On Avoiding 1996 British TV Crime Drama Dialogue in Action Scenes
By Christine Carron
I am a sucker for British crime dramas so I feel a tad bit guilty for what I am about to do: dissect a scene from one (that shall remain unnamed) in order to highlight dialogue techniques that are probably best left to the small screen—and retro small screen at that.
Why? Because these techniques create scenes that are unrealistic and overwrought. They make it near impossible for viewers, or readers, to stay immersed in the dreamscape of the story. That’s exactly what happened to me watching the scene in question. I was no longer in the story experience at all.
I am certain I was supposed to feel scared for the Victim, as he was in the dastardly clutches of the Bad Guy. Instead I was just awed at how artificial* the dialogue felt. So, of course, I rewatched the scene multiple times to tease out the techniques that caused it to tank.
The Techniques to Avoid
Here they are:
- Making every dialogue line a complete, grammatically correct sentence.
- Including too much dialogue relative to the action taking place.
- Using dialogue lines to info-drop.
- Disregarding (to a near comical level) the biological realities (i.e., what goes on in a person’s brain and body) during a flight/fight/freeze response.
The Scene Set-up
In the particular scene in question, the Bad Guy is a prison doctor whose daughter committed suicide many years ago. Recently he discovered that the four friends his daughter was with that night could have stopped her, but instead (being high as kites themselves) they honored her wishes to not intervene and watched her die.
The father has been picking off these friends one by one, each time framing the friend (the Victim) who he believes is most to blame for his daughter’s death. The doctor has done such a good job of framing the Victim that the Victim is now in prison and has been delivered straight to the doctor’s lair, a.k.a., the exam room in the prison, for a routine check-up.
There’s some initial dialogue back and forth (to remind the viewer that the Victim is an unlikeable, supercilious pill) when the doctor reveals who his daughter is and pulls out a knife. Note: The daughter’s name is Louise.
The Scene with Commentary
Action Beat: The Bad Guy slices a deep (very deep) cross into the Victim’s back.
BAD GUY: My God, I wish she were here to see this. She would laugh. She always said you were a mad bastard. She said you had turned boredom into an art form.
<<And we are off into the melodrama. All four noted problem techniques land at once. I doubt anyone (even a supercilious pill) who has just been sliced up would spout off four complete sentences about the mental state of someone who died years ago.>>
BAD GUY: She was experimenting!
Action Beat: The Bad Guy wraps noose around the Victim's neck.
VICTIM: She swore she would never live a life like yours, Owen. A sniveling worthless squeak of a life. If anyone killed her, you did.
<<More info-dropping backstory with complete sentences from the Victim, no matter that he is about to be choked to death. Now in fairness, TV dialogue often drops information, due to the particularities of the medium.
Crime and procedural dramas in particular often info-drop in dialogue as there is no other way to communicate key technical information to the viewer. The technique just lands really discordantly in a struggle for life-and-death scene as we have here versus say in a morgue scene over a dead body. >>
Action Beat: The Bad Guy tightens the noose.
VICTIM: You have no idea what she was really like, have you? Not a clue!
BAD GUY: You stopped her from moving on!
VICTIM: She despised you! You and people like you. She wanted to die. Do you understand? She wanted to die!
<<Reminder: The Victim has been sliced up and is choking to death, but he’s still taunting the Bad Guy in perfectly complete sentences.>>
Action Beats: The Bad Guy pulls noose tighter. Victim yelps. Crosscut to cops pulling up outside prison. Lots of running and sirens and alarms.
VICTIM: She lived more in one hour [gasp] than you will live in your entire . . . worthless . . . life! [gasp, gasp, gasp]
<<The Victim still(!) taking jabs at the Bad Guy.>>
Action Beat: The Bad Guy tightens noose (again). Followed by close-up on the Bad Guy’s face who seems to be having an epiphany.
VICTIM: I’m coming, Louise! I’m coming!
Action Beat: Crosscut to more cops and prison guards running purposely with alarms and ever-intensifying trepidatious score.
VICTIM: Do it, you stupid old git. Do it!
<<Seriously, how is the Victim still alive AND delivering coherent dialogue lines?>>
Action Beats: Close up on Victim’s scared (angry?) eyes, gritted teeth. More gasping. More epiphany’ing on the Bad Guy’s face.
VICTIM: She always said you wouldn’t know what life was like if it sat on your miserable face!
<<Oh, for criminy’s sake!>>>
Action Beats: Crosscut to cops arriving outside the exam room, busting done the door, and finding . . . that the Bad Guy has slit his own throat and has left the very irate Victim on the table. Alive.
<<So five entire minutes of screen time for the Victim, a.k.a., the supercilious pill, to NOT die.>>
A Power Technique to the Rescue
Phew. Slightly overdone, right? So the question is, how does a writer achieve intensity in action scene dialogue without swan diving into melodrama?
For guidance, let’s skip further back in the history of British drama—heading from 1996 to 1606 and Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. In analyzing the dialogue lines the playwright gives to Antony, academic John Porter Houston highlights how many short lines there are, stating that “[a]nger, concealed reactions, stoicism, crafty dissimulation, embarrassment, self-sufficiency, strong will, and curtness are among the various impressions Antony's short replies . . . give.” **
Houston called the effect the eloquence of succinctness.*** Getting more emotional range, by saying less. To which I would add a corollary: the believability of brevity. Getting more emotional truth, by saying less.
Erring toward brevity alone will not guarantee your action scene dialogue will hit the mark, but it will go a long way in helping you stay out of the worst of the melodrama. So be bold, be brief, and definitely bypass all twentieth-century TV dialogue traps.
*Of course, all dialogue is artificial. The trick is to make it feel authentic to the reader.
** John Porter Houston, Shakespearean Sentences: A Study in Style and Syntax (Baton Rouge, 1988), 181.
The Goodjelly Prompt of the Week
- Watch any cop or crime procedural and note how often they info-drop in dialogue. If you are writing a script, have at the info-dropping. If writing a novel, guard against the tendency. Novelists have a broader array of techniques available to them to weave in information. Think narrative, inner monologue, dialogue beats, etc.
- Reread two or three of your favorite action, or emotionally intense, scenes—they can be from the same book or different books. Do your own analysis of the dialogue. Is it pithy or verbose? Does the author always use complete, grammatically-correct sentences, or do they allow some grammatical choppiness? What else do you notice?
- Look at the action scenes (or any scenes that have a more intense emotional pitch) in your work-in-progress. If you spot any of the traps mentioned above, see if you can amp up the authenticity by cutting out some of the excess.