Fiction dialogue easier if you write a play

TO WRITE FICTION, WRITE DIALOGUE

Beginners novelists have a lot of craft to learn.

Technically, you are still a storyteller if you write the story as prose, an epic poem, a graphic novel, a play, or a movie, but the crafts are very different. But learning the particulars takes years, and most writers pick a format and stick with it, with each form (Ex: prose) having long (novel) and shorter (story, novella) versions to practice on.

But you don’t stay a newbie novelist if you find you like writing, and learn some of the finer details such as point of view, plotting, or theme. There is room for continuous improvement, and one of the areas which bedevil beginners the most is the art of writing dialogue.

Mine became adequate as I went along (and no, I’m not showing you early drafts of Pride’s Children), but I needed to kick it up several orders of magnitude.

It took several years before the play (Tangled Webs) I naively thought would be ready for my daughter’s sixteenth birthday present was finished, and she was in college before I did, and here is part of what I learned.


From November 2012:

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 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 create 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?


A quick reminder: Pride’s Children will only be on sale for about another week, if you wanted to get the 0.99 ebook version. I’m putting it back up there, and, just for the heck of it, will try the $9.99 price point. (It was 8.99 before the dollar experiment.)


 

7 thoughts on “Fiction dialogue easier if you write a play

  1. joey

    Of all the crafts in all the English department, I found writing a play to be the most challenging. I think I’m good at dialogue, but making everything ‘play out’ was challenging for me. No narrator, prof said, and I almost wept. lol

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      And you have to think of locations (I kept it to two, mentally on a rotating stage to alternate between them), and how to make it exciting (haven’t figured that one out yet) with more than dialogue, and how to have actors convey inner emotions when you’re not even close to them…

      But I found it satisfying. I’ll go back to that some day.

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  2. Janna G. Noelle

    The only play I’ve ever written was silent. It had no dialogue at all but rather was set to music. It was for my grade 11 drama class, and the staging of it was part of my final exam. I starred in it with my friends and it went really well. It was humorous and the audience laughed in all the right places.

    I’d like to try writing a real play sometime. I’m really good at dialogue (I’ve been told by both writing instructors and actors) and getting around the lack of internal monologue would be an interesting challenge.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      The internal monologue is a problem: when you want to turn your novel into an audiobook, you have to find an audio equivalent for italics.

      So straight dialogue – OR a single pov/narrator – are both easier.

      I’m sure it can be done, but I’m going to have to do some thinking and a lot of listening to hear how other writers/performers have handled the internal monologue that does NOT have the ‘he thought,’ or worse, ‘he thought to himself,’ tags so many writers seem to employ.

      With the high word count I already have, I use my dialogue tags for more important things than character attributions. And ‘he said’ barely whispered by narrators to mimic the supposed ability of people NOT to see ‘said’ just begs the point of why they are in the written work if we’re not supposed to notice them. Pet peeves – YMMV.

      There is a long tradition of theater without words, but it wouldn’t have helped me the way being forced to use only dialogue did.

      Maybe some day I’ll do an audio version of that play. JUST the voices. As for performance, I think it needs some visual jazzing up.

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  3. ekpreston

    This is great advice. I found that the dialog in my novel improved greatly after I had written a couple of screenplays. They’re not plays, but the same principles of making words count and writing concisely still apply.

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    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Plays are a little better, but mostly because screenplay words are almost 100% sure to be changed, whereas the playwright’s words tend to be more respected (and have a single author in many cases).

      But yes – when dialogue is the storyteller’s main tool, it gets very sharp.

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