Film and television are inherently visual mediums. An audience will always come away from a screening having enjoyed the spectacle of a high octane set piece or revel in a furtive emotional glance between two characters.
However, it is the way that a perfectly composed line of dialogue touches us that seems to stay much longer in our collective memory.
In his Book ‘Dialogue’, Robert McKee states that there are three things to consider when writing a line of dialogue: the said, the unsaid and the unsayable.
Today we’ll be looking at these elements using Peter Morgan’s The Crown as a case study in order to help you construct better lines for your characters to speak.
The Crown is a dramatized biopic of the British royal family which highlights both the drama-laden history of The Windsor’s and how they supposedly acted and reacted during various real-world events.
Let’s specifically examine the pilot of Season 3. This is an episode that is all about appearances and more specifically about how things are not necessarily all that they seem. It is particularly relevant as a theme for this episode as there has been an upheaval for Her Majesty both within the production of the show, with her now being played by Olivia Coleman rather than Claire Foy, but also the future of the Monarchy seems uncertain with the election of a new radical leftist government under the leadership of Prime Minister Harold Wilson.
At the beginning of the episode, The Queen meets Prime Minister Wilson for the first time and the differences between them are heightened to us simply through what is said in the scene.
The said is the functional nature of the words actually being spoken. As Robert McKee states:
“By creating an original dialogue style of vocabulary, diction, syntax, grammar, tone, tropes, and accent, the writer characterizes a role… the range of [their] emotional behavior — all the observable traits that jigsaw into a personality.”
Britain is inherently a society based on class and in clearly differentiating the way that both Wilson and The Queen speak, we see that they are from two separate sections of society.
The words spoken by the characters here are used to move the narrative of the story forward but also to set up the characterization of the pair and the main conflict which will occur between them. We understand from their first exchange that these two are an odd couple pairing who seemingly (at least at the beginning) have opposing ideologies that have the potential to cause them to clash.
The next ‘level’ within dialogue according to McKee is the Unsaid – the invisible lines in between what is actually said which reveals the true meaning of a character’s words. As McKee writes in Dialogue:
“…once the character speaks, … audiences instinctively look past the words to intuit the unsaid, to glimpse what the character actually thinks and feels but chooses not to put into words.”
With the royal family’s life largely dictated by protocol, almost everything that is said by them out loud is loaded with subtext as it would be unthinkable that a member of the monarchy would be able to say exactly what they were thinking whilst in public.
This makes it so that all dialogue is not just hiding an ulterior meaning, but also that those who are listening within the narrative world are far more attuned to be decoding what the true intention of the speaker is.
This can be seen the most clearly when it comes to the Queen discussing art with her confidant Sir Anthony Blunt. At the beginning of the episode, Blunt appears to be a generous teacher who is willing to assist Her Majesty in understanding the pictures that are hung on her walls.
This initial conversation that the pair have in one of Buckingham Palace’s many corridors also reinforces the theme of change which is prevalent in the piece. The discussion that they have of Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume, which the Queen points to on the wall, heightens the Queen’s fears of the new government as the pair debate a trip to the Soviet Union that Wilson took during his youth where the Queen worries he might have been radicalized.
However, it is also loaded with subtext which will become apparent as the episode progresses. Blunt is actually attempting to use this moment to explain his own transgressions as a member of the Cambridge Five, who were a ring of spies who passed classified information onto the Soviet Union.
He, much like the subject in An Old Man in Military Costume, is the enigma. One which has been painted over many times in the hope to hide who he really is.
Finally, there is the Unsayable. Again, as McKee states:
“[This is the] Deepest yet, concealed beneath the unsaid, the sphere of the unsayable roils with subconscious drives and needs that incite a character’s choices and actions.”
For McKee, this is akin to the thing that ultimately motivates your character to say the things that they do: What is the itch that they need to scratch? What is ultimately the deep-seated neurosis that they are holding onto and are unable to realize let alone consciously articulate?
With the whole narrative of the pilot revolving around the theme of change and appearances, it is right that the Queen’s fear of change should be addressed in the closing moments of the episode as the unsayable which motivates her during this arc.
Her Majesty is unable to change. She is an institution who is held to a higher standard within society. This is outlined to us in the opening sequence of the episode as the Royal household debates the design of the new stamp that has been commissioned of the Queen’s profile.
If a stamp could be considered a portrait of sorts, an interesting comparison can be made to Rembrandt’s An Old Man in Military Costume which Blunt is associated with. The Queen is unable to paint over her visage like Blunt hopes to be able to with his metaphorical conduit, but she has to have an entirely new physical copy of her picture made.
After the turmoil of Blunt’s exposure during the episode, it is then a great relief to the Queen that during her conversation with Wilson in the closing moment that she discovers that like her he knows nothing about art and is actually an economist.
In outlining his affinity for numbers what Wilson is actually revealing to the Queen is that she is able to trust him. He is never going to hide his true intentions and in informing her of his interest in economics, places himself in what might be assumed to be the polar opposite of Blunt: trustworthy, objective and loyal. In understanding the Queen’s unsayable fears Wilson is able to simply and subtextually reassure her by using the unsaid of the sequence.
An interesting reading within this moment could be that Wilson (having been present during Her Majesties’ spat with Blunt which occurred moments before) has decoded the true meaning of the unsaid of the altercation himself (he would, after all, have been made aware of the revelation of Blunt’s crime).
The said, the unsaid and the unsayable are all powerful tools that you are able to use in the construction of your dialogue. It will take a while to get to be writing royalty like Peter Morgan is but ensuring that you are crafting your scenes with these three things in mind will give you a chance to sit atop a throne of your own making.
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