Structured Dialogue

Chances are, I will not be writing the dialogue for Tinselfly, or any of my other games, for that matter. My wife, dialogue-writer-extraordinaire, will be fielding that.

Still, I think it behooves me to learn about dialogue writing, if only to figure out what I’d want, ideally. And I think what I want is dialogue like this one Doctor Who scene.

CLARA

So you actually live up here, on a cloud, in a box?

DOCTOR

I have done for a long time now.

CLARA

Blimey! You really know how to sulk, don’t you?

DOCTOR

I’m not sulking.

CLARA

You live in a box.

DOCTOR

That’s no more a box than you are a governess.

CLARA

Oh, spoken like a man! You know, you’re the same as all the rest: “Sweet little Clara, works at the Rose and Crown, ideas above their station”. Well, for your information, I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not —

Clara walks into the Tardis and the Doctor turns the lights on.

CLARA

— little.

DOCTOR

It’s called the Tardis. It can travel anywhere in time and space. And it’s mine.

CLARA

It’s… look at it…

DOCTOR

Go on, say it. Most people do.

Clara runs around the outside of the Tardis.

CLARA

It’s smaller on the outside.

DOCTOR

Okay. That is a first.

CLARA

Is it magic? Is it a machine?

DOCTOR

It’s a ship.

CLARA

A ship?

DOCTOR

Best ship in the universe.

CLARA

Is there a kitchen?

DOCTOR

Another first.

CLARA

I don’t know why I asked that; it’s just… I like making souffles.

DOCTOR

Souffles?

CLARA

Why are you showing me all this?

DOCTOR

You followed me, remember? I didn’t invite you.

CLARA

You’re nearly a foot taller than I am. You could have reached the ladder without this. You took it for me. Why?

DOCTOR

I never know why. I only know who.

CLARA

What is this?

DOCTOR

Me. Giving in.

CLARA

I don’t know why I’m crying.

DOCTOR

I do. Remember this. Remember this, right now, all of it. Because this is the day. This is the day! This is the day everything begins!

So if I want dialogue like this, I need to tear it apart and figure out what makes it tick.

Structure

The most obvious thing is… there is nothing naturalistic about it. It’s very carefully paced and structured, and it’s as much about the repetition of certain words and phrases as it is about the meaning of the words themselves.

In songs and poetry, we talk about rhyming schemes and structures, like, this song has an ABABCB structure where A is the verse, B is the chorus, and C is a bridge.

  • Consider the first six lines: the words ‘box’ and ‘sulk’ form a sort of A-B-C-C-A-A structure: box-time-sulk-sulk-box-box.
  • The exchange from Okay, that is a first to another first is also highly structured and repetitive: first is of course used twice, ship three times in rapid succession, and the Is it magic? Is it a machine?… It’s a ship bit is almost like It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s Superman! in its rhythm.

 

Double Meanings

  • When the Doctor says That’s no more a box than you are a governess, he’s pretty much explicity saying there’s more to Clara than she’s letting on, just as the Tardis is small on the outside and bigger on the inside.
  • Back to Clara saying I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not little: the line is also as much about the Tardis as it is about Clara.
  • Previous watchers of the show will know when Clara says the word souffle, that single word is packed with meaning.

 

Odd Transitions / Subverting Expectations

Jumping from subject to subject keeps the audience on their toes.

  • When Clara walks in the Tardis, she doesn’t ask what’s going on. The dialogue just goes straight from Clara protesting I’m not sweet on the inside, and I’m certainly not little to the Doctor interjecting It’s called the Tardis. Makes the exchange punchier, I think. The what is this? question is implied.
  • Anyone familiar with Doctor Who will expect Clara to say it’s bigger on the inside, just as the Doctor himself expects her to say it. But instead, she flips that common phrase around to it’s smaller on the outside.
  • When Clara asks about the kitchen, it’s quite unexpected — but it’s doesn’t lead to a discussion of souffles. As soon as the Doctor realizes something is wrong, the conversation switches to Clara asking why she’s been led here.

 

Not Answering Questions

Questions are rarely answered directly.

  • The Doctor doesn’t say if there’s a kitchen.
  • Clara doesn’t respond when the Doctor questions her about souffles.
  • When Clara asks why are you showing me all this?, the Doctor turns the question back on Clara.
  • When Clara asks about the ladder, the Doctor answers a different question.
  • When Clara asks what the Doctor’s key is for, the Doctor responds by talking about himself.

 

Overall

Overall, I think I’d say that this style of dialogue is all about favoring thematic flow over conversational flow. Every unanswered question and every odd transition makes sense if you look at the themes of the answer in relation to the themes of the question. It’s like subtext? But it’s not about what the characters are thinking so much as the narrative intent.