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Write Time with Tony McHale - episode 5: dialogue & stage directions

Tony McHale / 02 June 2020

Dialogue is an essential ingredient in plays, TV dramas, comedies, films and novels, and good stage directions are also crucial.

Two people having a conversation
Every character has their own tone and own rhythm – you have to hear the character you’re writing.

Authentic dialogue

So far we have talked about the idea, plot, characters and story structure. This session is all about dialogue and stage directions.

Before we continue, here are the answers to last session’s trivia questions, which were about figuring out the novel from its opening line:

• ‘It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.’ – 1984 by George Orwell
• ‘When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.’ – To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee
• ‘Hale knew, before he’d been in Brighton three hours, that they meant to murder him.’ – Brighton Rock by Graham Greene

Dialogue is, of course, an essential ingredient in plays, TV dramas, comedies, films and novels. That’s not devaluing the crucial need for good stage directions.

The elements that constitute good and vital dialogue are…

1. Authenticity
2. Hearing the character's voice
3. Making sure the dialogue isn’t forced

Authenticity means it has to sound real. Phrases, idioms and expressions should fit the character and their environment. If the character is London born and bred, then the words they use must be consistent with a person with that background. Simply – they would never use words like ‘snicket’ or ‘ey up.’ (A ‘snicket’ is an alley way and ‘eh up’ means watch out – both peculiar to Yorkshire.) If you need help then try listening to the real thing – in a pub, on the radio or a download, or wherever, to pick up the way a person speaks.

Hearing the voice of the character. Every character has their own tone and own rhythm. A person can say the exact same words as another, but because of their individual speech pattern the meaning is totally different. You have to hear the character you’re writing. If you were working on a long running TV show, you would naturally start to ‘hear’ the main characters, the rhythm and the vocal quality of the actors.

The dialogue should never be forced just to accommodate a story point or a joke. The plot/story needs to come out naturally in the conversation. If you ever try and force something in, which every writer has tried to do now and then, it really sticks out like a sore thumb. Listen to how people talk with each other, not in nice neat sentences, but nevertheless there is a flow. Find ways of using the dialogue to tell the story. Say it out loud, see if it’s working. Get someone to read it with you, or better still get a couple of mates to read scenes – see how they sound. And if these mates happen to be actors, amateur or professional – so much the better.

Setting the scene

Stage directions function in the same way descriptions function in a novel. In a novel you have the opportunity and time to give detailed descriptions of characters, locations and actions. When it comes to stage directions in scripts, there are two questions that most people are concerned about, which are:

1. Do I write all the stage directions?
Yes – you as a screen writer/script writer/playwright write all the stage directions. It is all down to you: where, when, who and how. As is the dialogue – it’s all down to you for every character.

2. How detailed should I make the stage directions?
A script is not like a novel, but you still need to get those same elements down. You have to let the reader know where they are, what the situation is and who’s involved, but as succinctly as possible. It has to be a ‘good read.’ The reader, of course, is anyone, from the initial script reader to the director. Some writers are also quite specific about camera angles and shots. Personally, I only include that type of detail when I feel it’s really critical to the storytelling. As I’ve said before: STORY IS GOD.

Here’s a quick example of some stage directions from a film script.



A deafening noise ... really loud!!! Horses hooves pounding at speed on wet cobbles.


The rain is lashing down into the gnarled face of the DRIVER. He urges on his two horses with his whip, while screaming at them.

Go on ...! Go on ...!


The whip cracks over the heads of the horses. Their nostrils flare as their coats sweat and their muscles strain to go faster - the noise still deafening.


And there is the cab careering along the rain drenched, empty cobbled street. In the distance, silhouetted by the moonlight, is Windsor castle. The Driver constantly cracking his whip ...


Being buffeted from side to side are ADAM ADAMANT and LADY CONSTANCE LYDIA BLACKWELL and Constance’s MAID - MARTHA. Adamant is the epitome of a Victorian gent, dapper, refined, erect and complete with swordstick. He stares intensely out of the window. Constance in any century would be beautiful. Refined features, an air of confidence mixed with vulnerability and despite the ‘unsexy’ Victorian garb complete with bonnet, she still somehow is sexy. Martha’s just sixteen and is clinging on for dear life as the carriage throws her about.


So, the idea is, do it as succinctly as possible.

Now for this session’s trivia questions, which are all to do with lines of dialogue. You have to name the film in the case of the first one, the book in the case of the second and the third is a play.

• "Oh, no, it wasn't the airplanes. It was Beauty killed the Beast."
• “Your firm writes most highly of your talents. They say you are a man of good... taste.”
• “I got brown sandwiches and green sandwiches. It's either very new cheese or very old meat.”

Weekly assignment: Choose two or three possible scenes from your ‘treatment/short story’ and practice writing the dialogue for those scenes. Read it out loud, preferably with another person, and if possible, get a couple of people to read them while you listen and decide what’s working and what isn’t. Re-write to improve. There is no shame in re-writing.

And remember the three rules:

1. Writers write
2. Simple isn’t easy


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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.