Talk The Talk: A Dialogue Workshop For Scriptwriters by Penny Penniston (book review).

Although Penny Penniston’s book, ‘Talk The Talk: A Dialogue Workshop For Scriptwriters’, is primarily designed for writers of stage and screen, the twenty lessons here can also be of benefit to prose writers as well. With a lot of them being also designed for groups of people, I can see writers groups benefiting by playing off each other using this book. If you’re a solitary writer needing to develop or refine your dialogue technique, then practicing these exercises should also give you some insight into improving your storycraft.


I should point out from the start that this isn’t a textbook in the normal understanding of books but an exercise book where you have to try things out and as such, I wouldn’t recommend jumping any of the lessons if you want to get the full benefit. From my point of view, it was more a case of ticking off what I’ve done and know but then, those of you who read the website, know that I can write characters with odd speech patterns to monologue stories without batting an eyelid, although the former does take more work than it shows.

As Penniston points out from the beginning, dialogue differs from text in both its pace and how it is said. Both are, of course, factors in making sure each character can stand away from each other and become instantly identifiable. Prose writers learning here can focus on understanding the nuances involved and the beauty of the one word sentence. Think you can’t do that? Really. It’s not difficult. On paper, we at least have the distinction of using punctuation marks to change the tone of single word sentences. Really? Really! The importance of punctuation and how inflection works verbally works across the medium.

A lot of Penniston’s focus is on the status of the characters and literally the chain of command or pecking order. For stage, I can see it being important as to who has the most important lines. It’s also interesting in how the status changes based on who has the most expertise although not quite so sure about Penniston saying that people are looked down on for lack of knowledge. It must be a British thing or just me in that we inform and help those who need such information rather than belittle them at every opportunity.

The stress on play-acting your characters works through all mediums. Mostly because it stops you having them act all the same way and to understand that it can also be different motivations that will have them seeking similar goals. Penniston points out writing biographies of characters can be useful although I would be inclined to broadstroke it a little with emphasis on what makes them work for the story you’re writing than get bogged down too much detail that you might not use even unconsciously. Take for example, education. You don’t have to be school specific, just an understanding of how smart or educated the characters are. For stage and film, it probably helps the method actors although I would have thought they would sort out the finer details in their own research to put themselves in the right mindset.

By lesson eleven, Penniston focuses a bit more on understanding the setting you’re placing your characters in. With our genre, that is really very important from the start because we use that to shape our characters in the first place. In fact, making them not too different from the human average ensures people in our reality can relate to their problems. If that connection isn’t made, then the way in is a lot harder.

I did find it amusing that she points out that writers become so because they couldn’t do maths or science, mostly because Science Fiction writers can mostly do both. The ability to bring outside knowledge into whatever you are writing has to be seen as an asset so the more you know the better. As part of the core of character creation is what they do for a living, the more insight you have on this the better your characters will be.

I’m glad Penniston’s covering the fresh eye technique for polishing or rewriting material because it really does work. I would add one extra point that throughout the story or scene make sure that each character stays true to the profile you’ve given them through each drafting. It might look like a lot more work but it also tends to give you a better insight into what’s going on overall and establish the winners and losers.

Dialogue is the means to get to know a character. On some levels, I wish Penniston had gone further than she did in application but then, the book is designed to get you to do than just read how to do things.

I came away from this book glad to know that I’ve been practicing much of what Penniston says here. If you’re a novice writer or even one who needs to develop their storycraft, then you will find some benefits but, and I’ll emphasise this, you must do all the lessons here as they are designed to make you think about what you are doing rather than just put pen to paper and hoping for the best. Although I suspect many of you neo-writers think this makes storywriting more of a technical exercise, it doesn’t really. As Penniston points out, once it becomes innate, you’ll only refer to her book when you get truly stuck. You’re always going to be learning with each story your write. If you’ve got one area reasonably tackled then you can focus on other problems.

GF Willmetts

November 2013

£16.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-932907-70-4)

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