Wednesday, May 23, 2012

23. How to insert background information in dialogue

As a group, writers tend to be very generous with their colleagues. Nobody exemplifies that spirit better than my mentor, the late Robert Cenedella. Bob taught me the most important things I know about writing in the early 1970’s, when I worked for him first as a secretary and then as a script writer. Bob was a writer who had done it all: articles; short stories; an acclaimed novel (A Little to the East—well worth searching out); live and taped television dramas, including soap operas. At the time I met him, Bob was Head Writer for Another World, and just starting a spinoff, called Somerset.

bob-Cenedella_thumb1                                                                          Bob Cenedella

Lessons from my Mentor, Part I

Among the many things Bob taught me, one of the first and most important was what I call The Soap Opera Rule. The rule is simple: Never have one character tell another something they both already know.

I call it The Soap Opera Rule because it's often broken on soap operas, but you see flagrant violations of this rule all the time, in novels, stories, movies and nighttime TV shows. When The Soap Opera Rule is broken, it looks something like this:

Chet shook his head. "I feel so bad for you, Roger," he said. "First you spent all those years studying to be a PhD in astrophysics. Then you married Camille. The two of you were chosen to be the first couple on the moon. But then she got leprosy and died hideously. They kicked you off the project. And you haven't been the same since."

Roger choked back a sob. "I didn't know it showed!"

 Well, okay, they aren't usually this bad. But some come close.

The problem here is that the writer needs to insert a lot of background information into the script (or novel, or whatever). So he just throws it all in. (Whew! That’s over!) But there are many better, more natural ways to get that information across. One way would be for Chet to think about some of the facts during his conversation with Roger:

Looking at his friend's gaunt face, Chet couldn't help feeling sorry for Roger. All that work getting the PhD in astrophysics, all the training he and Camille had gone through, and then she had the bad luck to get leprosy.

"We're all sorry you won't be going on the mission, Roger," he said.

"Yeah, sure," Roger said. "If you're all so sorry, then why was I kicked off the project?"

Chet didn't answer for a moment. Roger had been so touchy since Camille had died. "I don't know," he said finally. "Rotten luck all the way around."

Alternatively, you could have Chet discuss the situation with someone who doesn't know about Roger's situation (during a scene that is about something else—or it will appear gratuitous); or put it in a flashback; or drop the pieces of information bit by bit in other scenes.

Whichever way you decide to impart the information, always remind yourself that you are informing the audience or reader, not one of the characters who already knows or should know.

Tomorrow: how to get from point A to point B.


  1. KL -- This is an interesting point, but if you have ever self-monitored the everyday conversations you have had with other people, I think you will often find yourself saying things to them in exactly this manner, viz., telling them lots of things they already know. I find myself doing it when I know that the other person wants to hear those things, because it gives them some reassurance that I've listened to them and sympathized with them and been aware of what they were going through, etc. If others do this besides me, then isn't avoiding this kind of dialog a way to avoid the way people talk in "real life," where there are no descriptive word-balloons above out heads?

  2. Good point, Dr. Dave, but if I or any other writer tried to make dialogue sound like real talk, nobody would read more than a paragraph or two. Real talk is repetitious and meandering, and full of place-holders, like "uh" and "um." The trick to writing good dialogue is to make it SOUND natural, which is not the same as making it sound exactly like real talk.

    1. Another good point there, KL. And although it sounds contradictory to my first comment, I agree with you in the context of writing, because I've seen a lot of verbatim transcripts and they are often NOT very clear or easy to follow. So, you really have to dress them up for the reader's sake, right? For example, I had to cross-examine "Buzz" Bissinger ("Friday Night Lights") in one of my federal cases several years ago regarding his account of certain dialog in his book ("A Prayer for the City") from a murder trial, and when I compared the actual trial transcript with Buzz's account in his book, there were remarkable differences, as he necessarily conceded.

    2. Thanks, Dr. Dave! That is very interesting, though not surprising.