For better dialogue in fiction: write a play

When you can’t depend on interior monologue to get your point across, you lose a huge advantage. As a writer of fiction, you can either be blatant (He felt like death.) or subtle (He remembered med school: learning all the ramifications of the vagus nerve, enervating myriads of gastric components and pathways, useless for pinpointing the source of trouble in his gut, useful only to prove something, somewhere, thought it was wrong. But he’d never expected to feel so many of them. Simultaneously.) when using interior monologue, deep or distant.

But you get to choose.

As a playwright, you work with action and dialogue. Period. And have collaborators – actors and directors – who may aid you or may fight you, but whom you don’t control.

Tradition in the theater preserves the playwright’s absolute control over the dialogue, the WORDS. Many actors and directors will routinely cross out stage directions and the author’s parenthetical instructions on HOW to say a line or move about on stage, but they will not change a WORD of the dialogue.

Even in an adaptation of the play ‘Mary Stuart’ in high school, in SPANISH (I was Queen Elizabeth I, the actual lead – whee!), our director limited himself to crossing out large amounts of dialogue (the play was too long for us), and making the tiniest transitions where absolutely necessary. He would not change the translator’s version of the WORDS.

This is an absolute gift for novelists.

I urge every novelist to go out and write a play*.

Buy yourself $100 worth of playwriting books (buy – so you can write in them). Swallow them whole. Pick a visual story. Write the darned thing (maybe I’ll get back to the how in a later post).

And learn to live within the constraints of the form: you tell your story in the DIALOGUE you give your characters.

Oh, all right. You also have setting, and choosing WHICH of your characters are on stage at a given time, and stage/dialogue parenthetical directions.

But DIALOGUE is your main weapon.

And your written dialogue in your fiction gets much better.

You shouldn’t do ‘talking heads’ or ‘As you know, Bob’ dialogue, any more than you should do it in a novel – doing so demonstrates a distinct lack of technical skills.

It’s “I’m going to paint the Mona Lisa with BOTH hands tied behind my back, using only this paintbrush clenched in my teeth.” Because that’s what it feels like when you start.

But it CAN be done. It’s been done since the beginning of time. It can be done WITHOUT a narrator to gum up the works. And it can be done so the audience feels like eavesdroppers, watching something real happening right in front of them, right now.

Heady stuff. Ask full-time playwrights. Ask actors and directors.

Dialogue in plays is elliptical (not the shape – the punctuation mark), at cross purposes, full of innuendo and half-said things. And lies. Lots of lies. But it must tell the story or you are merely doing pantomime. It has to add up. The WORDS matter.

And that is precisely its value for writing the dialogue – and telling the story – in fiction: it has to add up.

Doing it with time constraints – on stage – leads to the most economical method of telling a story, the fewest words. Doing it on stage, intended for a live audience which gets BORED and restless within seconds if the pieces of story it is receiving do not add up immediately, is like boot camp for dialogue.

The audience can neither skip ahead nor go back to review something unclear. And it won’t like being bored. So you learn to leave nothing out, and put nothing extraneous in.

Audiences want stories to make sense, pronto, and continuously. So you learn to feed them the story in bite-size pieces, story beats, so they can put the whole thing together in their heads and follow.

It is an awesome discipline to acquire – and the results, in terms of the ability to do good dialogue in fiction, are equally awesome, so much so that stripping a scene I’m editing down to ONLY the dialogue, and walking through it as if I expected it to be performed on stage, is now one of the basic steps in my process, and a step that often shows exactly where the flaws are.

Thoughts?

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* CAUTION: Even though they share similarities, movie scripts and plays are ENTIRELY different beasts. I don’t recommend (unless scriptwriting is your form and dream) writing a movie script unless you are a masochist: EVERYTHING is up for grabs in a movie, and even the actors have no compunction about slaughtering your words.

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