For more years than I care to remember, I have worked with playwrights and screenwriters on developing techniques that will help them create lively, compelling dialogue. In many ways a writer’s ear for good dialogue is simply there or not–an aspect of his or her raw talent that can’t be taught or learned. But there a few principles of good dialogue writing that I continue to put forth. And there’s one that seems to especially resonate with writers struggling to get better at their craft. I call it the Art of Carrot Dangling.
Some years ago I asked my artist daughter to come up with a sketch that could help illustrate what I mean by such a term. This is what she came up with:
Silly as this diagram might look, I think it holds a basic truth about the mechanics of how a script (both dialogue and descriptions of action) should function with an audience once it’s brought to life in performance on the stage or screen. You, the writer, are the driver of a horse-drawn wagon full of vegetables (the “goods” of the script) who’s expertly manipulating a carrrot (the script in performance) tied to a long pole in front of the horse’s nose (the audience)–the purpose of which is to keep the wagon moving to a stable down the road (your destination) so the horse can be fed the whole wagonload of vegetables (the story’s ideas and content; what you ultimately want to communicate).
As the driver, you control the forward motion of the wagon. Because he’s hungry, the horse keeps moving, trying to eat the carrot that’s constantly being dangled before his face. If the carrot gets close enough for the horse to snatch it, the wagon will stop as he eats it, never arrive at the stable, and never deliver the full feast to the horse. Likewise, if the carrot gets too far from the horse, he’ll stop in his tracks because he’ll give up hope of ever getting his teeth into it. Keeping the wagon steadily moving forward toward the stable depends on how well the driver keeps the horse tantalized by the carrot.
And, of course, that’s precisely what you have to do. Your onstage action–delineated by the single instances of dialogue and description of action in your script–has to keep the audience constantly leaning into your unfolding story, making them work to keep up with it, yet not making it so difficult or obscure that they tune it out. You have to constantly balance yourself on this precarious edge. It’s the only place from which good scripts can flow.
So there you have it: the Art of Carrot Dangling. May all your journeys lead to the stable.