I’ve said it before: the worst thing one can see in the margin by one’s dialogue are those three little words…
ON THE NOSE
But how can one avoid one’s characters sounding artificial? The problem mainly seems to arise when characters’ dialogue bears too much responsibility when it comes to advancing the plot (through the convenient exchange of information between characters) or revealing the internal complexion of a character (through the clumsy revelation of psychological and emotional truths).
Given the above, and drawing inspiration from other more experienced commentators on screenwriting technique (e.g. Dara Marks, Robert McKee, John Truby et al.), I’ve been focusing in my own work and in my work with other writers on understanding the role of subtext in dialogue. Control the gap between what the character says and what they feel and want at both conscious and more unconscious levels, and I believe one stands a chance of fulfilling the storyteller’s basic brief: dramatising how processes of internal change and external change unfold and interrelate over time in relation to a protagonist in whom we’ve emotionally invested and that protagonist’s core dramatic problem.
“Show, don’t tell”, in other words.
[Spoilers...] In seminars and lectures I’ve given in the past, I’ve shown scenes from Lars and the Real Girl (2007, dir. Craig Gillespie) to help explain the power of understanding the difference between the surface meaning of dialogue, and the subtext that lies beneath, only because the central concept clearly, if also cleverly, illustrates the difference.
Watch the following clip…
The film, written by Nancy Oliver, tells the story of Lars (Ryan Gosling) who suffers deep mental trauma on account of his mother’s death during his birth (this all set up and sustained with an admirable lightness of touch). The “Real Girl” of the title, of course, refers to Bianca, the anatomically correct “sex doll” in whom Lars invests a massive fantasy life as a way of coping with his trauma. We know he doesn’t believe that Bianca is real; we know the film is more complex than that, a “deadpan” illustration of a character’s psychological battle with both his guilt and the fantasy life he’s invented as a way of surviving that guilt.
The film makes for an excellent tool for illustrating subtext in action because the gap between the surface meaning or what Lars says to and about Bianca and what he wants and feels deep inside is both clear (as clear as Bianca is physically visible and present on screen) and complex (because we know everything Lars says about Bianca inescapably indicates the psychological battle Lars is fighting silently and sub-textually within himself).
The technique here requires a trust in how the forces of conflict confronting the protagonist both internally and externally are the substantial component of the story, and that the dialogue in a film is an expression of these invisible forces of conflict, rarely a description of them. To paraphrase Hitchcock: show the story of unfolding conflict visually, and “let the talk be part of the atmosphere.”
In Valkyrie (2008, Brian Singer), the writer Christopher McQuarrie has an enviable glut of subtextual conflict upon which to draw. The ultimate origin point of external conflict in his story is none other than Adolf Hitler himself (played by David Bamber) and his cohort of evil sidekicks: a reliable epicentre of powerful antagonism in the story. Any action the protagonist and his allies even contemplate taking against this “heart of darkness” can’t help but generate in the audience a strong sense of the characters’ mortal fears and doubts.
In this scene, we see the story’s heroic protagonist Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise), accompanied by his more cautious ally Olbricht (Bill Nighy), make first contact with the powerful General Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) with a view to seeing if he will join a rebellion.
The scene offers a powerful illustration of subtext in action. Our hero and his ally are deep inside a web of paranoid, lethal corruption. To even intimate their mutinous intention to the General is to run the instant risk of terrible death. And so the scene can happily function without ever directly voicing the key details of the circumstances at hand. The audience are more than clear about what the characters want and also possess a chilling sense of what the characters fear, this made all the more palpable by decades of supporting historical information.
I guess not every scene nor every scenario will offer a writer such startling possibilities as Lars and the Real Girl or Valkyrie when it comes to conveying the core force of unfolding conflict underneath the surface of the characters’ spoken words. But I believe that screenwriting that effects the audience most strongly carries out this kind of continual and detailed assault on the audience’s unconscious understanding of the characters’ emotional experience. Much of this is generated in performance, and some also generated by the surface logic of a story, of course. But it’s evident that control of subtextual meaning is a pivotal part of the process and its details are best obsessively explored.
Notice that in the scene in Valkyrie, a sensitivity towards subtext isn’t just part of the approach to the writing; it actually contributes to how the plot develops. Stauffenberg and Olbricht have come to sound out Fromm’s potential as an ally. Stauffenberg knows how carefully they must tread; but Olbricht (whose proneness to nerves later contributes to the story’s tragic outcomes) fluffs his lines (2:01) and reveals their subtextual intentions too bluntly at the crucial moment. Such “on the nose” behaviour in such a tense situation unsettles Fromm just when Stauffenberg was reeling him in, and so the scene ends with our protagonist having taken a backward step.