Improve your Dialogue by Studying Plays

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:

  1. David Mamet
  2. Tony Kushner
  3. Neil LaBute
  4. Arthur Miller
  5. Lynn Nottage
  6. Theresa Rebeck
  7. David Auburn
  8. Diana Son
  9. Woody Allen
  10. 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.


9 Responses to Improve your Dialogue by Studying Plays

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Mar 8 2013 at 9:06 am #

    Dialog is my strong suit. Often when I don’t know what to do in a scene I’ll just et the characters start talking and see where it goes. I fill in the action-y bits later. Studying plays probably wouldn’t help me, but watching them performed might. I het a lot of that sort of inspiration from movies and TV as well, when it’s well-written stuff.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Mar 8 2013 at 11:24 am #

      Hi Marc! How lucky for you that dialogue comes easily for you! I also feel that watching a well-written play/film can be beneficial to me as a writer. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Alexa Y. Mar 8 2013 at 10:34 am #

    Most people who read my WIP comment on the dialogue, since it can tend to be stiff and unauthentic. Your post is certainly really helpful, and helps me think of the dialogue in my work in a different light, so thanks!

    • Julie Eshbaugh Mar 8 2013 at 11:26 am #

      Hey Alexa! I am so happy you found this post helpful. Definitely take a look at some plays. Not only do they help you learn dialogue, they can be great reads. 🙂

  3. Diana Mar 8 2013 at 2:10 pm #

    I recently saw a production of The Farnsworth Invention, by Aaron Sorkin, so this is well-timed. SUCH a good play–now you’ve made me want to go back and analyze it. 🙂

    • Julie Eshbaugh Mar 8 2013 at 3:27 pm #

      Hey Diana! Don’ t you just love the magic of a good play? And I say do it – go back and analyze what makes it so good! Thanks for the comment. 🙂

  4. Kim (YA Asylum) Mar 8 2013 at 8:59 pm #

    I never thought to read plays to improve dialogue, but that’s a really good idea. Since plays will either really thrive or not based on the dialogue. The last time I read a play was back in a drama class in high school.

    • Julie Eshbaugh Mar 8 2013 at 9:11 pm #

      Hey Kim! I’m glad you liked the post. I remember reading plays in high school and college, too. Reading a play is so different from reading a novel, but it’s also very different from seeing the play performed. I hope you’ll check out the plays of some of the writers listed above. Thanks for the comment! 🙂

  5. Brooke Mar 11 2013 at 7:03 am #

    Lacrimosa by Christine Fonseca. AMAZING writing.

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