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Tuesday, April 2, 2013

How to Write a Play or How to Enjoy Repeatedly Banging Your Head Against the Wall, Lesson 8: Let's Talk About Dialogue

Greetings everyone.  My name is Bobby Keniston, and I am your host here at Theater is a Sport.  Thank you for taking the opportunity to check out my blog.

For my regular readers, well, it's Tuesday, so you know what that means.  Yeah, that's right.  It's time for another lesson about writing a play. 

Are you excited?  You should be.  Today, we are going to talk about dialogue.

Some people say that certain writers have a "natural gift" for dialogue.  Writers as diverse as Pinter, Mamet, Salinger, and Elmore Leonard have all praised for the words they put in their characters' mouths.  "They have an ear for dialogue", people will say.

I don't know how much of that I buy.  Yes, I admit that all of those writers have written compelling dialogue, but, like anything else with writing, it is a skill that can be practiced and perfected.  You don't need to worry about the ear you were born with, but only be willing to use the ear you have now.

Dialogue in a play has only two purposes.  Ready for them?  Here they are:
1.  Dialogue to advance the audience's knowledge of the character
2.  Dialogue must advance the plot.

That's all.  Simple, right? 

Okay, so it's not as easy as it sounds.  One thing you want to make sure to avoid is simple ABAB dialogue, the type of dialogue that an audience knows exactly what is coming next from line to line.  For example:

A:  Hi.
B:  Hello.
A:  How's it going today?
B:  Fine. 
A:  Sure is hot.
B:  Yes.  I'm sweating.
A:  Gross.
B:  People sweat.
A:  You're right.  Sorry.
B:  No problem.

Not very fascinating, is it?  I can't imagine an audience giving their attention to these two speakers for much longer.

How do you avoid ABAB dialogue?  Shake it up a bit.  Try not to let the audience fill in the next line.  Let's take the previous scene, but shake it up a bit, shall we?

A:  Hi.
B:  It's too hot for mindless greetings.
A:  You're in a good mood.  Go change your shirt, you're sweating through it.
B:  Gotta do the laundry.
A:  Your wife making you do your own laundry now?  Good for her.
B:  I'll share your sentiment with her if I ever see or hear from her again.
A:  What?  She left you?
B:  On the hottest day of the year with a full load of laundry to do.
A:  Sorry.

Now granted, this little scene is no prize winner, but it does make an attempt to teach us about the characters and introduce a potential plot point with B's wife having left him. 

Another interesting point to keep in mind when writing dialogue:  You don't have to write like people talk, but should write how people would want to talk if they could.  In real dialogue, there are a great deal of "ummms" and "Uhs" and stumbling over words... some playwrights do fine adding this into their dialogue, but a little bit goes a long way.  Let your charactters talk, and if they talk in a way that most people believe they talk in real life, they will buy it.  (People think they talk much better than they actually do, myself included). 

I know this next piece of advice might seem a little stale, but it is very true when it comes to writing good dialogue.  In order to write good, believable dialogue, you have to KNOW YOUR CHARACTERS.   I have to stress this point again and again.  Just as in life, the more you know who you are, the more confident your personality.  The same is true for your writing.  The more you know your characters, the more confident you will be able to create them for the audience, including how they speak. 

Unless you are trying to deliberately make one or all of your characters inaccessible (and I don't know why you would want to do that), please make your dilogue understandable for most people.  There are exceptions to this rule, but these exceptions usually have brilliant tremendous payoffs because of it.  When you're starting out, try to keep things simple.

Tonight I must be brief, but I hope these few tips about dialogue are helpful to you.  In any case, keep writing and working towards completion.

Thanks for reading.  If you want to know more about me, follow the links below.  And, yes:  theater is a sport.  I should know.  I've played it all my life.!/TheaterIsASport

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