The Drama of Dialogue

When it comes to dramas, it’s all about dialogue. Seriously. The script of the play is a long series of conversations. That’s it. So if you’re not good at writing dialogue, then you have a choice: don’t write plays, or get better at writing dialogue.*

If you want to get better at writing dialogue, I wish I could tell you that there’s a quick and easy solution. There isn’t – especially for plays.

Even beyond making dialogue sound realistic, building characterization through it, adding to the plot, or helping the pacing, a play’s dialogue has to add all the vital information you’d normally put in the non-spoken text. At the very least, it has to contain all the details that you decide have to be in the story (see “The Drama of Playwriting” for more on that).

So how do you learn to put all that in the dialogue without screwing up everything else the dialogue is already doing?

My best recommendation is a 3-step process:

Step 1: Analyze plays that were written before stage directions (Shakespeare is the obvious example).

Back then, they couldn’t even try to put the details in the stage directions. They couldn’t rely on electric lights or fancy technology. They didn’t have programs to explain convoluted plots. Sometimes, they didn’t even have sets. If they wanted the audience to know that the location or time changed, they had to find a way to say it. If they needed to introduce a character or idea, they had to work it into the conversation.

Now, that doesn’t mean you have to write in a Shakespearian manner. You’re just looking at his plays to find different ways he worked information into speech.

Step 2: Try switching your regular novel-format stories into dialogue only.

Decide what needs to be explicit and try to work it in. Try out some of the techniques you found in your analysis. See what works with modern speech and what doesn’t. Or with different characters. Some characters can blurt out exposition in a really obvious way. Others can’t without breaking character.

The main point is to keep trying options until you feel like you have a solid script.

Step 3: You made it. Now, break it.

I hate to say it, but if you really, strongly care about having specific details in the play, then you need to go back through it and try to find ways to get around them. Do some role playing: pretend to be a cantankerous director bent on twisting the play into a new and “original” direction (not that directors are inherently villainous, but this image can help to get into the loophole mindset).

You can pick an outlandish setting or re-imagination of the story and see whether it works with the lines as written. Or you can put the scene into a setting more like the original and try to interpret the lines in a way that avoids something you want to be vital. If the lines make sense without that vital piece, then you might want to consider re-writing the lines.

WARNING: This can go too far.

Trying to be this explicit with everything would be ridiculous. If you try to write every tiny detail into the conversation so that the play has to be performed exactly as you imagined it, the dialogue is going to be awful. Exponentially awful. It’ll probably be more like legalese than a play. No one wants to sit through that. That’s bad dialogue.

And if you’re not good at writing dialogue, then you have a choice…

*You could try to revolutionize the medium, but if there’s no dialogue, it becomes a visual art or some new medium; therefore, you’d no longer be writing a play.

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