I love the experience of live theater. I love the way a good play can transport an audience—even transform an audience. This is something a good play shares with a good book. However, though they may both aspire to similar ends, it’s clear that fiction and drama have different toolkits. A play has the advantage of actors and community and interaction, but a book has the advantage of prose. Every word that a playwright will communicate to her audience must be spoken. In terms of fiction writing, this would be comparable to writing a book using nothing but dialogue. Thinking of this limitation from a novelist’s perspective terrifies me, because even though I truly enjoy writing dialogue, I can’t imagine how I would tell my entire story without relying to some extent on exposition, description, and my characters’ inner thoughts.
A trip to the theater always seems to leave me contemplating the importance of well-written dialogue. If, like me, you’re a novelist who wants to write better dialogue, I suggest you take the time to study plays.
I asked accomplished actress Barbara Tirrell, whose credits range from Wicked to the HBO series Boardwalk Empire, to refer me to a few playwrights whose work she would recommend as having particularly strong dialogue. Here’s Barbara’s list:
- David Mamet
- Tony Kushner
- Neil LaBute
- Arthur Miller
- Lynn Nottage
- Theresa Rebeck
- David Auburn
- Diana Son
- Woody Allen
- Aaron Sorkin
Barbara recommended the plays/screenplays of these writers for consistently great dialogue. (Thank you, Barb!)
So what now? Take this list to the library and read every play or screenplay by each of these writers? Well I’m sure that wouldn’t hurt. But here are a few exercises to help focus your energies on improving your own dialogue:
1. Choose a play by one of the writers listed and read it once for meaning and then a second time, focusing on your favorite sections of dialogue. Answer the following questions:
- What attracts you to this stretch of dialogue?
- What does it convey about the action of the story? About the person speaking – their fears, hopes, goals, needs? About their feelings toward the persons they are speaking to? About the world they live in?
2. Take that scene and try writing a scene that could possibly come next in the play, or maybe before. The idea wouldn’t be to copy the person’s voice but to immediately put into practice some of what you’ve discovered by studying the writing.
3. Take a scene of your current story and try rewriting it as a scene from a play, or if that feels too far outside your element, try rewriting the scene without any prose, limiting all your words to dialogue. This exercise won’t necessarily improve your scene (it will likely create something that fits into a bizarre netherworld between drama and prose!) but it will force you to think about the impact of every word your characters say (as well as those that they don’t say.)
How do you feel about dialogue? Do you find it easy to write strong dialogue, or does it fill you with dread? Do you think studying plays could make you a stronger fiction writer? Please share your thoughts in the comments.