of his mission might be inscrutable. It is only as we hear his thoughts framed by his words that we see him for who he is. The Man in Black’s arch will be heightened through further conversation, but neither the one referenced her, nor the ones to come ever waist any words. They are all vital, desperate assertions that dance back and forth between his lips and those of the individual characters matching his often-surprised gaze.
This last element is most essential. Every word of dialogue must examine and develop the central theme. By rendering no words inert, the best writers and directors keep the forward motion of plot and theme within reach of audience’s attention. There is nothing worse than watching a tense, dramatic moment, in which you are totally engrossed, only for the dialogue to trail off into unnecessary blather. It is only if every word of dialogue accomplishes its goal, never wasting so much as a syllable on triviality, that the emotions and reason conveyed during these discussions will later produce the cathartic payoff this genre was created to achieve. Evidence of efficient dialogue’s reliability as the strongest method for revealing motive and theme is offered by Adam Sexton: he wrote the book on tension in dialogue. In his book, Master Class in fiction Writing, he writes:
As thousands of years of drama have demonstrated, it’s almost impossible to include too much dialogue in a story, if that dialogue is competently written….This is due to the fact that dialogue is action instead of mere information. It’s concrete (we can hear it, in our minds) rather than abstract. (Sexton 107)
“Competently written” excludes appendages that divest audience-interest in the progression of character, narrative, or central theme. Hence, the essential focus is rightly placed on dialogue as the vessel for delivering character and theme.
Rapidly establishing character and theme, through the efficient use of dialogue, is the superseding tenants of great drama. Films are short; so, every exchange must examine and gesticulate the theme’s impact on the film’s characters and the audience, leaving all adjunct information littered on the cutting room floor. Because let’s face it, after sitting through two or more hours of brooding characters, slow paced narrative development, and a sparse bit of tension that offers no emotional payoff, to walk away from a film, not knowing what the writer or director was saying about the subject of the film is the maddening worse-case scenario all cinephiles dread. One such example is Nicolas Winding Refn’s Neon Demon.
This obtuse, inscrutable presentation is lacking impactful dialogue. An even worse sin, it relies too heavily on “Show don’t tell,” which in turn, losses the audience both throughout the entirety of the film, and in the transitions between scenes.
In contrast, Jonathon Nolan’s Westworld is one example of the perfect drama. While many other entries in the genre suffer from the aforementioned problems, his tight narrative offers a composition that sees every conversation, and every bit of development between, snuggly fit together like puzzle pieces. Take for instance the scene where Deloris and William narrowly escape disaster in the remote town of Pariah. This scene, which appears near the end of the episode titled, Contrapasso catches up with Deloris and William after they exit an orgy. Although brief, this small bit of dialogue does just what it is meant to do: it develops character and theme with no wasted words. The Confederados, a group of brusque ex-military mercenaries, corner Deloris and William in a desolate den beyond the building they just escaped. With their lives in the balance under the menacing threat of ruthless killers, Deloris, against her apparent core programming, surprisingly shoots all the men dead. Afterwards, William asks how it was possible that she had taken the action of “killing” Confederados to save him. She answered “You said ‘People come here to change the story of their lives.’ I imaged a story where I didn’t have to be the damsel.” This succinct chat further developed Deloris’s evolution toward becoming a person; as, it revealed in her a rich inner world in flux. The only additional dialogue offered was a warning from Deloris to escape to a passing train. No distant gazes. No brooding expressions. Just the necessary beat in response to Deloris’s bold declaration, and then suddenly both characters run from the sight of the shooting and onto the accelerating train.
Although the elements of good drama are numerous and require a dexterous, texture-sensitive touch to tease out those components that will leave a lasting mark on the audience, competent dialogue is the key element, separating the best dramas from those pedestrian, grating affronts to the most classic and universally beloved genre in all of storytelling.
“Contrapasso.” Westworld: The Complete First Season, written by Dominic Mitchell & Lisa Joy,
directed by Jonny Campbell, HBO, 2016.
Sexton, Adam. Masterclass in Fiction Writing: Techniques from Austen, Hemingway, and other
Greats. New York; McCraw-Hill, 2006. 107. Print.
The Neon Demon. Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn, Broad Green Pictures, 2016. Film.