Picturesque Dialogue | Script Revolution

Picturesque Dialogue


When it comes to the entire cast of characters within our scripts, writing dialogue that feels both unique and appropriate to each individual can be a real bugbear for many writers. In this article, Robert Bruinewoud details a technique to help get around this issue that starts in a place we don't typically associate with speech but may provide just the inspirational prompt we need - CJ

Let me begin by clarifying, this is not a call for more florid, stylish or mannered dialogue. Forsooth! 

Nor is this technique about replacing other tried-and-true methods of developing your characters’ voices, like listening in on strangers’ conversations, or selecting a friend, media personality, or an actor to try to and emulate their speech patterns.

It’s just an additional way to help your characters find their voices. Particularly in those instances where you have a number of characters who come from similar backgrounds. Or in those instances when your characters exist in a different time, when language was different than it is today — or in a fantasy world, where things like the use of (subtle) cultural cues, can’t be used to differentiate characters’ voices.

It’s probably an old trick that’s regularly inflicted upon writing students everywhere ... but as I haven’t come across it in my travels, let’s just pretend I invented it.

How to find your characters’ voices using an image

We’ve all heard the ole adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” — but one could also say that there are (at least) a thousand different ways to describe a picture. [1]

And each “way” reveals something about the “describer”.
The words they use, and how they use them, can reveal their cultural background, personal history, class, education, biases (both those they’re aware of and those that they are not) ... and much more.

To begin, simply choose an image

Find an image, any image, and then present it to each of your characters and have them describe it in as little or as much detail as “they” feel it requires.

For the most useful results, it’s best to use the same image for all your characters. The point of the exercise (or at least, one of the points of the exercise) is to help you differentiate between various characters’ voices, and this is best done when they are all responding to the same input.

Okay, not any image

My mistake. Of course, some images are more productive than others.

For instance, a photo of a bowl of fruit, will probably not give you the feedback you require. On the other hand, an image of something that is too confronting or strange may also cause issues, as your characters struggle to process what they’re seeing.

Here’s a couple of examples.

For a screenplay set during the Great Depression in rural Australia, I showed the characters a picture of the Hindenburg disaster ... something that hadn’t yet happened at the time of the story. Their responses were shocked and muted. The spectacle and horror of the image tended to flatten out or homogenise their responses.

“Interesting”, I thought.

So then, for shits and giggles, I presented these same characters with a photo of a summer day on Sydney’s Bondi Beach in the 1970s — men in budgie smugglers [2] and women in string bikinis. Here again, the “extreme” nature of the image, at least to rural folk living through the Great Depression, caused some issues.

Most of the characters were, to some degree, shocked by the casual display of flesh, and so were unable or unwilling to describe what they were seeing in much detail. This didn’t negate the point of the exercise, and it did reveal some useful stuff, but the image limited or constrained what i could learn.

It was then I realised that you may need to prompt your characters with some specific questions. Which then lead me to ask, “who is asking the questions?” Because, I realised, the characters’ answers could be very different depending on who the questioner is.

One of the characters, a young ruffian, did not want to describe the Bondi Beach image to a woman or his employer ... but wouldn’t shut up when when asked to share the details of the image with his peers.

Another character, a hypocritical old biddy, was also shocked to silence by the “outrageous” scene ... but like the ruffian, when presented with the right audience, she was more than happy to hint at the salacious details in an appalled whisper with the good ladies of the local Bible society.

The advanced technique

So the above became an “advanced technique.” A way to examine in more detail what characters think and feel, and how they express these thoughts and emotions to different audiences.

This is something you may need to do with your main characters, but for most of the other characters, you can probably find their voice(s) using:

The basic technique

The “basic technique” requires the image to be “generally acceptable” to the characters within the world they are living in. And, in addition to this, the image, like parfaits and onions, needs to have layers.

The image below is a pretty good example of what you need.

I originally chose Fragonard’s The Swing as the image for this post simply because, to me at least, it is very “picturesque”, and so it worked with the title. [3] However, on closer examination, I discovered it does provide the viewer (your characters) with a lot to process and describe.

Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s Rococo masterpiece, The Swing – how would your characters describe what they are seeing?

From the outset, there will be differences.

Some characters will refer to the image as a picture, while other’s will call it a painting, or an old-style painting, or even a Rococo painting. Some may replace the word “painting” with terms like, “piece”, “work” or “composition”. A few may even know the title, or the artist, while others will think they know, but then get the name of the painting and/or the artist, wrong.

From your characters’ first words you will begin to see (hear) variations in the way they think and speak ... and they haven’t even begun to address the content of the image and what it’s attempting to convey.

Even if most of your your characters ignore all the arty stuff around colour, composition and technique, the setting and choreography of the scene lends itself to any number of interpretations. All of which will reveal aspects of your characters.

Did the lady on the swing know the bloke in the bushes was there? Why is he positioned there? Is he a Peeping Tom? Or is this some kind of “game” they’re playing at? And what of the other guy, pulling the ropes? What does he think of all this? Is he a friend, a servant?

And so on. Whatever answers your characters give to the above, these will all lead to other questions and opinions re class, social etiquette, gender, sexuality and the physics of pendulums.

And, even when your characters address the same questions and agree on the answers, the words they choose to use in doing so, will vary and, in turn, reveal their distinctive voices.

The super advanced technique

As noted above, the “advanced technique” is a way to examine in more detail what characters think and feel, and how they express these thoughts and emotions to different audiences … but what happens when characters think and feel stuff, but decide not to mention them?

Luckily, you are these characters (at least, in part), and so you know when they’re holding something back. Or even more revealing, you know when they are lying.

This is where the technique slips from a simple dialogue-enhancing-aid, to a deeper, character-revealing exercise.

Confronted with The Swing, a character may be reminded of a tragic accident when a rope swing broke while someone close to them was swinging out over a river. Or the sight of the bloke in the bushes may call up disturbing memories of being stalked. Or conversely, the character may find themselves relating to the voyeur (if that is what he is) and so, embarrassed, will go out of their way to avoid addressing that interpretation of the scene.

It may even be something as simple as your character not using the word, “Rococo”, for fear of being seen to be a bit of a poindexter or art nerd, which could negatively impact upon the persona they are trying to cultivate.

So there you have it. Show the same picture to your characters and ask them to tell you about it. Simple and effective. How much you choose to learn, that is, how deep you decide to go into your characters, is up to you!

[1] yet another reason why screenwriting is so feckin hard.

[2] budgie [4] smugglers: aka “Speedos”

[3] Picturesque Dialogue, is probably the opposite of a “click bait” headline. (click repellent?) No budding screenwriter wants to have their dialogue described as picturesque ... it reeks of naiveté and self-indulgence.

[4] budgie: aka budgerigar — a small gregarious Australian parakeet which is green with a yellow head in the wild. It is popular as a cage bird and has been bred in a variety of colours.

About The Author

Robert Bruinewoud's picture
Real name: 

Melbourne, Australia 1982. I submit my first "screenplay" (and I use the term very loosely) to the BBC. It was a hugely expensive Doctor Who saga. Needless to say, it wasn't picked up. You can read all about it here.

Now, I’ve been advised that the above is not the way to sell myself as serious writer. I’m not sure why. The fact that any screenwriters’ first screenplay doesn’t sell is...Read more