Editor Roundtable: The Shawshank Redemption

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This week, Jarie pitched The Shawshank Redemption as a great example of set and setting driving dialogue. This 1994 film starring Tim Robbins and Morgan Freeman was written and directed by Frank Darabont, based on the novella Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption by Stephen King.

Valerie, Leslie, Kim, and Anne take a look at the story through different lenses, sizing up the connections between dialogue and our particular areas of interest for the season.

The Story

Global Genre: Crime > Prison

Internal: Worldview > Education

Beginning Hook – When Andy Dufresne is sentenced to life in Shawshank Prison for a murder he didn’t commit, he must learn to accept his fate or lose his mind or his life fighting it. With the help of fellow inmate Red, he appears to accept his situation.

Middle Build – Andy builds a life for himself inside the prison using his education and financial skills, But when new inmate Tommy reveals that he knows who really committed the murder Andy was convicted of, Andy must try to convince the tyrannical warden to advocate for reopening his case, risking severe punishment for stepping out of line. He pleads, and is punished by solitary confinement.

Ending Payoff – When the warden has Tommy murdered in order to silence him and keep the useful Andy working for him, Andy must choose whether to knuckle under and keep cooking the books, or give up. He appears to give up, but instead escapes through a tunnel he’s been digging for 20 years, exposing the crimes of the warden and his crony, and making a new life for himself and his friend Red in Mexico and gets the money. He then joins Andy in Mexico.

Anne:  Before I turn it back over to Jarie to make his case for set and setting driving dialogue in The Shawshank Redemption, I’d like to read a short quote. This is from Invisible Ink by Brian McDonald, one of my favorite books on story. Its apt subtitle is A Practical Guide to Building Stories that Resonate.

McDonald comes from the film side, but he understands novel writing as well. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it warmly. He devotes a chapter to dialogue, and here’s what he has to say:

One of the things that drives me crazy when people talk about “good dialogue” is that they never talk about how well it’s used, only how it stood out. Some of the best dialogue is quiet and subtle and reveals things about the plot, theme, or character, with the precision of a surgeon. Sometimes that means it’s not quotable, but quotable dialogue is not the primary job of the story teller.

I’ll just add “great lines” and “quotable dialogue” can become emblems of a whole movie. Some quotable-line movies off the top of my head include Young Frankenstein, O Brother Where Art Thou, and The Princess Bride. As we saw last season, The Wizard of Oz has generated so many quotable and favorite lines that it’s become a meme-factory on its own.

Sometimes the memorableness comes from the hilarious delivery—”My grandfather’s work was doo-doo!” Sometimes from how useful the line is in everyday life: “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Sometimes from its repetition in the film: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya…” And sometimes from sheer oddity: “We thought you was a toad.”

Do quotable lines make a great story? No, but they certainly don’t ruin a great story either. I agree with Brian McDonald, however: aiming for the quotable line over good story principles is very likely to backfire.

Jarie: As I mentioned in the teaser, I have been reading Robert McKee’s book Dialogue. I finished it the other day and found it useful and enlightening. I also found another great book on dialogue called How to Write Dazzling Dialogue by James Scott Bell. Those will be the two main books I use this season to analyze dialogue and how set and setting drive dialogue choice.

Recall from McKee’s book the reasons why great dialogue is essential to a great story:

No matter how lavish a play’s production, how vivid a novel’s descriptions, how lush a film’s photography, character talk shapes the deepest complexities, ironies, and innerness of story. Without expressive dialogue, events lack depth, characters lose dimension, and story flattens. More than any other technique of characterization (gender, age, dress, class, casting), dialogue has the power to pull a story up through life’s multi-layered strata, thus lifting a merely complicated telling into the full array of complexity.

Remember that Dialogue is the Yin to Narrative’s Yang and achieving that perfect balance is the highest form of storytelling.

There are a few gems from both McKee and Bell that will guide us on our exploration of dialogue this season. The first is from McKee and it’s the three FUNCTIONS of dialogue (Page 22-44):

  1. Exposition: the fictional facts of setting. What’s in the characters’ environment.
  2. Characterization:  a character’s total appearance. The sum of all surface traits and behaviors.
  3. Action: what a character does. Mental, physical, and verbal.

All great dialogue does one or more of these three things in a way that’s interesting and engaging. Along with the functions of dialogue, there are the six TASKS of dialogue, again from McKee (Page 94):

  1. Each verbal expression takes an inner action.
  2. Each beat of action/reaction intensifies the scene, building to and around a turning point.
  3. Statements and allusions within the lines convey exposition.
  4. A unique verbal style characterizes each role
  5. The flow of progressive beats captivates the reader/audience, carrying them on a wave of narrative drive, unaware of the passage of time.
  6. The language strikes the reader/audience as authentic in its setting and true to character, thus maintaining belief in the story’s fictional reality.

As you can see, dialogue, like narrative, does a lot of heavy lifting in the story. In fact, it can only be dialogue or narrative that drives a story forward. There is really nothing else.

When it comes to set and setting driving dialogue, the FUNCTIONS and TASKS above that get impacted are:

FUNCTIONS: 1. Exposition, 2. Characterization, and 3. Action.

TASKS: 3. Convey Exposition, 4. Unique Verbal Style, 6. Authentic and True to character.

For The Shawshank Redemption, we have the setting as Shawshank Prison, which is a federal prison full of bad people. The language will be crude, rude, and vulgar. Anything that resembles posh and polished will be out of place, although that also has something to do with the character speaking. In general, we’re going to expect prison talk and slang. Anything other than that, will feel out of place.

As for mindset, each character has a mindset that will select the words they use. Andy, as an example, is educated. His mindset is intellectual and pondering while Haywood, is a hick that likes Hank Williams Jr. and also studders. Haywood reciting Shakespeare would be out of place just like Andy singing along to Hank Williams Jr.

Also notice that we’re talking about beats of action/reaction and not scenes. Dialogue has to be analyzed at the beat level unlike other story grid methods that look at scenes. For writers, it’s particularly important to get the dialogue/narrative balance right or readers will stop reading your stories or find them flat or uninteresting. I’ll talk more about that later on.

The Shawshank Redemption does dialogue masterfully. Even better, there is a narrator which gives the necessary context and background that you would “read” on the page as well. The masterful use of dialogue is pulled off because the dialogue is authentic and reflects the set and setting of the story.

To quickly review. Set is the character’s mindset and setting is the physical environment she finds herself in. I first read about set and setting in of all places Michael Pollan’s How to Change Your Mind. The context is that a psychedelic trip will be heavily influenced by the participates set and setting. Same should hold true for story dialogue.

Let’s take a look at some of the dialogue and see how it matches up with the criteria above.

This first one is when the new prisons arrive at Shawshank prison.

Time: 0:13:55

WARDEN: I believe in two things: discipline and the bible. Here you’ll receive both. Put your trust in the Lord; your ass belongs to me. Welcome to Shawshank.

The warden is main antagonist with the captain of the guard his henchman. The total scene has simple dialogue with the captain of the guard Hadley beating up an inmate for asking when they eat. It’s the perfect mix between calm (warden) and violent (Hadley). The warden’s ‘beat’ of dialogue is not the only dialogue in this scene but it’s essential to set up what is expected of inmates at Shawshank.

Applying the rules above we get:


1. Characterization: This shows who the warden is. A bible quoting hardass. It’s blends with the narration (or action) when he nods to the Hadley to punch an inmate.


3. Conveys Exposition: How life at Shawshank will be. Hard and without compromise.

6. Authentic and true to character: A bible quoting, hardliner on reform. The words the warden says are true to how he dresses, right down to the cross on his label.

The next one is the first meeting of Red and Andy. The scene and the dialogue foreshadows what’s about to take place during the entire movie.

Time: 0:24:56

ANDY: I’m Andy Dufresne [to RED]

RED: Wife-Killing Banker. Why’d You Do it?

ANDY: I didn’t, since you asked.

RED: [Laughs] You Gonna Fit Right In. Everybody in Here’s Innocent. Didn’t You Know That? Heywood, What you in For?

HEYWOOD: Didn’t do it. Lawyer Fucked Me.

RED: Rumor has it, you’re a real cold fish. You think your shit smells sweeter than most. Is that right?

ANDY: What do you think?

RED: Well, to tell you the truth, I haven’t made up my mind.

ANDY: I understand you’re a man that knows how to get things.

RED: I’m know to locate certain things from time to time.

ANDY: I wonder if you might get me a rock Hammer.

RED: A what?

ANDY: A rock hammer.

RED: What is it and why?

ANDY: What do you care?

RED: If it was a toothbrush, I wouldn’t ask questions; I’d just quote a price but then, a Toothbrush is a non-lethal object, isn’t it?

ANDY: Fair enough. Rock Hammer’s about six or seven inches long, looks like a miniature pickaxe.

RED: Pickaxe?

ANDY: For rocks.

RED: Quartz?

ANDY: Quartz. And some Mica. Shale. Limestone.

RED: So?

ANDY: I’m a rock hound. At least in my old life. I’d like to be again, on a limited basis.

RED: or maybe you want to sink your toy  into somebodies skull.

ANDY: No, Sir. No, I have no enemies here.

RED: No? Wait a while. Word gets around. The sisters have taken quite a likin’ to you. Especially Bogs.

ANDY: I don’t suppose it would help if I explained to them I’m not homosexual.

RED: Neither are they. They’d have to be human first They don’t qualify. Bull Queers take by force. It’s all they want or understand. But if I were you, I’d grow eyes in the back of my head.

ANDY: Thanks for the advice.

RED: Well, that’s free. But you understand my concern.

ANDY: Well, if there’s any trouble, I won’t use the rock hammer, okay?

RED: Then I’d guess you want to escape, tunnel under the wall, maybe. [Andy Chuckles] Have I missed something here? What’ so Funny?

ANDY: You’ll understand when you see the rock hammer.

It goes on and they negotiate a price. This is the first dialogue between Red and Andy. It sets up what’s to come and it’s brilliant dialogue between them. It’s brilliant because it shows and tells how each of them is sizing each other up. It also alludes to the harsh reality of the Sister’s relentless attacks, which is a foreshadow of what is to come.

Red’s narration that follows confirms that Andy is different and Red seems to half believe him that he is innocent.

Applying the rules above we get:


  1. Exposition: The realities of life in prison and how Andy will be treated.
  2. Characterization: Red as a wise person that can help Andy. Andy as a “cold fish”
  3. Action: Andy wants to collect rocks.


  1. Inner action: Red’s concern for Andy’s safety
  2. Verbal style: Use of ‘rock hound’ and ‘homosexual’ by Andy. Use of ‘locate certain things from time to time’ by Red.
  3. Captivates: Will Red get the rock hammer for Andy.
  4. Authentic and True to Character: You expect Red to ask about a weapon since it will get back to him. Andy, being naive, just wants the rock hammer.

The next one has to do with the theme of the story and it’s perfectly encapsulated by this brief exchange. It’s after Andy gets out of the hole for playing music.

Time: 1:11:45

ANDY: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you… you need it so you don’t forget.

RED: Forget?

ANDY: Forget there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside they can’t get to; that they can’t touch … that’s yours.  

RED: What are you talking about?

ANDY: Hope.

RED: Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s no use on the inside. Better get use to that idea.

ANDY: Like Brooks did?

This is the statement of the theme of the movie. Hope. Have hope no matter what life throws at you. The only thing that Andy has is hope. That’s something they can’t take away from him. Without hope, he would never have dug the hole out of his cell since it’s clearly a fool’s errand to attempt escape. That scene also happens to be the midpoint shift.

Applying the rules above we get:


  1. Characterization: Andy’s hopeful even given what he is going through.


  1. Inner action: Red’s expressed concern of going insane
  2. Intensifies the scene: Call back to Brook’s. Will Andy or Red go insane like Brooks.
  3. Convey Exposition: Picturing life on the outside without things ‘made of stone.’
  4. Verbal Style: Andy’s philosophy on life express
  5. Captivates the reader: Will Andy convince Red
  6. Authentic and True to Character: Red as an old convict. Bitter and not convinced. Andy still hopeful.

As the movie goes on, Andy changes. He’s now getting more and more valuable. He’s actually becoming a crook.

Time: 1:23:10

ANDY: On the outside, I was an honest man. Straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to become a crook.

RED: [Laughs]

Andy is smiling the whole time is proud of what he has accomplished on the inside. The dialogue continues as Andy details how he hides the money. His life seems to be worth living now.

Applying the rules above we get:


  1. Characterization: Andy’s outside and inside behavior contrast.
  2. Action: Andy turned into a crook on the inside.


  1. Inner action: Andy reveals what he was like on the outside
  2. Intensifies the scene: Red is interested in how Andy became a crook.
  3. Exposition: Details of how Andy hides the money.
  4. Captivates: How did Any hide the money?
  5. Authentic and True to Character: Andy uses his smarts to hide the money. No one else can do that.

Next up is where “hope” seems lost:

Time: 1:38:40

WARDEN:  I’m sure by now you’ve heard. Terrible thing. Man that young, less than a year to go, trying to escape … Broke Captain Hadley’s heart to shoot him, truly it did. We just have to put it behind us … move on.

ANDY: I’m done. Everything stops. Get someone else to run your scams.

WARDEN: Nothing stops. Nothing … or you will do the hardest time there is. No more protection from the guards. I’ll pull you out of that one-bunk Hilton and cast you down with the Sodomites. You’ll think you’ve been fucked by a train! And the library? Gone … sealed off, brick-by-brick. We’ll have us a little book barbecue in the yard. They’ll see the flames for miles. We’ll dance around it like wild Injuns! You understand me? Catching my drift?… Or am I being obtuse?
[to Hadley] Give him another month to think about it.

This is the all is lost moment for Andy. He has a decision to make about running the scams. He knows now that he’ll need to find another way out of Shawshank.

Applying the rules above we get:


  1. Exposition: What life will be like if Andy does not cooperate.
  2. Characterization: Fully in line with the warden’s attitude. A shift for Andy but within character.
  3. Action: Another month in the hole.


  1. Inner action: Andy’s desire not to do the scam. The warden’s strong desire to keep the status quo.
  2. Intensifies the Scene: All the bad things that will happen. Ramps up the tension.
  3. Convey’s Exposition: The life Andy will have without corporation and the immediate reality now.
  4. Verbal Style: The warden’s use of Injuns. Restating ‘obtuse’.
  5. Captivates: What’s going to happen to Andy if he says no to the Warden?
  6. Authentic and true to character: Andy’s fed up. The warden will not stand for Andy leaving.

The final bit of dialogue I’ll share with you is on theme and probably the most quoted of them all:

Time: 1:45:20

RED: Mexico’s way the hell down there, and you’re in here, and that’s the way it is!

ANDY: You’re right. It’s down there, and I’m in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice, really. Get busy living or get busy dying.

This last bit of dialogue is the theme of the movie restated. It’s how hope is expressed. If you don’t live, then there is no hope for the future. The nature of hope is that there is something to live for. Without that, you might as well die. Red changes his mind on this as he gets to know Andy and finally gives into it when he goes up in front of the parole board.

Applying the rules above we get:


  1. Characterization: Red’s doubtful. Andy is hopeful.
  2. Action: Andy’s desire to escape Shawshank.


  1. Inner action: Red’s doubt. Andy’s hope.
  2. Verbal Style: Red says “way the hell down there” Andy says “down there” Notice no swearing on Andy’s part. There is only one point where Andy shears in the movie.
  3. Authentic and True to character: Red skeptical. He has been denied parole for decades. Andy hopeful since he has plan to get out of Shawshank.

There are countless other examples of great dialogue, along with voice over, that make this movie a great study in how to craft stellar dialogue. I think it gets the dialogue to Red’s narration right as well. It’s enough to get the critical backstory and history without giving away too much. In a novel, Red’s narration would be the narrative between the dialogue. For a writer, this balance is something to consider when writing beats/scenes.

You’ll notice that most of the example dialogue is at the beat level. Dialogue has to be analyzed at the beat level since most of the time, there will be multiple beats of dialogue in a scene, separated by narrative. Of course, how the beat of dialogue impacts the scene is important but to see if dialogue works, it’s more granular than a scene. What characters say to each other can and does change them, which impacts the scene. I’ll be looking more into tools on how to analyze dialogue in subsequent podcasts.

Other perspectives on the story

Valerie: Jarie, I’m not sure if I disagree with you, or am just not following you.


Anything that resembles posh and polished will be out of place, although that also has something to do with the character speaking.  Ok, I get that. For example, Captain Hadley is vulgar whereas Andy is well-spoken.

The one are that I think doesn’t work here is Red’s little speech about Brooks being institutionalized. It’s, as you say, out of place. “Institutionalized” isn’t the kind of thing I’d expect him to say. In fact the whole passage sounds like words out of the screenwriters mouth (or Andy’s), not out of Red’s.

RED: Brooks ain’t no bug. He’s just, just institutionalized.

HEYWOOD: Institutionalized, my ass.

RED: The man’s been in here fifty years, Heywood. Fifty years. In here, he’s an important man. He’s an educated man. Outside, he’s nothin’. Just a used up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried. You know what I’m tryin’ to say?

FLOYD: Red, I do believe you’re talking out of your ass.

RED: You believe whatever you want, Floyd. But I’m tellin’ ya, these walls are funny. First, ya hate ‘em. Then, ya get used to ‘em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on ‘em. That’s institutionalized.

Here’s how Red talks about this in the novella (huge thanks to Anne and Kim for (1) thinking to check this out and (2) actually finding the reference. Teamwork!)

RED: Yeah, I guess the State got its own back on Brooksie, all right. They trained him to like it inside the shithouse and then they threw him out.

I don’t have a problem with the fact that Red recognizes Brooks’s situation. Just because he hasn’t had the benefit of formal education doesn’t mean he isn’t intelligent. In fact, Red seems quite perceptive. It’s just that nothing else in the film leads me to believe that he’d describe it as “institutionalized.”

Beat-Level Analysis

Dialogue has to be analyzed at the beat level unlike other story grid methods that look at scenes: I totally disagree on this one, so I’m curious to see what Jarie comes up with in future episodes as he continues his study. Yes, dialogue can be analyzed at the beat level, but why must it be?

There are certainly some terrific moments (or beats) within scenes with interesting dialogue. There’s even quotable dialogue that isn’t so clever in scenes that aren’t all that snazzy. (I’ll be back or the Yippie Ki-yay line from Die Hard.) But dialogue, like all of the other tools in a writer’s tool box, is there to serve the story. For a novelist, the scene is the basic unit of story. Actors focus on beats, that’s true. But it doesn’t automatically mean (in my opinion anyway) that dialogue has to be analyzed at the beat level.

At the scene level, dialogue is one of the ways literal and essential action can shine (what’s being said v what is meant). It’s what allows us to have subtext. The best dialogue is invisible.

Let me give you an example of what I’m talking about. Here’s a scene from The King’s Speech. We studied this film last season, and the more I analyze this screenplay the better it gets.

The ‘I have a voice’ scene:

This whole film is about speaking, or the inability to speak as it were. There are any number of scenes I could have chosen to discuss the effective use of dialogue, but I like this one because Bertie finally embraces his voice. It’s a pivotal moment in his development as a man and King, and it’s a pivotal moment in the friends’ relationship.

The scene starts with a discussion of the term doctor and whether it holds any meaning. While this is a fascinating bit of dialogue on the surface, the subtext is heartbreaking. Bertie feels betrayed. He thinks his friend has (1) used him and (2) made a fool of him. Neither of which is true, but we see from the opening of this scene that Bertie is used to being treated that way so he quickly jumps to the conclusion that Lionel is like all the others. This whole passage encompases the inciting incident and a number of progressive complications. It flows naturally to the turning point (when Bertie sees Lionel in the chair), the crisis (stammer out the words to get Lionel out of the St. Edward’s chair or remain silent), the climax (their argument) and finally the resolution (Bertie embraces his voice). Every line of dialogue in this scene moves the scene forward. Their conversation works at the essential and literal levels, and I’m sure if I had time to do a full analysis, I’d find that it’s also on theme.

The quotable lines are icing on the cake.

Masterful Dialogue

The Shawshank Redemption does dialogue masterfully. Does it really? How? What do you mean by masterful dialogue? I agree it has some memorable, and insightful lines. For example “get busy livin’ or get busy dyin” and  “on the outside, I was straight as an arrow. I had to come to prison to be a crook.”

When I was learning to apply makeup, someone said to me, “if anyone notices your makeup, you’ve done it wrong. They shouldn’t notice your lipstick, they should only know that you look fantastic.” The same principle applies to story. The audience shouldn’t notice the dialogue, or the description, or any other storytelling tool. They should only know that it’s a fantastic story.

Andy’s use of the word obtuse is like lipstick that’s too red. (Red’s use of the word institutionalized is like that too.) We notice it. It sticks out. Yes, Andy is educated, but he doesn’t talk like that at any other point in the film. In fact, he hardly talks at all. As a result, what he does say is all the more important.

I think his first line after arriving in prison is a great use of dialogue. He asks if anyone knows the name of the dead prisoner—the new guy that Captain Hadley beat to death the night before.

Why is this an excellent use of dialogue? Because it shows us exactly what kind of man he is. It demonstrates his compassion for his fellow man.

Likewise, Heywood whispering, “Shut up, man. Shut up,” to the fat inmate the night prior illustrates his character. This is the guy he’d goaded into crying and calling out so that he could win a bet. Yes, he wanted to win the bet, but he didn’t want the prisoner to get beaten up. However, he whispers it. He’ll stick his neck out for no man.

Voice Over Narration

The narration is, in my opinion, the weakest part of the entire film. First, narration isn’t technically dialogue. It’s narration.

So before going further, we need to agree on what we’re talking about when we say dialogue. Jarie is using McKee as a resource, so let’s look at McKee’s definition. It’s much broader than my own! He says that dialogue is, “any words said by any character to anyone.” He then goes on to talk about the different types of dialogue given this very broad definition.

So, following this, narration is a type of dialogue. The question then becomes—as it always is—why has it been used? As writers we have many tools in our toolbox, the trick is knowing which one to use when.

In Shawshank Redemption the narration is completely unnecessary. It’s exposition and is the kind of on-the-nose telling that writers (screenwriters and novelists) must avoid. It tells us things we can easily see for ourselves on the screen. I started to go through each bit of voice over looking for a prime example, but honestly, this is true of all of it. Go through the film and see for yourself. Stop after each voice over and ask yourself, “Did I need Red to tell me that, or could I have figured it out myself?” We may not have known Bogs’s fate, but the fact that he never returns to Shawshank Prison could have easily been worked into another conversation in another scene.

In film, voice overs are often used as exposition (not always though). Novelists use exposition too and usually in the form of information dumps—long passages giving the reader background information. Exposition should be used as ammunition—that is, to move the story forward (which brings us to narrative drive).

Narrative Drive

Remember that Dialogue is the Yin to Narrative’s Yang and achieving that perfect balance is the highest form of storytelling. Agreed, which is why I have a problem with the voiceover in Shawshank Redemption. Narrative drive has to do with how much information the reader has with respect to the protagonist. It’s all about piquing the audience’s curiosity. Exposition in any form (information dumps, voice overs etc) kill curiosity because it provides too much information. The audience isn’t wondering anything because they’ve been told everything they ever wanted to know.

Kim:  “Every utterance, however intangible, is at some level an expression of intent.”

This is a quote from a book I got for Christmas this last year, written by John Yorke titled Into the Woods: a Five-Act Journey into Story. It’s a craft book but his specific intent is to understand not just the what/how of the observable truths that make great stories, but why there is an observable truth and why it is what it is. I’m not finished yet so I don’t know his conclusion (although I think Shawn brilliantly points to at least one factor with the Kubler-Ross Change Cycle), but I’m thoroughly enjoying the book. (Don’t you love a craft book that reads like a great conversation?).

This quote is the opening line to his chapter on Dialogue and Characterization. It struck me when I read it as a clear shout out to Essential Action. Anne and Leslie wrote up a great post on it, and recorded a great bite-size episode as well. But just here’s a quick recap…

Essential Action is best understood in tandem with it’s partner in crime, Literal Action. Together they further a character’s efforts to “get what they want”. Literal Action refers to the actual verbs the character is doing, things that could be observed with the five senses of other characters. Essential Action is the the underlying motivation–the intent–of the these actions. It’s the thing the character really wants, and they’ll adjust their literal actions as necessary to try to achieve it. Great stories and great scenes align the literal actions with the essential action, to do more than meets the eye, or in the case of dialogue, more than meets the ear.

Dialogue–the words we say and how we say them–is a literal action. And, as John Yorke points out, an expression of intent.

In order to create great dialogue, we must first understand a character’s intent, that is their essential action. What do they want? What do they really really want? They can want anything, but it must be specific. (Sidenote, it’s taking me everything I have not to bust out the Spice Girls right now. You’re welcome.)

The go-to guide for understanding Essential Action (besides our lovely Anne and Leslie’s post) is Practical Aesthetics developed by David Mamet and William H Macy. In their work, they teach actors how to identify a character’s “want” and boil it down into an Essential Action phrase–a phrase of intent. They cite eleven phrases that cover the root of all human intent. You could argue they’re are more, but often it comes down to semantics and preference for personal clarity.

  1. to get someone on my team
  2. to lay down the law
  3. to draw the dividing line
  4. to get someone to take a big risk
  5. to get my due or retrieve what is rightfully mine
  6. to get someone to see the big picture
  7. to enlighten someone to a higher understanding
  8. to tell a simple story
  9. to get to the bottom of something
  10. to close the deal
  11. to get someone to throw me a lifeline

In terms of dialogue, if we know a character’s intent, we can craft words that help them pursue it (though certainly they won’t always achieve it). Let’s take one of the examples Jarie’s provided and look at it in context of the characters’ Essential Actions.

EXAMPLE: It’s the scene where Andy shows up in the cafeteria after being the hole for a week, his punishment for turning up the music in spite of the warden’s demands to turn it off–such a great moment.

The guys are razzing him and he says it was the easiest time he’s ever done. They call bullshit. No such thing as easy time in the hole, which I am calling the inciting incident at which point I believe Andy’s essential action becomes to enlighten someone to a higher understanding.

He tries to explain that he had the music with him. They misunderstand and think he got special privileges and was able to take the record player with him. He clarifies that it was in his mind and in his heart. They don’t really know how to respond to that. So he explains some more.

ANDY: That’s the beauty of music. They can’t get that from you… you need it so you don’t forget.

Up to this point, Red has been silent. I believe that what Andy is saying as well as the way he is saying it triggers Red negatively. It conflicts with his worldview. Andy’s phrase “so you don’t forget” is an inciting incident for Red, and his essential action becomes get to the bottom of something.

RED: Forget?

ANDY: Forget there are places in the world that aren’t made out of stone. That there’s something inside they can’t get to; that they can’t touch … that’s yours.  

RED: What are you talking about?

ANDY: Hope.

When Andy says the word Hope, this is a revelatory turning point for Red–he doesn’t need to get to the bottom of it anymore, he knows. And he doesn’t like it. He can either keep silent/agreeable or challenge his friend. His climax is a new essential action, I’d say to lay down the law.

RED: Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane. It’s no use on the inside. Better get use to that idea.

Red’s climax is a turning point for Andy, which he can either stay silent/agreeable (aligns with an EA like to get someone on my team) or challenge back. His climactic choice is to challenge back.

ANDY: Like Brooks did?

But I think Andy’s EA remains consistent even in his climax–he is still trying to enlighten someone to a higher understanding.

This Essential Action doesn’t exist in a vacuum–it stems from a character’s global wants and needs, which are driven by the content genre and life values at stake. Because I am ultimately an internal genre story nerd, this made me think of Friedman’s Framework, the guide Leslie and I use to suss out internal genres, which I believe is the foundation of the term Jarie is using: a character’s SET.

In order to determine an internal genre, Norman Friedman outlined three aspects for the protagonist: their level thought (worldview), their level of fortune (status), and their level of character (morality, which encompasses their inner moral code and strength of will). He looks at these levels at the beginning of the story, how the levels change over the course of the story, and finally where the levels reside at the end of the story. Every character in every genre is going to have these aspects and levels, regardless if they change or not.

A character’s level of thought/worldview is how the character sees the world, their unique perspective and belief systems. It refers to their level of sophistication (are they naive, are they cynical, wise, judgmental, hoodwinked, etc). Think of different characters: a child, a war veteran, a priest, a mother who’s lost her husband, a innocent man convicted and sent to prison. So much of the characterization, the backstory, the present circumstances of the plot, will shape their thought. We ask ourselves what is the character’s level of thought on page one? What made them that way? What is their level of thought at the end of the BH, the midpoint, end of the MB, what is it on the final page? What made them that way?

You can walk through the same mental exercise for fortune–what is their fortune/external circumstances? Sickness, health, rich, poor, supported, abandoned. And their moral character–are they selfish and self-serving, or are they selfless? Are they Deceitful? Honest? Spineless or determined?

Can you see how all of this creates an expectation for how the character would act? How they would speak? Or if they speak at all? Like rests in music, often it is what goes unsaid that can be the most revealing about a character, carries the most meaning.

Once you get a bead on a character’s thought, fortune, and moral character, you have the foundation for their SET. I encourage you to get specific with details, this will empower you to write from a place of authority, and to truly give your characters their own voice.

This same exercise works for all aspects of story. With regard to what a character says, when you have a story told from a first person narrator, as is the case with The Shawshank Redemption, both the film version and the original novella, the SET informs the entire narrative, not just the dialogue in quotes.

For me, understanding your characters SET, that is their level of thought, fortune, and character, as well as the specific circumstances that shaped them (whether that refers to events that occured prior to the opening of the story or in the prior scene, maybe even the current scene! Maybe the line of dialogue or character action that just took place second before) is essential, and will empower you to identify authentic essential actions, and craft authentic dialogue that furthers those actions.

Leslie: Conventions and Dialogue

I’m studying conventions this season, so I wanted to look at elements to consider as you draft and revise dialogue so that it supports your story’s genre. Dialogue can establish conventions (an obvious example is the speech in praise of the villain in an action story), but also your conventions can give you fodder for your dialogue because as we’ve heard dialogue isn’t just conversation.

Well, I ran into a little snag with the external genre and its conventions, and I want to share that journey to show how I made peace with this genre. But before I get into that, let me take a step back and review what conventions are and what they do.

Conventions are the characters, setting or circumstances, and ways of turning the plot that set up reader expectations. Think of them as the requisite ingredients to create the life value shift required by your genre. Your story’s style, position on the reality continuum, and sales category can all contribute conventions to your story that create the conditions for a story of its kind, but I’m focusing on the external genre today.

Shawn has identified The Shawshank Redemption as a Crime-Prison story, but this story doesn’t walk and talk like your typical murder mystery within the crime genre. So I needed to do a little detective work of my own.

The description in the SG text is that Prison stories are told from the prisoner’s point of view (compare with most murder mysteries, which follow the investigation of a murder by an amateur or professional detective). Shawn also indicates that the primary question is, will they solve the riddle of how they were set up? This isn’t Andy’s question precisely in TSR because he isn’t framed, as far as we know. It’s more that he’s allowed to take the fall, but he still has to wonder who really killed his wife and her lover. And we wonder this as well, given Andy’s insistence that he’s innocent.

In her Fundamental Friday’s post on the crime genre, Rachelle Ramirez noted that Crime-Prison stories have a society element. We can feel the power struggle in this story, between Andy and his allies and the guards, within the walls of the prison. Beyond being released as actually innocent, that is, to see justice done, what does Andy want? He wants to gain personal power, or in Red’s parlance, to “feel normal.”

Kim and I put our thinking caps on to get to the bottom of what’s going on in this story and other prison stories like it. It’s useful to look at how these stories are the same and how they are different from the other Crime subgenres. The first thread we followed relates to the protagonist. As Shawn says, the protagonist is usually the criminal (rather than the detective or victim), and Prison stories have this in common with a few other Crime subgenres.

  • Heist: professional group of criminals (Inception)
  • Caper: amateur group of criminals (Mad Money, Waking Ned Devine)
  • Organized crime: Criminal organization (Breaking Bad)
  • Prison: prisoner wrongly convicted or otherwise suffers injustice within prison (The Count of Monte Cristo, Escape from Alcatraz, Papillon)

What else do these subgenres have in common?

  • We generally root for the criminal and wonder if they will get away, rather than hoping the detective will expose the criminal and bring them to justice.
  • Among other inquiries, these stories explore why people commit crimes and what people are willing to do to pursue the security or success they need.
  • Experience tells the criminal protagonist(s) they have no legitimate avenue to meet their security needs, or they suffer some grave misfortune. They seek alternate means to meet their needs. This seems to be the source of the society element we notice in these stories.
  • The positive life value shift tends to land on poetic justice, rather than pure justice, and that usually means something other than “exposing the criminal.” The criminal might not get away completely, but there is some fitting end in store for them.

We can use these observations to begin to craft a working hypothesis, including subgenre conventions, that we all can test by watching more of these movies.

Crime story conventions as modified by the hypothesis these stories and examples from The Shawshank Redemption:

  • Victim, villain, investigator (someone with an interest in exposing the villain) (these are roles, not necessarily characters): The Shawshank Redemption: Andy, Blatch/Warden, Andy
  • Prisoner/criminal is sympathetic: The Shawshank Redemption: Andy asks about the dead prisoner when no one else bothers.
  • MacGuffin (the criminal’s object of desire): I think we would still highlight the external antagonist’s object of desire. The Shawshank Redemption: Blatch wants his freedom; the warden wants to maintain power and benefit financially. Both characters express their MacGuffins through dialogue.
  • Investigative red herrings: In heist, caper, and organized crime stories, these would consist of the steps the protagonist(s) take to cover up their crime. In a prison story, however, the red herrings might be the evidence that tends to link the protagonist, unjustly on some level, to the crime. The Shawshank Redemption: Andy went to the place where the couple was meeting with a gun and a strong motive, he had confronted his wife on the night she was murdered, the gun that Andy said he didn’t used wasn’t recovered from the river where he threw it. All of this is circumstantial evidence of his guilt. In the court scene, DA outlines this evidence.
  • Making it personal: The external antagonist needs something from the protagonist in order to get away with their own crime. Not sure this is present in a heist or caper, but we see this in The Shawshank Redemption: The warden needs Andy to keep doing his accounting work to keep the criminal enterprise afloat. He tells him nothing stops or Andy will do hardest time and warden will shut the library up brick by brick.
  • Clock: Limited time to act for protagonist or villain to act. The Shawshank Redemption: Andy feels urgency to act on Tommy’s information, calling the warden obtuse because he doesn’t seem to get it.

Conventions for prison subgenre based on observations (again, these aren’t official, but are educated guesses based on discussions of what we’ve observed):

  • Fellow prisoners who are allies to protagonist: The Shawshank Redemption: Red, Heywood, Brooks, Floyd, Tommy, etc.
  • Opposing groups among prisoners: TSR: Bogs’s group.
  • Corrupt officials, the warden and/or guards: The Shawshank Redemption: Warden, Hadley
  • Establish injustice: The Shawshank Redemption: Andy consistently maintains that he is innocent
  • Explores how prisoners deal with the difficulty of dealing with injustice and/or prison life: Red says everyone must find a way to occupy their minds.
  • Explores why those who are guilty committed their crimes: Red tells the parole board he was young and stupid and regrets what he did.
  • Setting: Prison: The Shawshank Redemption: Shawshank, characterized accurately in the warden’s welcome speech.

Another thing a lot of these stories have in common is that they are often paired with Status internal genres, which Kim will talk about next because, by the way, the external Crime-Prison genre isn’t the global one.

Kim: When Leslie and I met up, we’d both recently rewatched the film and had two running hypotheses: it felt like either Status Admiration (like Gladiator) or Morality-Testing-Triumph (Like Cool Hand Luke). We could see elements of both that could fit, so to get clarity we went to the foundational tool and walked through Friedman’s Framework.

  1. Who is the protagonist (the person who undergoes the most change, the one whose welfare is our chief focus and interest, the one whom all else in the plot revolves)? Andy Dufresne
  2. What is the protagonist’s situation at the beginning of the story?
    1. Character: What is their willpower and motives, and do we find them sympathetic? Strong willed/determined, tells the truth when asked, sympathetic.
      1. Kim’s Deep Study Question: How do we know this information? Doesn’t lie at trial/owns his actions, doesn’t cry the first night/silent, asks the name of the “fish” who died, strolls through the yard “As if he has a cape of protection that would shield him from this place”. We admire his strength of will to be that way in the face of these unjust circumstances.
    2. Worldview: What is their level of thought, sophistication, and belief? Sophisticated in business, catches on quick to the way prison operates, hope is his compass
      1. Kim’s Deep Study Question: How do we know this information? Had a good job the head of a bank at a young age, approaches Red with respect for help getting his rock hammer, pursues his hobby as a rockhound
    3. Status: What is their social standing and do we fear it will get worse or hope it will get better? Lowly status, we hope it will get better.
      1. Kim’s Deep Study Question: How do we know this information? New fish in a prison for a crime he didn’t commit, targeted by the sisters.
  3. What is the protagonist’s situation at the end of the story?
    1. Character – Strong willed, true to his moral code = unchanged
    2. Worldview – Still believes in hope = unchanged
    3. Status – Free in Mexico, delivered justice to warden = elevated
  4. What does the audience experience in light of this change? Satisfaction
  5. Express this change as a cause and effect statement. When Andy Dufresne, a strong-willed intellect who champions truth and hope, is falsely imprisoned for 20 years, maintains his strength of will and belief in hope which enables him to tunnel to freedom.
  6. Determine which Internal Genre-Subgenre best fits this cause and effect statement. Status-Admiration

So now we know that the External Genre is Crime-Prison and the internal genre is Status-Admiration, but how do we tell which is the global story?

Let’s look at the Controlling Idea/Theme

Poetic justice is served when unjustly incarcerated prisoners maintain hope until they can outwit their external antagonists.

–Note that Andy is the only one who is actually innocent, but the treatment the other prisoners are subjected to is by definition cruel and unusual punishment under the 8th Amendment, and so is also unjust.

–Note also that the prisoners who remain gain hope (or something like it, the thing inside that keeps them afloat is bolstered) when they learn that Andy has escaped then made it to Mexico (rather than surrendering to despair and killing himself).

Along with this, there is a Worldview-Maturation arc for Red. In this case, Andy acts as his mentor and prompts his change from a black and white view about Hope, which compels Red to take the risk to meet him in Mexico, rather than just biding his time like he did in prison. This shines an additional light on Andy’s internal genre. Similar to the narrative device of The Great Gatsby, the protagonist differs from the POV character, and the protagonist’s global internal genre affects the POV character.

Interestingly, I found several moments in the original novella where Red narrates that he admires Andy.

If we take this in context of the In/Out, we can shine some more lights.

Here’s a description of the “in” from the screenplay: ANDY DUFRESNE, mid-20’s, wire rim glasses, three-piece suit. Under normal circumstances a respectable, solid citizen; hardly dangerous, perhaps even meek. But these circumstances are far from normal. He is disheveled, unshaven, and very drunk. A cigarette smolders in his mouth. His eyes, flinty and hard, are riveted to the bungalow up the path.

Again from the screenplay, here’s the “out”:
A distant boat lies on its side in the sand like an old wreck that’s been left to rot in the sun. There’s someone out there.

A MAN is meticulously stripping the old paint and varnish by hand, face hidden with goggles and kerchief mask.

Red appears b.g., a distant figure walking out across the sand, wearing his cheap suit and carrying his cheap bag.

The man on the boat pauses. Turns slowly around. Red arrives with a smile as wide as the horizon. The other man raises his goggles and pulls down his mask. Andy, of course.

ANDY: You look like a man who knows how to get things.

RED: I’m known to locate certain things from time to time.

The final dialogue from the script isn’t heard in the film, because the camera lifts away to show them on the tranquil beach. Again, in the novella we never get to see Red on the beach with Andy because the device is Red telling us the story from when he is out on parole, at his crisis moment–is he going to follow Andy to Mexico. It ends with Red’s lines about hope, so the final impact to the audience is about this theme of Hope.

You may be surprised that it’s not Morality-Redemption, since it’s named in the title, but in this case it refers to a redemption/returning/reclaiming of his status as a free man, not the redemption of his morality (which would be an arc from the negation of the negation, Selfishness Masked as Altruism, to a measure of Sacrifice). The warden, on the other hand is a perfect example of Selfishness Masked as Altruism, and suffers a Morality-Punitive arc, to which we all say hooray.

Listener Question

To wind up the episode, we take questions from our listeners. This week’s question comes to us from @abigailkperry on Twitter.

How do you know if a scene starts on a positive or a negative? Do you consider these positive and negative “emotions” or “advancement of plot?”

Leslie: This is a great question. I start with identifying the turning point progressive complication. This reveals the life value at stake in the scene (or sequence, act, or story). Once you know that, you can look at where the life value begins and ends on the spectrum. But we determine whether it’s positive or negative (or double positive or double negative) in relation to the global objects of desire. In other words, does the story event bring the character closer to or further from what they need and want.

Let me give you a example … Imagine that a royal navy sloop is being tossed about by a sudden and violent squall (inciting incident). The captain’s goal is to bring in the sails so the wind won’t pull the ship over. Men are sent into the rigging to accomplish this, but it’s slick and windy, and the mast holding the rigging where a favorite crew member is working snaps off and falls in the ocean (progressive complications). The sailors try to save the man who fell overboard, but the sailing master soon realizes that the weight of the rigging in the water is pulling the ship over (turning point progressive complication). The captain must decide whether to cut the rope attaching the mast (and the sailor) to the ship or try to rescue him and risk the entire ship (crisis). He cuts the rope (climax). The sailor is lost in the churning sea, but the ship immediately rights itself (resolution).

The turning point progressive complication shows us that life and death is the value at stake in the scene. So we look at who is alive and not at the beginning and end of the scene. The sailor is alive in the beginning and dead at the end, so that suggests that the the life value should move from positive to negative, especially if this is an action story where life and death is also the global value at stake.

But if this is a war story, where the life value is victory with honor or defeat with dishonor, we might say that the ship and entire crew are at risk at the beginning and safe at the end (with the exception of the sailor who died), which leaves the ship and its crew available to keep fighting the war. That could be a valence shift from negative to positive. And if the global value were internal, for example Status Admiration, this could go either way, depending on the protagonist’s definition of success and their moral code.

If you have a question about dialogue, or any other story principle, you can ask it on Twitter @storygridRT, or better still, by clicking here and leaving us a voice message.

Join us next time when Kim will begin her exploration of global internal genre with The Fundamentals of Caring. Why not give it a look during the week, and follow along with us?

Your Roundtable Story Grid Editors are Jarie Bolander, Valerie Francis, Anne Hawley, Kim Kessler, and Leslie Watts.

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Leslie Watts

Leslie Watts is a certified Story Grid editor, writer, and podcaster. She’s been writing for as long as she can remember: from her sixth-grade magazine about cats to writing practice while drafting opinions for an appellate court judge. When the dust settled after her children were born, she launched Writership.com to help writers unearth the treasure in their manuscripts. She believes writers become better storytellers through practice, and that editors owe a duty of care to help writers with specific and supportive guidance to meet reader expectations and express their unique gifts in the world.