Ernest Hemingway once said that great stories are "architecture, not interior design." I love this analogy and use it often with students and consulting clients whenever I come across any piece of writing that doesn’t arouse the core storytelling emotions, like anticipation, surprise, tension, curiosity, and even humor. These are the required emotions of storytelling, the ones we pay money to feel at the multiplex. We want to be engaged and entertained and it all starts with a solid dramatic foundation (the story’s architecture). Novice writers tend to worry too much about the interior design of their story—an eccentric character, an amusing anecdote, a witty line of dialogue, an exciting action sequence—and not enough about the architecture—the structure of a protagonist we connect with emotionally wanting something important and struggling to get it, transforming through that struggle and the influence of meaningful relationships, and ultimately revealing a universal insight about life and the human condition.
This is especially true when it comes to dialogue. Many scenes (which are really micro-stories) are flawed because they’re not built on a solid dramatic foundation, so the dialogue, even when clever, ultimately doesn’t have the essential emotional impact on the reader. The way to fix this is to make sure your dialogue is active (architecture) rather than passive (interior design). Active dialogue is dialogue that is connected to a character’s immediate goal in the moment. Always remember that a dramatic scene is about one thing—a character wanting something and struggling to get it. This character has a clear objective and can only accomplish it through two means—action and dialogue. By looking at dialogue as a form of dramatic action, words become actions, the means to get what the character wants in the scene. In other words, good dialogue is action, not conversation. It may seem like conversation, but this is an illusion, the way film is an illusion of real life.
Film is real life with all the boring parts cut out, as Alfred Hitchcock used to say, the same way that good dialogue is real speech with all the boring parts cut out. It’s concentrated, focused speech, and it’s mostly active. Great scenes are about characters manipulating each other to get what they want. They negotiate, exploit, coerce, inquire, seduce, irritate, provoke, impress, blackmail, warn, or create a power struggle through forceful and confrontational dialogue rather than be sympathetic, agreeable, or conversational. Therefore, look at active dialogue as a form of dramatic action. That’s the architecture. Everything else (vocabulary, rhythm, emotions, wit, humor, comeback zingers, etc.) is “interior design.” Scripts with flawed dialogue have too many scenes with passive dialogue—dialogue that’s purposeless, doesn’t contribute to the character’s objective, and is mainly expositional, conversational, and civil. In other words, dead wood on the page. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a little passive dialogue here and there—you do need a balance with the more active and dramatic dialogue. But if you make most of your dialogue active, you’ll dramatically increase its appeal.
From there, you can always add the interior design touches that will elevate your dialogue by applying any of the fifty techniques offered in my upcoming dialogue workshop. But at least you’ll start with a solid foundation. Architecture always comes ahead of interior design, because all the witty dialogue in the world won’t sell your script if it fails on everything else.