Escape Room Narrative: Dialogue Considerations
Back when I was acting more often, I was in a Fringe play in Toronto. I was 25, and soaked up every project my hungry acting soul could consume. This one was particularly exciting. Like most Fringe shows, it was an original script, something I had never encountered outside of terrible university shows. It was also my first time doing something semi-professionally, and the anxiety of making a fool of myself in front of swarming throngs of judgey theatre critics was strong.
There was one line in particular I simply could not seem to deliver properly. For weeks, I had been struggling with it. The director/writer was extremely patient with me, giving me some direction, even trying to do a line reading. But no, every time the words came out of my mouth, they sounded like an elementary school kid trying to be an adult…or maybe it was the other way around.
Then, during our tech week, the director/writer walked up to me and told me “I’ve cut the line. In fact, I cut half a page of dialogue from Page 8. So you don’t have to say it anymore”.
I was stunned and my thoughts raced. What? Cut the line? Just like that? Why do that? You can’t just change a script! It’s written down! In stone! The line is there for a reason! My job is to bring that dialogue to life, to do honour to the golden words on the page! Had I failed? Was I so terrible that it was easier just to cut out chunks of script than to actually try to direct me?
The director knew me well at this point, and saw all of those thoughts go across my face in a nanosecond. He immediately cut them off. “It’s nothing to do with you. The reason you couldn’t deliver the line is because it’s crap. It doesn’t sound natural, it doesn’t fit the character anymore, it’s a relic from a previous draft that I wasn’t willing to let go of, but now I have to. We’ll figure it out.”
Now, there is a lesson in here about creations and letting go of your darlings and that your creation can change even when you think it’s complete, but right now the reason I am telling this story is to drive one point home.
Writing convincing and natural dialogue is difficult.
Like all narrative mediums, escape rooms often have characters. And those characters have to communicate with their audience in some way. Being interactive, the possibilities for that communication are many. It could be prerecorded audio from a character. It could be through documentation such as notes, journals, texts, and emails. It could be a live actor interacting directly with the player characters.
Whatever form that communication or dialogue comes from, there are some important things to consider. Writing a script or a written note in a character’s voice can be trickier than you think. Here are a few of the things I have learned over the years (and frankly…continue to learn) when writing dialogue for characters.
Who is Speaking
Is your dialogue coming from someone of a particular age? Does the character live in a particular region that might have its own dialect? Are they from a historical time period that would affect what phrases they use? Are they a teeneager? Middle-aged? Are they a senior? All of these are considerations that will affect how you write.
As a recent example, I helped design narrative for a take home game involving two sisters. There were a lot of things to consider when tweaking the letters they wrote to each other. Most of the game involves materials from the 70’s, so we had to consider what slang to use and meant handwritten letters. The girls were young at the time, and since they were also writing to each other, their tone was pretty informal. One sister was more passionate and bold, while the other more practical, so we tried to make sure their tone reflected that. One letter came from one of the sisters several years later after becoming an academic, so her words are much more formal.
Another script I am working on right now involves characters in their 20’s from both the early 2000’s and present day. Differentiating between the slang used and figuring out the characters’ values and motivations helps to give them distinct voices.
You could go down all sorts of rabbit holes when considering what factors will affect your character. There will be a point where you need to draw the line and stop, but don’t let that stop you from having fun in the meantime.
Speak The Lines of Dialogue Aloud
One of the best ways to know if your dialogue sounds natural is to speak it aloud. If it’s difficult and awkward to speak the words aloud, depending on what type of character you are aiming for it should be revisited and revised.
Even better, have the dialogue workshopped. If you are going for a particular type of voice (teenager, different dialects, etc), it’s best to have someone who would be most familiar speaking that way read the dialogue aloud. They will be one of the best judges of how successful you were.
For example, let’s take a nerdy 19 year old during the early 2000’s. And yes, I am referring to me, and I am absolutely aging myself in this example. There might be a lot of Firefly references, and overuse of the word “uber”.
If you were writing this character, you have two potential ways to workshop: have someone who was a teenager during that time speak the dialogue to see if they agree with the slang and jargon used. But you could also have a nineteen year old read it who might be able to get the tone of a teenager down.
If you don’t have these resources, it still doesn’t hurt to have a couple of friends or even just read the dialogue aloud yourself as you write. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve written something down only to realize it sounds like an alien attempting to be human when spoken out loud. If I were going for that, great, but…that’s usually not the case.
Also keep in mind that there is such a thing as TOO authentic. We have all seen those YouTube videos of experts picking apart historical inaccuracies (or maybe just me…I am a wee bit obsessed). The truth is though that we have to strike a fine balance between being authentic while still being relatable to audiences. See most 1920’s movies for how slang can be overused.
What Tone Are You Going For
People speak differently depending on if they are in a light hearted comedy or a dark, dreary drama that makes us question the point of humanity. Think about how two friends might greet each other in two different scenarios:
“Sarah! Where have you been?!”
“Oh you know, frequenting speakeasys, stealing hearts, living the high life.”
“…okay, I was watching Singles Inferno.”
Dark, dreary drama:
“Sarah. You’re back.”
“Yeah. Guess I am” (dreary, dramatic pause)
“Where were you?”
(haunted look appears in Sarah’s eyes)
Now, was that dialogue good? No. But can you see the difference in tone? Yes. Two very different ways for essentially the same conversation. Consider the tone you are going for when writing your dialogue.
Consider the Medium
Is this a radio broadcast? A video message? A voicemail? A letter? A text? The medium can also help shape your dialogue.
I have seen some great stuff done with text messages in video games and even some escape rooms. Consider the speed at which a text message comes through. A lot can be said watching someone start to write out a text only to erase it. Or seeing that elipses indicating someone is writing to you and the suspense it creates. Or when single words come rapid fire one after the other through texts indicating someone is angry or excited.
A letter on the other hand allows a character to be more verbose and perhaps a little more formal. That does not mean though that their voice still can’t come through. There are unique ways for characters to speak no matter what medium is used.
Will There Be An Actor Speaking The Dialogue?
Yes, you can write the best dialogue in the world, but when you hear the actor all of that may change. An actor will bring a new dimension and reveal things you might not have considered. Whenever I get actors involved, I try to strike a balance between directing them to perform a certain way, and listening to what they can bring to the role. And…yeah, sometimes, like my director before me, I will adjust my dialogue based on who is speaking it.
Keep It Short
I love writing dialogue, but when it comes to escape rooms, if players have to pay attention to dialogue I try to avoid long monologues unless I have their direct attention. Remember, players are there to play. I want them to be able to get to know my characters, but I don’t want to make a tedious task. Have it work in tandem with the rest of the experience, not sink it.
Honestly, I love writing dialogue. I love to experiment and try to get someone’s voice down. It is one of the most fun aspects of designing for me, and I hope it can be for you as well!