Why Improvising Dialogue Doesn’t Always Work

Actors love improvising their dialogue. It makes them feel more in touch with the character. Directors tolerate improvisation: a chance to cut loose now and then keeps the actor fresh and engaged through multiples takes of the same scene.  (Which sometimes leads to actors convincing themselves they improvised the dialogue for the entire movie: they remember than they improvised in this scene and that scene, and forget that the improvised take wasn’t actually the one that was used…)

So, if improvisation is so good for the on-set process, why isn’t it universally used? Why do writers bother writing dialogue at all?

Mainly because writers and actors have different instincts when it comes to dialogue.

When writing dialogue, a writer’s instinct is to BURY the true meaning under a layer of words. A character says  “I heard you got the promotion”, but he means “You butt-kissing bastard, that job should have been mine.”

The actor’s instinct, as you might have guessed, is to EXPOSE meaning through dialogue. They pick up the script containing that line, and they use the tools at their disposal – voice, facial expression, phrasing, body language and sheer belief that they are that character – to bring the buried meaning back to the surface of their performance.

When the writers write the lines and the actors perform them, the two techniques are a perfect fit, and the script is given life. But what happens when the actors are writing the lines as well as saying them – that is, improvising?

Their instinct is still to expose character and meaning, not to bury it. So they tend to improvise lines that have all their meaning right on the surface, lines that say exactly what they mean. That’s pretty much the definition of melodrama – and without realizing it, they’re also making it impossible for themselves to do what they do best, excavate hidden meaning, so their performance becomes shallow and unconvincing.

There are a few exceptions: improvisation works well in comedy, but comedy is a form that thrives on surface meaning, on characters saying exactly what they’re thinking. There’s Mike Leigh – but even he eventually pins down a script that the actors stick to, and he selects his casts very carefully. And there are a few actors who understand the difference in the writing and acting processes and can switch between them.

But on the whole, when writers baulk at the idea of an actor improvising all their dialogue, we’re not being precious about our contribution to the film. We’re recognizing those two complimentary processes.  So, let’s think of improvisation as a valuable tool for rehearsal, not a process to create filmable work…

Things Writers Can Learn From Actors

Been to London for a few days, which gave me a chance to go to the theatre and marvel at what actors do with scripts. But is there anything we as writers can learn from the acting process?  I think there is…

Learn to respect each character’s ”moments”.  I had the great pleasure of seeing Imelda Staunton and Michael Ball in Sweeney Todd, and one moment in particular struck me as an example of how a great actor is generous to their fellow performers.

After Sweeney loses his first chance at revenge, he has a spectacular song packed with grief and rage, one of the most powerful things Sondheim ever wrote. In the stunned silence that invariably follows, Mrs. Lovett chips in ”Yes, that’s all very well…”  The line’s usually played for laughs, and it works – but it risks undercutting Sweeney’s pivotal character revelation, and  cheating the audience of the impact of his grief.

But great actors are generous. Imelda Staunton, supported by the director, has the confidence to virtually throw the line away – just a soothing murmur, the first words that come into her head to calm him down. She doesn’t need the laugh – she gets plenty elsewhere, and well deserved – and both Sweeney and the story benefit from that moment playing at full effect.

And you as a writer can be generous to your characters. If someone has a moment, let it play. Don’t rush it, don’t cheapen it, don’t undercut it. Give your characters room to work, and your story will benefit.

No one can play an emotion. Up and down the country, amateur players, school plays and drama groups are full of people ”acting happy”, ”acting upset”, ”acting distraught”. At best, it comes across as melodrama. At worst, it’s incomprehensible to the audience, a sequence of random shouting, laughing and crying that bears no resemblance to human life.

An actor can’t play an emotion. They can only play a thought – and then, because they’re actors and that’s their brand of magic, the emotion appears without conscious effort on their part. An actor can’t ”act sad”, but they can run through their character’s train of thought about Aunt Lucy’s tragic death, and as they do, the tears come unbidden.

In the same way, the characters you write don’t just ”have” feelings. They think things. They react. They experience life. When you’re writing an emotional scene, work out what they’re thinking, and the emotional content of your story will flow naturally from that, rather than having to be imposed or provoked by you.

Emotion needs to be ”put” somewhere.  When an actor experience that emotion –  let’s say anger  –  they can’t just stand there and ”be angry”. They need to do something with it. Either they need a line to express it, or an action.

And so do your characters. No one just sits there and feels stuff. They look for a way to deal with it – in words or in actions. Even suppressing their feelings is effectively an action. So when you put a character in a high-emotion situation, particularly after an a revelation or reversal of some kind, think about the best action or the best line of dialogue to allow them to express, release, and deal with their feelings.  It will feel more real – and you’re helping the actor to play the scene, too.