28 July 2008

Writing Dialogue: a Lesson from Playwriting

Early in my college career I took a playwriting course. When I decided to take the course, I was exploring my writing, and thought it would be fun to try writing stage plays. I'd enjoyed my course over winter break called Cutting-Edge American Plays, so I saw this as a writerly extension of that. I was looking forward to stretching my creative muscles a bit. I knew playwriting would benefit my prose dialogue, too.

In playwriting, dialogue is what drives the story forward. Exposition, characterization, and plot are all revealed through conversation, so dialogue is what makes or breaks a script.

Dialogue can reveal a lot about a character. After all, a young woman who says, "Can I help you?" is very different from a woman who says, "What can I get you, sugar?" is very different from a woman who says, "Whatcha eatin'?"

So as you write dialogue, you should try to be very aware of what the word choice reveals about your character, and what you want to reveal about your character, and that character’s relationship with other characters.

Dialogue is a great way to employ “show, don’t tell.” It’s easy to tell your readers that your main character is a reality TV junkie, but the story reads stronger if your character peppers her conversations with references like “Make it work!” or “the Jays” or “The game has evolved.” It gives the character depth, and is more subtle than simply telling the readers about the person in big blocks of narrative.

So how do you strengthen your dialogue?

Eavesdrop on conversations. The best way to pick up dialogue is to listen to it. Just as you would watch people to come up with a great character description, you should listen to people to pick up their syntax and dialect. I’ve had entire stories emerge from a snatch of conversation, and I’ve developed characters from listening to one side of a cell phone conversation at the mall. So when you’re around other people in line at a department store or you’re waiting for a table at the bar of your favorite restaurant, listen to what people say, as well as how they say it.

Read plays. There are amazing playwrights that write dialogue that simply pirouettes off the page (much more beautiful than leaps, yes?). Go to your favorite bookstore, and let yourself wander back to the drama section. Pick up a few plays that pique your interest, and read the dialogue. More than that, study the dialogue. What does each line reveal about the character? How does each conversation shape the people, their relationship, the plot? How does the playwright use the written dialogue to create pirouettes?

Watch plays and movies. Just as reading plays can help you learn tricks and tips for writing dialogue, watching movies and plays can do the same. The people who write the scripts spend a good deal of time getting the word choice and syntax just right, and other writers can learn from that work to get our dialogue just right, too. Watching plays and movies can be a little more helpful than reading plays because you’re able to hear how the dialogue sounds, and see the character embrace the dialogue as part of the role.

Since taking the playwriting class, I’ve found myself being more careful about my dialogue, and when I overhear conversations, my mind immediately thinks about what kind of character the speaker is, and how I can transform the bit of dialogue into something read-worthy.

Even though you may not do it consciously, writers are always listening to dialogue. So what's the best bit of dialogue you’ve ever overheard?

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