There’s nothing worse than listening to a performance filled with dialogue that does not ring true and does not feel and sound authentic.  The worse dialogue offenders in the history of drama are writers on television process shows like “CSI” and “House” and “Criminal Minds” where lots of technical dialogue is supposed to promote authenticity and professionalism to a scene when all that sort of preciousness really provides is ear boredom.


The brightest example of boredom dialogue goes a little something like this — characters interrupt each other to “share insight and information” — here’s a roughly remembered example from a recent television episode of “CSI: Miami”…

LAB TECH #1:  I found trace amounts of ferrite in the metal shard…

LAB TECH #2: (Interrupting) ..you mean “ferrite” — a ceramic compound consisting of a mixed oxide of iron…

LAB TECH #1: (Interrupting) …and one or more metals, yes, the very same ferrite that has ferrimagnetic properties…

LAB TECH #2: (Interrupting) … and is used in high-frequency electrical compounds such as antennas…

LAB TECH #1: (Interrupting) … or… Katana swords!…

LAB TECH #2:  (Interrupting) …”Katana?”  You mean the long, single-edged sword…

LAB TECH #1:  (Interrupting) …used by Japanese samurai…

LAB TECH #2:  (Interrupting) …who were members of a…

LAB TECH #1:  (Interrupting) …. powerful military…

LAB TECH #2:  (Interrupting) …. caste in feudal…

LAB TECH #1:  (Interrupting) ….Japan…

LAB TECH #2:  (Interrupting) …. especially…

LAB TECH #1:  (Interrupting) ….a member of…

LAB TECH #2:  (Interrupting) ….the class of military….

LAB TECH #1:  (Interrupting) ….retainers…

LAB TECH #2:  (Interrupting) ….of…

LAB TECH #1:  (Interrupting) ….the…

LAB TECH #2 and #1:  (Together) ….daimyos.

LAB TECH #2:  (Slowly) Yes.

LAB TECH #1:  (Quietly) Yes.

(Uncomfortable pause.)

LAB TECH #2:  (Loud) Daimyos were…

LAB TECH #1:  (Louder, Interrupting) ….one of the great lords…

LAB TECH #2 and #1:  (Loudest, Together) ….who were vassals of the shogun!

I have no idea how the scene ended — if it ever did — because I ran screaming from the room.

Dialogue, even in hyperreal situations, must always remain true and believable in context; but when you see characters in the same room — or on the telephone — finishing sentences for each other, then you know you’re deep into the realm of bad writing and fake exposition and meaningless background information that does nothing to move the plot forward.

Sometimes technical words need no explanation or definition.  If the characters know the meaning of the word, and they should, then they must not be made into empty vessels for teaching unimportant noise invented to fill time and cheat space. 

If, however, specific information must be shared between characters in order for the audience to make sense of the plot and its twists, then scene action — not lecture dialogue — must be invented to get the plot points moving the audience forward so they are never stuck in the stasis of stiff and stilted dialogue.

8 Comments

  1. How do they communicate the technical ideas on Scrubs, Gordon? I thought M*A*S*H was always superb in their operating room medical lingo — perfectly natural, pure, and understandable. Sometimes the audiences doesn’t need to know all the slang as long as the characters respond knowingly. We can figure it out.

  2. I have never thought about “dialogue” this way before David, till I red this.
    Do you think this continuous series of interruption was needed to provide equal importance/ screen space to both the characters?
    No wonder at times I find the TV serials unnecessary dragging…

  3. I think the interruptions are done to get dry information across to the audience in what they think is a “dramatic way” — and to try to add some energy to what amounts to a lecture. I agree so much of modern episodic television today is overly formulaic and predictable.