How to direct dialogue

An author is like a stage director when it comes to dialogue.

Both strive to draw the audience’s attention to keywords in that dialogue. This post explores different ways to do this.

The Stage Director's Tools

A script is primarily dialogue, except for the occasional stage directions. The director makes sense of that script for the audience. She or he will identify its themes and messages, moments geared towards

points which move the plot forward. Without the director each actor would simply speak their dialogue, emphasizing the keywords they believed to be relevant. The result would be a jumbled, chaotic mess for the audience to understand.

The director has a number of tools at their disposal to draw the audience’s attention to the chosen keywords. The same is true for the author. Below I’ve defined the tools in theatrical terms, the titles link to YouTube clips that illustrate what I’m saying here. As we go through each one, think about how you might use this tool when writing your dialogue.


The location on the stage of the characters is no accident, it informs the audience and is called proxemics. The distance between characters tells you things about their relationship. Different levels establish status, for instance, a character standing on a staircase places them higher up, granting higher status. Proxemics is a subtle medium of communication, audiences often won’t notice it. Visually you can establish themes and motifs by characters’ positions, using geometric shapes, patterns and levels.


Directors work with actors to develop subtle signs to draw attention to a keyword. Gestures might be large – the sweep of an arm to encompass everyone or everything might be used by a powerful character. The scratch of a nose is a small, potentially insignificant, gesture but, when repeated, gets noticed. Gestures are also handy methods to identify characterisation, nervous ticks tell us a lot when we see them in the right context.


The way a character moves is a process the actor will initiate but it will involve the director at some point. The way a character swaggers across the stage establishes their arrogance but the point when they halt can coincide with the keyword. Moving and stopping are excellent forms of communication. Likewise, exits and entrances. You see this on TV all the time. Look out for a conversation where one character goes to leave, stands at the door, delivers a line, walks out. Usually the camera switches to the remaining character to register their reaction. It’s better than the exit line being delivered, the character walking to the door and leaving and then capturing the reaction. Drama is lost.

Facial Reaction

This is the easiest tool to draw attention to a keyword. TV uses it second by second. In the detective thriller, the line “I accuse YOU!” leads to a close up on the face of the person being accused. We get to see the shock, the smug expression fading, the malice in the eyes. Don’t overlook the set of the mouth, the compression of the lips and what the teeth are doing. The same is true for the jawline. A disdainful snort causes the nose to flare the nostrils, the raising of the nose suggests superiority or revulsion. A casual sniff can tell us more about disdain, scorn, pride and isn’t just used for registering smells.

The Voice

Good actors will experiment with how their voice delivers keywords. They will include the director in their decision-making process because it provides vital objectivity. The throaty gasp to show shock. The raise in tone to convey surprise. Increased volume tells us the word has provoked anger. A pause before the word itself draws attention. (And afterwards). The voice, as every actor will tell you, is a highly complex tool. You can make it do so many things.

You can read the rest of this article by clicking the link below. It shows how to apply these tools and focus them on your keywords, thereby improving your dialogue.


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