Every aspiring writer should try their hand at playwriting. Even writers with paralyzing stage fright and an aversion to jazz hands can test the strength of their dialogue by resting the full weight of their story on it in the form of a play.
The lessons I learned in the playwriting classes I took in college have spared me from many a weak line of dialogue (though the pesky things sometimes manage to wriggle their way in).
Successful dialogue is a triple-threat, in that it:
1. Builds character
2. Heightens conflict
3. Progresses plot
This time I will provide you with playwriting exercises intended to help strengthen your dialogue by focusing on each of these areas.
One of the first lessons you learn in playwriting class is the difference between text and subtext.
Text = what your characters are saying
Subtext = the meaning or significance behind what they are saying
None of us say what we’re thinking at all time. Thank you, filter! Without filters, my friends would have to endure a lot more talk about my bewilderment about tapioca pudding and the anatomy of camels.
Your characters shouldn’t either.
Therefore, successful dialogue requires that writers:
1. Know the inner thoughts, desires, and fears of their characters
2. Install the correct filter between their character’s mind and mouth
So, without any further ado, curtains up!
Act 1: Overheard Voices
Pack your tomato sandwich and secret notebook, Harriet, let’s spy on strangers!
An exercise outlined in Jean-Claude van Itallie’s The Playwright’s Workbook, which I opted to keep instead of taking the proffered two bucks from the campus library, recommends finding a busy social space (a mall, coffee shop, park, etc.) and jotting down an overheard conversation as precisely as possible. (I recommend disguising your true intentions with headphones.)
As you frantically scribble down what’s said, include verbal crutches (um’s, ah’s, like’s, etc.) and don’t worry about getting it all down.
Van Itallie claims the conversation’s rhythm is more important than writing every word correctly. “Listening to the music of live voices prepares you to hear your characters’ voices instead of unconsciously forcing your characters to speak stereotypically. Each person and each well-drawn character speaks in his or her own unique voice.”
For the purposes of this blog, I “spied” on my friends (with their prior consent) to avoid the very unlikely scenario that the overheard strangers would stumble across this blog and send me angry messages.
Here’s an excerpt from the overheard conversation:
A: I was going to say, what happens if when we’re in England and if I’m like, “I want a cookie,” and they bring me like a, like a Pillsbury biscuit because they call cookies biscuits.
B: But they don’t call biscuits cook…
A: But how do I, so how do I? So, then, how do I get a Pillsbury biscuit if I want biscuits and gravy?
B: I don’t know. What’s their word for biscuit?
A: Not biscuit, ’cause I want a cookie
B: ‘Cause you said you wanted a cookie you just would’ve just said, “Give me a biscuit.”
A: Yeah, but if I said I want a cookie what am I gonna get? Like I want tea and cookies and they’re like, “tea and biscuits”
B: They would just say, “tea and biscuits.”
Act 1, Take 2: Understood Voices
Let’s consider the text and implied subtext of the overheard conversation. On the surface, Friend A is very concerned about her inability to control whether she eats a sweet or a savory snack.
Friend B is less concerned about their ability to secure baked goods and tries to reason with Friend A about the non-issue.
Considering the subtext, it’s not likely that Friend A is losing sleep about the unfortunate possibility of ordering a chocolate chip cookie slathered in gravy. (Unless Friend A is secretly Cookie Monster, Paula Dean, or Poppin’ Fresh. Shhh, I’ll never tell…)
The subtext suggests that Friend A is nervous about the upcoming trip and her ability to communicate effectively in an unfamiliar culture.
Here’s a tip: Be specific; use concrete details.
Here’s the same conversation, in broad, nondescript dialogue:
A: What happens if when we’re in England we have trouble communicating?
B: We speak the same language. We’ll figure it out.
Aren’t Pillsbury biscuits and gravy and tea and cookies more interesting (and delicious)?
Once you have recorded your overheard conversation and considered the subtext, van Itallie suggests using a few lines as the basis for a scene. Create characters from your overheard strangers and expand the selected lines into a scene-long conversation, all the while attempting to maintain the rhythm and musicality of each voice.
You’d be surprised what a few lines of real dialogue can become.
Act 2: Vocal Exercises
Print one of your written scenes and read your dialogue out loud. Fair warning, you’ll probably feel like a mumbling maniac. Make notes where you stumbled over the words or felt out of breath. In those moments, restructure or cut words.
Another tip: With dialogue, less is more.
You probably don’t recognize me, so I’ll introduce myself: my name is Inigo Montoya. When I was a small child, you killed my father. I know it was you as you have six fingers and a very distinctive hairstyle. After years of training, I will now finally fulfill my vow of revenge. I suggest you prepare to die.
My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.
–The Princess Bride
Act 2, Take 2: Auditions
If you thought reading your own dialogue was painful, listening to someone else reading it to you is its own special form of torture.
Resist telling your friend any context or background information for the scene. Hand them the scene, and if you are lucky enough to have more than one such friend eager to play guinea pig, assign the roles.
In addition to making notes where your guinea pigs stumble over your words or where their faces turn purple from not taking a breath, mark where they ‘misread’ lines or read lines in a way you did not intend.
In these instances, trust your reader. Chances are, your message wasn’t clear enough for them to understand. That’s not their fault, it’s yours.
Act 3. Improv
Improvisational exercises can do wonders for your dialogue. I was paired off with a classmate and instructed to role play an argument.
Here’s the scenario:
A couple, on the eve of their wedding, makes a salad. One partner has been sleeping around. The other has just found out.
And here’s the kicker: Neither partner can talk about anything other than making the salad.
A: Think we should toss in some kale?
B: What’s wrong with the romaine mix?
A: Nothing. I thought we could liven things up a bit.
B: ‘Lively’ is not how I’d describe kale.
A: Okay…so no kale?
Refusing to let your characters talk about what is actually bothering them is a great way to ratchet up the tension in a scene, and it makes the eventual reveal all the more powerful.
Which brings me to my next tip: Avoid the whole truth when possible.
What do Jane Austen books, Arrested Development, and failed relationships have in common? They depend on their characters’ failure or refusal to communicate.
Me: But you said you loved Harry Potter!
Ex: Yeah, the movies. I’ve never read the books.
Act 3, Take 2: Write It Out
Taking this improvisational exercise as a guide, write a scene where your characters can only speak about the action they are engaged in.
In writing the scene, keep in mind the tips learned throughout this blog:
1. Filter character’s text for subtext
2. Be specific; use concrete details
3. Less is more
4. Avoid the whole truth when possible
In completing these exercises and following the tips, your dialogue will develop into a triple-threat, able to:
1. Build character
2. Heighten conflict
3. Progress pot
At the risk of sounding like a pretentious bumper sticker, go see a play! And not just reruns of Cats on PBS. Because nothing compares to the quiet magic of a stage crew mid set change and the quasi-authenticity of an actor sweating through stage makeup.
And if you can’t watch a play, read one. Give it a few pages and you’ll lose yourself in the rhythm of the dialogue.
A few of my favorite playwrights are Edward Albee, August Wilson, and Martin McDonagh –though quite a few of their plays come with a content warning.