Dialogue Delivery

For the beginning actor, dialogue delivery is the initial focus, concentrating on the obvious techniques of projection, articulation, and phrasing. These vocal skills are essential to properly communicate the spoken word to the audience and one should spend considerable time in perfecting them. However, there is much more to be explored in this area and the learning process should also include the dramatic aspects of dialogue delivery.

These dramatic aspects are the choices that help bring the play and its characters to life. Choices, which propel the story to its optimum potential and create the desired illusion within the mind of the audience.

To make these choices, we must first recognize that dialogue communicates more than verbal information. It can also carry the character’s intentions and emotions, and provides the vehicles through which the actors interpret and give purpose to the scene.

When people speak in real life, they follow, for the most part, certain unconscious principles of delivery. Principles which give logic and meaning to their words, and the intentions behind them. Actors should strive for the same credibility by understanding these principles and using them to make concise dramatic choices. Choices that provide readable behavior, character definition, and complement the theme of the story.

PAUSES

One of the main concerns in dialogue delivery is – WHERE TO PAUSE. What are the reasons whereby the character pauses or stops speaking?

In dialogue delivery, the number one rule is – Never pause for reasons of punctuation. When we listen to real life dialogue, we don’t hear the punctuation. So why should we hear it in a life-like performance? We don’t hear a pause at the end of a sentence, nor do we hear a beat at every comma. Dialogue flows from idea to idea.

Where does one pause? The answer is the same places that people pause in real life. Here are the most common reasons:

1. At the completion of a thought. Dialogue flows mainly from ideas to idea. In analyzing and breaking down the script, identify the ideas, especially in long speeches.

2. To take a breath. When the character is calm and in a controlled state, this will usually occur at the end of a thought. When in a tense or unstable situation, breathing pauses are more random and can occur within a thought.

3. When searching for a particular word or thought. The feel, think, act process should be evident and the words should not always come easily.

4. When interrupted or distracted by another person or by one’s own unspoken thoughts or realizations.

5. Pausing to place special emphasis on an up-coming line. This could be a quote, dialogue as another character, or setting up a laugh line. Likewise, a pause used after a key word helps to reinforce the idea suggested by the word.

6. At the transition or a change in state of mind or emotion. Such a pause turns the focus on the character’s internalization’s, i.e., thoughts and emotions.

7. To wait on a response or to reflect on what was said.

8. To leave space for audience reaction: laughter, shock, building suspense, or time for the audience to speculate what’s going to happen next.

9. To isolate or spotlight important stage business.

10. For no other reason than it works for the audience; a determination arrived at by trial and error.

Pauses have dramatic focus, especially when combined with eye behavior, and they can assist in leading the audience in the desired narrative direction. Look on pauses as an integral part of ones behavior and the frequency of their use, their placement, and duration as variables upon which to build a character.

Too many pauses create an air of uncertainty, weakness, and ambiguity. Likewise, frequent use creates choppy speech, communication difficulties, as well as diminished impact via overuse.

Making pauses too long draws attention to the technique and slows the action to the point where the audience may loose interest. The length of time given a pause is determined by the situation served. Whether you want to show strength or vulnerability, prominence or non-importance, each demands a different use of the pause.

For instance, a critical turning point in a story will be given a proportionately longer pause than the search for a particular word. Pauses have dramatic power. Don’t waste this energy by poor placement, overuse, or unnecessarily long duration’s. Use them discriminatingly to serve the story.

TEMPO OR PACE

Primarily, tempo or pace is governed by a very simple dramatic principle. If it’s important and of interest to the audience, you slow down so the audience can better grasp the information. Key phrases are often given at a slower rate of delivery while less important ones are often spoken more rapidly.

Tempo will also vary according to the emotional attitude of the character. A rapid pace is often associated with nervous, high-energy types, and can also be used to express anger, hate, fear, jealousy, determination, exaltation, or exhilaration. A slow pace can denote the character’s internalizations, deep thoughts, illness, loneliness, depression, or a person’s indecisive as to a course of action.

An evenly paced speech conveys an impression of control, poise, and self-confidence. A change of pace is a good transitional devise when going to a new thought or emotion. When used in conjunction with a pause or look away, it can add considerable impact to the dialogue. One should also consider the rate at which the tempo or pace changes. There will be times when a sudden change is required and at other times when a slow acceleration or de-acceleration would work better.

For instance, a sudden revelation would constitute an abrupt change in tempo while an escalating argument might accelerate slowly into a rapid, almost overlapping confrontation. There will also be situations where gradual slowing of the tempo will be applicable. Monologues and long dialogue scenes generally slow at the end as the final point or revelation is unveiled.

In most cases, near the end of a highly dramatic scene, the tempo will slow and a cadence or rhythm will become evident indicating a resolution is forthcoming. By slowing, there will be moments for deeper reflections and reactions, for making the final point more meaningful, and maybe space for a new emotional state or relationship to emerge. For the ending to be strong, it needs the beats, the rhythm, and the cadence that tells the audience the conclusion is at hand. It says; listen closely, for what follows is important.

In review, choices in tempo should reflect the considerations of character traits, the dramatic situation, placement within the scene and/or play, and its affect on the direction of the story.

EMPHASIS, DYNAMICS, AND CONTRAST

This group of interpretive considerations likewise reflects on situations, relationships, character development, and narrative direction. Making strong choices in these areas requires an understanding of the range of selections and the possible affects.

Emphasis is the stress placed upon a syllable, word, or a group of words. Emphasis helps to clarify meaning, and dramatize the writer’s ideas. These ideas can be made to stand out in a number of ways: delivering a word or words with greater force, extended by stretching out the vowel sounds, lifting or lowering the pitch, pausing before and/or after delivery of a key word or phase.

Don’t over emphasize key words. Instead, gently lean on them to draw attention to their meaning. Words or phases that are less meaningful or less important are subordinated by more rapid delivery, in effect, throwing them away. One can also lower the pitch and the dynamics of the voice and deliberately gloss over them.

Dynamics has to do with projection and loudness. Being heard and understood are important, but other choices in dynamics are likewise relevant.

How loud each individual character speaks has to do with their energy level, their emotional state, their intentions, and the auditory environmental obstacles that they must overcome. For instance, a person speaking to a large group or to a person some distance away requires considerably more dynamics than an intimate relationship in a confined space. Likewise, the emotional outburst of a raging argument would be far louder than an exchange of business data.

Matching dynamics is another important aspect. When two people are talking, they should project at approximately the same level.  Then the audience is not overpowered by one and must strain to hear what the other has to say.

Contrast is helpful in holding the interest of the audience. Changes, comparisons, differences, and the unexpected are what make drama exciting. Look on contrast as the musical aspects of dialogue, the inter-relationship between the characters, their ideas and emotions, and the unpredictable unfolding of their confrontations and resolutions. The following are some of the elements that should be consider with regard to contrast.

Loud Soft

Shout Whisper

Boast Understate

Tense Relaxed

Fast Slow

Measured Flowing

High Pitched Low Pitched

Animated Monotone

Wide Range Narrow Range

Articulate Ambiguous

Contrast gives color and life to the dialogue and in the exercises that follow, we will incorporate these techniques as well as the other dialogue delivery skills.

MEMORIZATION SKILLS

But before we begin the exercises, we need to memorize the dialogue. This is where most beginners falter and instead of focusing on the dramatic elements of the script, they spend considerable time attempting to memorize the dialogue. In fact, the beginning actor spends more time memorizing lines than on any other facet of acting. So it’s most advantageous to learn the proper skills and techniques which expedite the memorization process. These techniques, through diligent application, will reduce anxieties, memory problems, and release constricted energies for more creative work.

First, place the mind in a relaxed state, where awareness and concentration can take place. Make a commitment to learning the process and applying the memory techniques. Memorization is a must and it this industry, learning the script quickly and concisely is the entry requirement for good professional roles. Neglect of this skill, as with the other rudimentary elements of the dramatic performance, can slow progress and deter you from reaching your career objectives.

The basic memory principles are association, imagination, and organization.

Association refers to how we connect new information with something that we already know. The human brain tries to create connections or patterns between and among the millions and millions of bits of information it stores. So if we want to memorize something, we need to associate it with something that is already firmly implanted in our memory.

Imagination is necessary to make the mental association a strong one. With imagination, the ordinary can be transformed into the extraordinary and it is always easier to remember the extraordinary.

Organization refers to the ability to approach things in a systematic, orderly fashion. It requires paying attention to the way in which things are put together. For the actor, this entails breaking up long dialogue scenes, or even an entire play, into smaller manageable blocks where purpose and content are firmly established. Organization, likewise, frees the dramatic spirit and enables one to be creative by design.

Let’s expand these basic memory principles, namely, association, imagination, and organization, and see how they assist dialogue delivery.

Association is the primary aid in memorization, but it requires a conscious effort and an unrestricted imagination. To remember something well, you need to associate with what you already know in some ridiculous, absurd, or exaggerated way. By doing so, you carve deep relationships in the brain cells and facilitate recall.

In this process, don’t look on dialogue as words, but as actions resulting from extraordinary associations between two items. They can be individual words, groups of words, dialogue ideas, or even blocks of dialogue. Visualize the association, the action, for what we observe, we remember best. And the more bizarre, outlandish, or ridiculous the imagined action association, the deeper the imprint on your memory and thus the easier to recall.

To establish an association with a number of items as in a dialogue scene, one needs to link together numerous pairings. Again, the objective is to create active, bizarre associations and it is wise to go with the first one that comes to mind.

Let your imagination go wild as you formulate outrageous or ridiculous fantasies that link together the dialogue items. Form a mental scene that includes as many of the senses as possible. Sight, touch, sound, smell.

You’ll find as your memory skills develop, you will be able to handle longer and more complex pieces. This may entail breaking up the dialogue into main ideas or categories. Again, we link what we know with what we want to remember. One method of doing this is to link up parts of the scene with rooms in your home. Each room would represent a section of the scene. One could say that each room is a file drawer. And then we would build files in each drawer. Furniture pieces or appliances in each room would represent these files. Again, these are visual things you can see and use as part of a memorable action.

In long speeches, concentrate more so on the ideas rather than the individual words. Try imagining taking your audience on a tour of your ideas as you journey through your home with its rooms, furniture, infested with ridiculous associations.

As you progress further into the dialogue, take note of key thoughts, key words, and observe how they are linked or interconnected. Note where a series of sentences start with the same word or where the same thought is repeated in a different way. Pay special attention to where the last word or a key word in your partner’s dialogue is repeated in your dialogue. Other association devices are question-answer connections, repetition of a phase, thought or word, or the continuation of a thought from your previous line.

Mark up your script using a No. 2 soft pencil to reinforce your associations. Underline or hi-light your dialogue. Draw loops or connecting lines between links and associations. Give imaginative descriptive names to scenes or blocks of dialogue to create a simplified filing system in your memory.

Make memorization a continuous exercise by stretching the recall. Wait out the association process and let the mind compute on the information provide. Where you do mess up repeatedly, go back and reinforce the association rather than continuing the repetitions.

Work on one section of the script for only a short time, then move on to another section. This keeps the mind active and interested by making it an intriguing game where one’s imagination and fantasies play on the dialogue.

Check your recall level by sliding a blank card down the page and on seeing the cue, reciting unseen the upcoming line. The reverse can also be done to reinforce the cue/dialogue association by sliding the card up the page and on seeing the dialogue, give the cue that precedes it.

The sliding blank card reinforces the process, but it is a visual connection as opposed to the oral association required in performance. Running lines with your partner will strengthen the memorization process, but this is not always possible due to time restraints and scheduling limitations. For this reason, I strongly encourage the use of a tape recorder as a substitute for the other character’s lines. It allows unlimited rehearsal opportunities as well as efficient use of each partner’s time. Likewise, it promotes actions and reactions when you have no dialogue. Rather than waiting on the next cue, the tape recorder encourages good listening skills and continuous involvement in dialogue exchanges.

Initially record both parts at a slow pace and record your dialogue at a much lower, yet audible level. Then as you practice, attempt to say your dialogue before the recorded dialogue is heard.

Memorization techniques should be a part of every phase, from rehearsal to final performance. Continually reinforce the memory process by periodically going back over the associations.

You can likewise use your memory techniques to help you remember your dramatic choices; your intentions, emotions, behavior, blocking, key expressions, gestures, and stage business. Make these memory techniques a part of your performance preparation. They can help instill inner confidence and make you a more innovative and effective actor.

In film, where on the set production costs can run as high as $2,000 per minute, actors who do it right the first time are in high demand. These efficient performers remember their lines, gestures, blocking, and stage business, and deliver credible characters at minimum expense. Casting decisions are based on one’s ability to deliver and memorization skills play an important role in that respect. Therefore, it pays to continually strengthen and improve this part of your acting craft.

With these principles in mind, both on dialogue delivery and memorization, we will incorporate them in a couple of exercises. The first is a monologue where most of the techniques can be applied. There will be a tendency to fall back on old ways and reject this approach. Instead, simply apply the principles and go through the entire process. The results will speak for themselves.

First, read the monologue. Make some general observations, and then begin the memorization process. Don’t over analyze the piece. Instead, remain flexible and open to options. Examine the opportunities and the available choices. Many times, actors move through this phase too quickly, making quick decisions without fully comprehending the overall piece.

THE RECITAL (A Monologue)

For the entire summer, I had practiced, preparing for this day. It was to be my first piano recital — and it was also my last. It was scary, not knowing what to expect.

I remember before the recital, our piano teacher, Mrs. Hagg, gathering us together back stage and telling us to be calm, and do our very best. Then she added, “Oh by the way, one of the keys on the piano is frightfully out of tune. But it’s not a worry. In your selections, none of you use this note.”

To this day, I wonder, if it were not a problem, why did she bother to mention it. It certainly didn’t help matters and when my turn came, I was a jumble of nerves. I set down at the piano and my mind wondered which note was out of tune? But my fingers were asking a much more complex question, “To begin, which keys do we play?”

Panic set in as I frantically searched for some clue, something to get me back on track. Then I remembered Mrs. Hagg saying, “Middle C is the first white key to the right of the lock on the keyboard.” In a flash, everything came back and my fingers found the keys.

I begin my piece, cautiously at first, and as my confidence grew; the music flowed out effortlessly. I was actually playing. Playing better than I ever had before.

Oh, what a feeling. Actually doing it, performing.

And it was almost over. The only obstacle left was a hand over hand arpeggio near the end. I began up the scales, already hearing the ending, anticipating the thunderous applause, my gracious bows of acceptance.

Then it happened. A ghastly, frightful sound. A note that was not a note. A noise that did not belong.

My face turned red, but somehow, my fingers continued on. But my mind kept racing back to that note, asking what had gone wrong?

The piece ended. There might have been applause. If there was, I didn’t hear it. All I hear was that ominous note. Over and over.

Afterwards, everyone kept saying, “You did fine, just fine”. But their looks, their critical stares said, “There’s the worst of the lot.”

It was my first and last recital. A painful lesson in reality. That’s what it was. For as I grew older, I came to realize I don’t have to prove how good or how bad I am. What’s important is the music. And the joy of sharing this gift with those who had no idea — middle C is the first white key to the right of the lock on the keyboard.

  End of Monologue         

In your memorization process, use the aids such as association, links, and journey signposts. Mark up the script (use a soft No. 2 pencil for ease in making changes) noting key thoughts, connection, and your association selections.

Once the monologue is committed to memory, go deeper into the dramatic choices; where will the pauses fall, changes in tempo, emphasis of key words or phases, points of realization, reflections, or where the voice becomes another character.

In this phase of your education, concentrate on the learning process, the techniques, the dramatic principles, and how to implement them. Perfection will come later after you’ve achieved the necessary flexibility and control of your dramatic instrument.

Too often, young actors focus on gaining entry into the industry and neglect the dramatic elements of one’s acting craft; the rudimentary elements required for professional acceptance. Dialogue delivery and memorization skills are a critical part of the elements.

MULTIPLE CHARACTER SCENES

When another actor is involved in the dialogue, additional considerations need to be addressed. In a monologue, the performer is in total control. With two or more actors, dialogue delivery strategies become more complex, and must be reached by mutual agreement. This agreement should serve the story, foster character development, and promote the desired affect on the audience.

Conflicts and opposition will occur in reaching an agreement and it’s important to understand dialogue factors affecting the direction of the scene. These include balancing dynamics, cutoffs, over-riding, performing without the words, i.e., listening, reacting, externalizing internalization’s through reflections, realizations, and other behaviors.

Balancing the dynamics is a factor in that both actors need to be heard. If the audience has to strain to comprehend one actor’s dialogue, or is over powered by the other, then the mechanics become evident and distract from the dramatic intent of the scene.

The dynamics need to be balanced for audience comprehension, but not to the point where it takes away from individual characterizations. One character can still vocally dominate the scene if such disparity is part of the story. Dominant roles within a scene are sometimes reversed and this too can be displayed in the changing dynamics.

Cutoffs are normally indicated in the script by three dots following the end of the speech. It is at this point that the other actor cuts in or overlaps the first actor’s dialogue. Cutoffs need to be decisive and also preset by some behavior. This behavior sets up the interruption, the feel, think, act process, and may reveal the motivation behind the cutoff. This behavior could be anything from pondering what has been said to reflections, realizations, and the formulation of thoughts, to changes in one’s emotions and/or intentions.

Presets are also evident, in most cases, prior to a new speech or new thoughts. The behavior might be the taking of a deep breath to speak, a look away-look to combinations there of, or even the parting of the lips as one searches for the words to speak. The preset tells us the character is listening, feeling, thinking, and is about to speak.

These presets can evolve slowly or very abruptly, but in either case, without them, we end up with talking heads reciting lines rather than characters communicating. Preset behaviors help reveal the sub-text of the scene. They tell us what’s going on between the lines and between the characters. They also reveal character traits. Therefore, in developing a role, one needs to establish preset behaviors, which are unique to the character, yet faithful to the story.

It will prove helpful, especially in one’s formative years to conscientiously make preset choices, at least until they become an instinctive part of your behavioral repertoire. Try experimenting and varying the presets to gain flexibility and extent your communicative abilities.

Over-riding is another facet of dialogue delivery that comes into play, mainly during confrontational scenes. Each character attempts to over-ride the other’s power base, be it dynamics, pitch or tempo. What one character does the other tries to top by speaking louder, higher in pitch and/or at a faster pace. To be effective, over-riding should be used sparingly and properly positioned where it builds up the explosive point in the scene.

Variety is an essential factor in dialogue delivery as change and the unexpected assist in holding the audience interest. Tempo is one of these variations and one’s related choices should support the objective of the scene and dramatic principles affecting the audience; principles that were discussed earlier with regard to monologues.

But with two actors involved, additional considerations need to be addressed. Tempo needs to be a collaborative decision and the tempo rate and points of change should be coordinated effort. Maintaining and matching tempo are quite important, for if one actor constantly leads and the other lags, gaps become evident and allow the audience to escape the illusion. Likewise, if there is no motivated variation in tempo, the scene’s excitement, energy, and expectations are not fully realized.

Dialogue rhythm is a combination of a number of delivery elements and is defined as the regularity of recurring beats. And these beats can be made up of word patterns, phases, pauses, tempo, pitch, intensity changes, or special emphasis on certain words. Think of dialogue rhythm as the musical aspects of the dialogue, one which underscores both the meaning and emotional aspects of the dramatic piece.

Developing sensitivity to speech rhythms can be achieved by listening to and even mimicking performance by various actors. Begin with those, which are the most profound, then move to the more subtle ones used by award winning actors. Such efforts will assist in developing a true appreciation of the expressive powers of rhythm and provide insights into their principles and applications.

Thus far, we have covered the most prevalent considerations in dialogue delivery. Let’s apply them in the following scene in which two friends uncover a fundamental point of disagreement.

THE MENU SELECTION (Scene)

A: I always ask, just to be sure.

B: Hmm?

A: What did I just say?

B: I’m not going to ask. There’s no need.

A: No need. Think of what could happen, of what could go wrong.

B: Nothing’s going to go wrong. They wouldn’t sell it if it wasn’t..

A: Do you believe everything you read — everything that’s in writing? Do you?

B: No. Not necessarily. But this is a respectable place. How could they stay in business if…?

A: By lying to their customers, that’s how.

B: Oh sure, suppose you were right. Then why is this place always so crowded? Hmm? You tell me.

A: That’s …That’s because those that don’t get what they ordered are too embarrassed to mention it. They’re too scared to say anything.

B: Wait…wait a minute. Are you implying I’m scared? Is that what you’re trying to say?

A: I didn’t say you were scared. What I’m saying is, just…just ask a simple question and avoid possible misery later. That’s all.

B: What you’re asking is for me to make a fool of myself. Why would they print it if it weren’t true?

A: We’ve already gone over that. Why can’t you… You know, this is making me very upset.

B: Well, you’re getting on my nerves.

A: You don’t have any nerve.

B: What?

A: You’re too scared to ask.

B: I don’t believe this conversation.

A: Then do as you like. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

B: All right. Okay. You win.

A: Good.

B: Waiter? — I ordered the catch of the day. Would you tell me, is it fresh?   

  End of Scene 

In this dialogue scene, the actors must consider numerous factors. First, how will the audience perceive the argument? The questions the audience might ask are; “What are they talking about?” “Where are they?” and “Why are they arguing?” The scene is one that gradually reveals the answers to these questions. The situation is one where the characters know more than the audience does and they reveal only bits and pieces at a time.

Another factor is the tension between the two characters. “A” wants “B” to do something “B” is reluctant to do. This reluctance might be motivated by being in a public restaurant, being intimidated or embarrassed by the situation and other people in the restaurant. Having “B” speak in hesitant strained subdued tones might portray this reluctance.

An additional factor is one of control as each is asserting their point of view on the other. The exchanges would thus rise and fall as the control is exerted and released. This fight for control would be evident in the pitch, dynamics, and tempo, and each character might attempt to match or over-ride the other person’s dialogue.

In both the monologue and dialogue exercises, your objective should be to learn the techniques and principles by incorporating them in a variety of ways. Don’t look on these selections as performance pieces, but as exercises upon which to experiment and stretch your skills in dialogue delivery. By trying a number of different techniques for each section, one gains flexibility and practical experience plus knowledge as to what works best in a given situation.

And remember, being able to gain control of the dialogue quickly through practical memorization skills and apply the principles of delivery effectively allows you more time to search out strong dramatic choices in other areas. 

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