With only a week to go before my playwriting workshop, I thought I’d share a few thoughts about writing for theatre. Playwriting is a transferrable skill that has served my career well as I jumped from stage to radio to television to fiction.
In crafting a play, I learned the importance of developing characters through actions rather than through exposition. The immediacy of theatre forced me always to look for conflict in a story. Finally, I realized dialogue is a wonderful tool to reveal character, advance plot, and create pace.
When I began as a writer, I thought dialogue was merely the act of characters talking about themselves and what happened in the story.
Dialogue can do more. Dialogue can be a lie that hides our true feelings. Imagine those awkward situations when you’re talking to a boss and you pretend to support her new management ideas or when you’re on a blind date and you awkwardly laugh at your companion’s lame joke. The subtext is where the real drama happens and can inject drama into an apparent mundane conversation about fishing.
When I see blocks of text jammed into the mouth of a character in a novel, I must admit I dread the idea of meeting the author because I fear I’ll be sitting quietly while they drone on about themselves. In real life, conversations require two people to participate. It’s a dance where everyone tries to lead and people do step on toes. I love when dialogue is jagged and invites us to engage. I feel like I can learn more about characters in how they respond to each other. What they don’t say is just as important as what they do say.
Just listen to a conversation on a bus and you’ll see how rich and alive dialogue can be. I think any writer who wants to craft authentic dialogue only needs to listen to the conversations that unfold around her. We can learn about the relationship between two speakers based on whether they speak formally or casually. We might know the level of person’s education from their vocabulary choices. We might even guess their attitude about the topic based on whether or not they gush in long speeches or if they clip their sentences. All we need to do is listen.
If you’re curious about how to write good dialogue, I recommend the best exercise is to eavesdrop on conversations. You’ll be amazed at how much you can pick up. Once you get a sense of voice, remember that good dialogue is active. We often say things because we have an agenda. Think about your character’s objective when you make them speak. What do they want from the listener? How are they going to convince the other person to give them what they want? And how obvious are they going to be about what they want?
If you want more playwriting tips, please register for my bootcamp on Saturday, Feb. 6.