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…

The Magic Of Dialogue

It seems like writing dialogue is every writer’s favourite part of the process. Plot is tough and character demanding, but dialogue, that’s fun, right?

Maybe because dialogue doesn’t do the heavy lifting that other elements of the story do. Plot can be expressed through dialogue, but the best plot elements are the ones we can see happening, with few if any words. Character may be expressed in dialogue, but it’s more likely to be seen in what the character does. Because dialogue doesn’t have to support so much of the story, we can be far more playful and unconventional when writing it.

So what’s dialogue for? I think, essentially, it humanizes our story. Human beings love words. We love communicating our hopes and fears and dreams and bad jokes, and we love watching fictional characters do the same. It shows us the social shell the character puts on, the face the they show to the world – wise-cracking hipster, grumpy old man, stern mother. It shows us how they want to be perceived, and how they perceive themselves.

So, I thought I’d mention some dialogue tips and tricks – especially the one that lift your dialogue from simple communication into a deeper insight into the character’s soul…

The magic question: any time one character asks another “What have you done?”, a shiver goes down the audience’s spine. I think we’ve heard this precisely phrased question so many times in movies and TV shows, always preceding a catastrophically bad situation, that we automatically take it as a precursor to disaster. So if you need to create an instant feeling of doom, have someone ask the most active character  “What have you done?”

I’m not what you thought I was: This often manifests as a rhetorical question, say, “Who said I was here to help?”  or  “What makes you think I’m here to help?”  This is a question that needs to be answered by another question – who are you really? – and the place that question is asked is not on the screen, but in the heads of the audience. This dialogue trick invites the audience to become detectives, to enter into the film to unravel the real narrative – and once they start doing that, they’re hooked.

Unusual phrasing: We all spend a lot of time on making our dialogue sound completely natural for the character, the setting and the time. Indeed, if we’re writing a period piece, we may expend a lot of effort striking exactly the right balance between authenticity and modernity, conjuring up a period and a way of thinking while avoiding alienating the audience.

But deliberately using awkward, wordy or simply unusual phrasing for a line of dialogue can not only make it stand out – but tag it in the audience’s minds not simply as dialogue, but as a statement of theme.

Joss Whedon is the master of using unusual phrasing to emphasize a line; for example, in The Avengers, Nick Fury tells Loki,  “You have made me very desperate. You may not be glad that you did.”  He could simply have said  “You made me desperate. You may regret that,”  but it wouldn’t have had the impact that the more elaborate line has.

An excellent example of using phrasing to add deeper meaning, meanwhile, occurs in the current trailer for The Bourne Legacy.  Rescuing a woman whom we take to be the love interest/ Attractor for the story, Aaron Cross asks her,  “Do you want to live? Because I want to live.”  Note he doesn’t say  “survive” or  “stay alive”.  He says “live”, with all its connotation of ‘real’ life, ‘life in all its fullness’. This isn’t a movie about a man trying not to be killed; it’s about a man learning what it means to live. Or so that line would have us think.

The way a character speaks tells us how they view the world.  A character who phrases everything as a question is suspicious and uncertain; a character who makes bold, flat statements thinks they know the world and everyone around them pretty well.  Humour, pedantry, constant checking that they’ve understood their instructions – everyone reveals much more of themselves in the way they speak than they realise. So use that to your advantage.