I’m a huge fan of the show Friday Night Lights. I never expected myself to care so much about a show that focuses on football, something I’ve actively avoided engaging with. I was taken in immediately, though, by how genuine and character-driven the show was. I’ve never been so immediately convinced of characters as people, and this was almost entirely due to the loose, improvised dialogue explored by actors who were trusted with the characters they’d been given.
I’m also a huge fan of The Royal Tenenbaums, though. I’ve always loved the lush, vibrant visuals and how they contrast so starkly to the stilted, affected dialogue of the protagonists, most of whom are emotionally stunted or repressed. The clean, crisp back-and-forth between characters is iconic in Anderson’s style. His choices in dialogue are clearly purposeful in how very scripted they are–which, to me, is just as effective a choice as those made in Friday Night Lights.
Here’s my problem with a lot of podcasts: They want to be Friday Night Lights, but they sound like The Royal Tenenbaums.
Podcasts are an inherently difficult medium when it comes to immersing the audience. Because podcasts don’t have visuals, they have to rely solely on audio to make a character seem realistic. I realize how straightforward this sounds, but somehow, that idea seems to get lost in translation when most fiction podcasts write and edit their episodes.
Let’s take a look at, undoubtedly, the most famous moment in The Royal Tenenbaums: the moment Margot walks off the bus, everything slows down, the shot is hyper-saturated, there’s a moment of silence, and then “These Days” by Nico starts in with its sweet, wholesome guitar riff before the strings join in.
While I could use this moment to discuss the importance of music, I think it’s also a key example of characterization in a way that only film can accomplish–not the characterization of Margot, necessarily, but of Richie, whose perspective is painting the moment. Prior to this scene, we’ve only heard Richie speak in the standard Anderson affected fashion. Like most other Anderson characters, Richie just does not speak like an actual person speaks. Everything he says is too clean, even when it’s acted to be mumbled or awkward.
Here, though, we look through Richie’s perspective: Margot looks borderline angelic, and the song is romantic, nostalgic, and bittersweet. Everything we need to know about how Richie thinks about Margot is summarized without any dialogue having to be said. This is why Anderson’s characters feel like people even when they speak in such an unnatural, clearly scripted way. These moments of Anderson’s iconic visuals make the characters three-dimensional and understood as whole by the audience.
Podcasts obviously don’t have these small moments of all dialogue dropping away to make room for an intense scene of imagery. They rely only on what the audio can give the audience, which means that if their dialogue is going to feel scripted, their characters are, in turn, going to fall flat and sound fake. No amount of good writing can save unemotional acting when it’s all we get from a character and, conversely, no amount of great acting can save shoddy character writing. The audience is almost never going to distinguish between the two, unless the difference in quality is stark enough. The audience is simply going to hear the flat dialogue, interpret it as a flat character, and be disappointed.
This is a complaint that’s subverted by shows where the characters shouldn’t sound like real people: Within the Wires managed to make a relaxation tape voiceover one of the most sympathetic and multifaceted characters of 2016 in its premier season. Depending on the genre, unnatural dialogue can and should be employed. If anything, this subversion makes the show more immersive, because the contrast between the robotic, scripted lines and the moments when the true character shows are so stark. Take, for instance, this moment from “Casette #4: Sadness, Lungs”:
You are holding hands with this girl. You are looking into her eyes, which are so different to yours. You are looking at her face, which is so different to yours, and you are seeing yourself iterated twice in two blue pools.
This girl knows you. This girl sees you, properly, completely. Maybe she still sees you today, right now.
You are breathing together. She is breathing out into you, and into herself that which you are breathing out.
You are telling her you will never forget her. You are not imagining how you could ever forget her. She is not imagining how you could ever forget her!
Did you forget her?
What have you done with your life?
Most shows, though, won’t have these contrasts to make; most shows are just about normal people in peculiar situations, which means they should have normal dialogue–not peculiar dialogue.
Most of the fiction podcasts I hear do have beautiful writing, but the problems lie in overly precious dialogue. Podcasts seem to attract writers who have only worked on the page versus working in television or on screen, which means that the dialogue itself is usually very lovely. It’s just not how people speak. Without having the crutch of visuals to translate humanity into a character who doesn’t speak like a person, the characters are just that: characters. And usually, not very convincing ones.
Let’s jump back to Friday Night Lights. Friday Night Lights does not have the same lush imagery that The Royal Tenenbaums does. The show is stylistically realistic, using a hand-held camera for most shots. It doesn’t rely on many music choices to characterize anyone, instead using a blanket of Explosions in the Sky songs for thematic moments instead of specific characters. Friday Night Lights builds character through its rough, improvised dialogue.
Not every actor is going to be trained in improvisation, and not every writer/director/producer is going to trust their work in the hands of all of their actors. Too much improvisation on the hands of the actors could seriously alter the direction of the show in ways that weren’t anticipated–though I will say, I wish some podcasts embraced this more. Hello from the Magic Tavern and Point Mystic are two podcasts that have employed improvisation as a way to guide narrative in brilliant, albeit very different, ways. Still, though, this isn’t going to be an option for most fiction podcasts.
So how do shows write dialogue that sounds immediate and organic but isn’t improvised? There are two important factors in crafting genuine dialogue when it comes to audio:
- Understand your character’s idiolect
- Let the characters have natural cadence
Most people know what a dialect is, and some facets of dialect like accents are maintained well throughout the course most podcasts (this is dependent on acting, of course, but that’s not what I’m talking about here). The part of dialect I’m usually missing is each character’s individual voice, dependent upon who they are as a person. Let’s contrast, for instance, Tim Riggins:
With Landry Clarke:
Tim Riggins is a jock from a low socioeconomic status with very little educational motivation who grew up in a very casual family dynamic. The way he speaks is pointedly meandering and has casual, young dialogue markers like “I guess” and “kind of.” Landry, on the other hand, is a nerd from a higher socioeconomic status who grew up with very strict parents. Not only is he speaking about pheromones at all here, but his tone is assertive, even with the “really.” Small markers like these seem irrelevant when crafting dialogue, but just with these small changes, it’s clear how different Tim and Landry are.
Keeping true to idiolects is something Wolf 359 does masterfully in the podcast world. In the first conversation between protagonists Doug Eiffel and Renee Minkowski, we hear this exchange:
MINKOWSKI: Get to it, Eiffel. We may be eight lights years from Earth, but we still do things by the book – this book, in fact. I want you to have it read by 0600 tomorrow.
EIFFEL: Gee, Commander, I’d love to do that but I’ve got all of this deep space survey to do tonight, very, very complicated technical stuff that requires my full attention.
MINKOWSKI: If you can’t recite that entire book backwards and forwards by tomorrow I’ll not only confiscate the cigarettes you’ve got in the comms panel, I’ll make you watch as I flush them out the airlock. One by one.
Followed closely by Eiffel asking this question:
EIFFEL: Have you got this… Jimmy Carter thing in your databanks?
In the first episode, the audience immediately understands that Doug Eiffel is a lackadaisical jokester who grew up in the 80s and has little to no respect for authority, as well as a tendency for resorting to comedy when he’s stressed. We know that Minkowski is an organized, tightly-wound expert with the utmost respect for authority and order–we also know that she likely grew up without much access to or interest in pop culture, which could all say something about a rigid upbringing. We don’t need the podcast to be explicit about this; the idiolects of the characters show it all without it having to be directly told to the audience. It isn’t just in accent; it’s in the small details that show a character’s age, philosophies, identities, and relationships with each other.
Natural cadence in dialogue is something easily attained when the actors are given the space to improvise. Just like in a normal conversation, the actors take time to think, maybe throw in an “uh” or an “um”; they give minimal responses like “yeah” and “mmhm” while someone else is speaking to them; and, most importantly, they can interrupt each other. This isn’t anything easily giffable or capturable in a clip from Friday Night Lights, but honestly, I’d recommend watching at least the first episode as a masterclass in authentic dialogue.
All of these indicators of genuine conversation are traditionally left out of writing for the page which, as I mentioned above, is the medium that most podcast writers come from. It also makes sense in the audio world; if you only have your audio, you want to make sure people can actually hear it. The issue is that nobody speaks cleanly when they’re in a conversation like they would when delivering a presentation so everyone can hear. It’s an unnatural method of human speech when there’s more than one active participant. Focusing so much on the cleanliness of the dialogue detracts from any believability it could carry and, therefore, makes the characters seem fake.
This is another way in which Wolf 359 shines. Not only does each actor speak with the cadence their character should have based on demeanor, they’re also specifically written to speak over each other when they argue. Here’s an excerpt from the script of Episode 39 of Wolf 359, “All Things Considered”:
Writer/producer Gabriel Urbina understands that when people are arguing, they’re going to interrupt each other; he understands that not only does this add to the energy and tension of the situation, but also dives deeper into the characterization of everyone involved. Eiffel is being as casual as always, but his distress is evident. Jacobi is whining and frustrating, showing his familiarity with Kepler while also patting himself on the back. Minkowski is militant and formal as always, but still engages in pleadingly vying for Kepler’s attention and approval like Eiffel and Jacobi. This moment also characterizes Kepler; if even Minkowski is panickedly defending herself, the audience understands just how threatening Kepler is.
Wolf 359 is an independent podcast, but it’s widely regarded on the same level as network podcasts like The Message for a reason–and a good deal of that reason is the genuine dialogue. Within the Wires subverts everything that makes dialogue feel natural, but in a way that’s intentional and pointed.
Dialogue is difficult. It’s difficult to write in a way that sounds realistic but not too quirky or kitschy. It’s difficult to edit without sounding manufactured and without sounding messy. Here’s my advice to new podcasters, which you’ll see me repeat constantly in Podcast Problems posts:
Read, watch, and listen like an architect. Dissect what it is about your favorite dialogue that makes it your favorite. Think about how your favorite writers make characters seem like real people. When you listen to your friends, think about the things they say and what makes their idiolect theirs. Think about your own speech. Think about the speech of someone you hate, of someone you love, of someone who scares you, of someone who makes you laugh.
Practicing your writing and your editing is absolutely important, but I was always told “perfect practice makes perfect”; practice without craft isn’t much more than developing bad habits. Consuming media like a writer or an editor is how you hone your practice. It’s how you make your characters sound real.