Drama Ministry

What Makes Dialogue Good?

Despite ever-increasing budgets for high-tech movies, great movies are first and foremost great stories. And on screen, it's dialogue that unfolds the story. The same is true for church drama. Since we typically don't have the luxury of extensive sets and lighting, it's important to focus on what we can do well: dialogue.

If you're doing church drama on a regular basis, you know how hard it is to find scripts with dialogue that really connects with the audience. So what is it that makes dialogue good?

1. Good dialogue sounds like real people talking.
This is not rocket science. Read the script arid ask yourself if you can picture yourself saying those things. Or your husband or your son or your neighbor. If you can't, toss the script. Now obviously, if it's a comedy or a farce, you'll have lines that aren't realistic. But assuming the script is meant to portray reality, it must sound like real conversation.

Practically, that means things aren't tidy. Real people aren't neat when they talk. They stammer, they pause, they interrupt each other. They repeat themselves and grope for the right word. If the script is totally sanitized of ordinary verbal banter, it won't sound real. Look for scripts that sound real.

2. Good dialogue is short dialogue.
The number one tip off for bad dialogue is long, teachy lines. When people talk, they don't dominate each other with long monologues. They banter back and forth. Watch your favorite show on TV and notice how short the lines are.

There are some exceptions. Sometimes a particular character will be so angry or depressed or frightened that the other person in the scene will have a lot more to say. That fits the mood and characterization of the script. But if you just glance down at a script and see paragraph-long lines for each character, watch out. It looks suspiciously like a lecture.

3. Good dialogue makes it hard to tell who's right and who's wrong.
Your primary goal in church drama is to draw the audience into the topic. And the best way to draw them in is to create a mystery for them. Not the kind of mystery that leaves them wondering what it was you were saying. Rather, an Agatha Christie type mystery.

People are moral beings. So any time you tell them a story, they naturally want to find out who the good guys and bad guys are. They're looking to categorize the characters. Once they find out who's right and who's wrong, they can rest. They can dismiss the script because in their mind, the issue is solved; everything will be predictable from here on out.

Here's where the tension comes in. We don't really want them to rest. We want to keep them "into" the issue, and the best way to do that is to make them keep working. Don't give them obvious clues about who's right and who's wrong. Make your characters complicated enough that they're hard to categorize. Just when the audience thinks they know a character is "bad," she says something good or true or honest - something that your audience has felt like saying.

Real people are a mix of good and bad. Real people are more complicated than we sometimes portray them in church drama.

I'm not saying that trust is relative or that there's no real distinction between good and evil. But we are simultaneously noble and base.

Good dialogue will hold an audience because it keeps them thinking and guessing and seeing their imperfect selves on stage. It won't be a lecture script where one person is a thinly disguised teacher clarifying the mistaken notions of the unspiritual dolt beside him.

Scripts like that only make teachers feel more smug and dolts feel more guilty.

The best dialogue sounds natural, has a lively pace of short one- to two-sentence lines and realistically portrays characters as multi-dimensional. Good dialogue is the foundation of a good script, and crucial to a good presentation.

Posted in: Directing

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