What The Soaps Taught Me About Dialogue
by Marilyn Benner Sowyak
Writing effective dialogue can be a tricky thing to master. When I first joined Guiding Light as an actor, I knew little about writing. It was only when I was required to say the written word on camera that I began to understand the value of the words a writer pens for a character. As a nurse in real life, I felt compelled to help my character seem believable. Real nurses in my community cheered me on. “Show them what real nurses do.” I knew what they meant. At that time, nurses on soap operas were background ‘fluff’ that moved on and off camera spitting out silly lines like, “Yes, doctor. Right away.” In real life, the duties of the nurse had greatly evolved since the start of the fifty year old soap opera. This is a great example of the importance of staying true to the character. Make them real. Bring them to life.
“I really wouldn’t say that as a nurse,” became my most repeated line to the directors when I began to seek change. As they became receptive, I found myself changing not only my lines during dry rehearsal but I added and deleted lines for doctors Ed and Rick Bauer. Instead of, “Yes, doctor,” my words became, “His hemoglobin is six. He needs blood.” Soon, magic began to happen in our make believe hospital world. Set decorators stepped up their pace and brought in high tech equipment to match our sophisticated dialogue. We breathed life into our scenes by adding fast, urgent, technical movement; pushing buttons and slapping paddles against a chest to shock a dead heart back to life. Viewers stopped switching channels. By simply changing dialogue an entire boring hospital became exciting.
Later, when I was given the opportunity to write my own scenes from scratch, I wrote way too much medical jargon that even I would have had a hard time memorizing. Earlier on, when I was changing lines in the rehearsal hall, a writer had already paced the scene for me. Now, it was up to me to pace it. After having an editor scratch through my many lines, I began to understand rhythm as it applies to the spoken words in a scene. I also began to realize how scenes can become stiff “talking heads” if dialogue beats (character action) aren’t interspersed between lines. Beats bring life to the scene.
The pharmacy won’t send it. Sam won’t qualify for the clinical trial until he’s had fever forty-eight hours.
He’ll be dead by then! (LEANS IN AND WHISPERS URGENTLY) We can take a vial from Mr. Smith’s supply, give it to Sam and tell the pharmacy we broke it. No one will ever know.
In the world of television, scenes are timed. The delivery of information and movement is limited to the time allowed between commercial breaks. Words must be limited to allow for action. In the novel, the same rings true. It’s not the upcoming commercial that drives the need to strike unnecessary words; it’s the reader’s attention span you must strive to keep in check.
A fine balance between the dialogue and action has to happen. The result is building emotion in the viewer or reader. Tension. Sadness. Relief. Fear. Back and forth dialogue should be straight and to the point. Monologues should be stripped of every unnecessary word. Less is best. Last but not least, the author should always read the dialogue out loud to hear it and evaluate it for rhythm.