Lessons from writing a play still hold


One of the better oldies, condensing several years of learning into a single post – and a much better sense of how to do dialogue.

From November 16, 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 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.

* 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.

When a scene isn’t going well, sometimes I just tell it in dueling dialogue – and then go back and see more of the setting and work on the pace.

Another real advantage is that, with pure dialogue, you can actually change the point of view character, and then fill the scene in from that character’s perspective. Nifty if you’re not sure whose scene it needs to be (I’ve changed perspectives in many scenes).

Have you written a play?

21 thoughts on “Lessons from writing a play still hold

  1. Holly Jahangiri

    Do people do PLAYS anymore? (This is both a serious and a rhetorical question.) I used to write little plays. I majored in Theater, for a year. I loved acting, set building, make-up…can’t sew, so costuming was never my thing, but WEARING a costume, that I loved!

    I love writing dialogue, too, despite having been told by my playwrighting prof that my dialogue was unrealistic. Perhaps it was. I think she chose the wrong word – because it was practically transcribed from a real conversation with my college roomie the night before. (She and I had a good laugh over it, later.) I think maybe she meant “pointless,” as the roomie and I were the queens of digression. But the assignment had not been to make a point, or to write a play – just to write a bit of dialogue. Which I did. Hmmph.

    Screenwriting – OMG, the ONE form of writing I’m not confident about, at all. I can’t tell if I’m doing it well or horribly. I’ve had comments both ways – from the same professionals – on different pieces, and I cannot tell what’s right with one and wrong with the other! Usually I have a solid sense of suckage – I know if a piece of writing is good, could be tighter, sucks… And it’s usually right in line with any critique received. But screenwriting taught me something – if nothing else, it taught me empathy for writers who receive critique and have absolutely NO idea what to do with it, or bungle the edits and make the piece WORSE.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Ah, critique. Criticism. Feedback. Reviews.

      How hard it is to get from where that’s painful to where it’s useful to where it isn’t necessary, but still nice.

      And whether it’s possible to do that.

      I’m my own harshest critic, I think – until I read reviews from readers who like to hurt. I was taught to keep certain thoughts to myself; other people apparently were not.

      I haven’t tried screenwriting, though I have learned enough to know how to, and plot with Dramatica, which was developed as a screenwriting tool (but gets so much better play in novels). That is a whole other style of working, and I’m not good at feedback.

      My rule for dialogue is to figure out why a piece happens, then write it the long way as it comes out of my head, and then to shorten to the very essence of what I would have liked to say if I could think of it fast enough.

      Which is why people on TV and in movies seem so much smarter – it’s all been calculated and recalculated. Actors are magicians at making all that work seem spontaneous – even if they have to say it fourteen times before they get the right nuance!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Holly Jahangiri

        My rule for dialogue (usually) is to take dictation from the characters – since I’m more of a pantser than a plotter – and then clean up the ahs, umms, and other filler words to make them sound smarter. 😉

        Even if we never write a play, writing a whole scene in dialogue is usefull practice for ensuring that the words matter and the characters aren’t just jabbering away like the talking heads on the news, or something.


        1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Not so easy for plotters, I’m afraid. EVERYTHING serves the story structure, including dialogue.

          I just have to do the hard work of deciding HOW. And writing it, of course. I can let the characters talk, set up a situation where a character is talking to a psychiatrist (even though THAT character never would, and wouldn’t open up if they were there under duress), have a character ask another character how and why something happened in the past…

          That gets me material, usually in the character’s distinctive voice. Raw material; rarely does much of it end up in the essence of dialogue that ends up in the scene. Characters talk too much. That’s not dialogue. YMMV


        2. Holly Jahangiri

          I find it utterly fascinating just how differently plotters and pantsers work, and yet I have NO evidence that either is “better” than the other or that switching from one’s natural inclination to try it the other way results in better than just going with the natural flow. Isn’t that odd?


        3. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I find it odd that pantsers are willing to discard a lot of explorations that go nowhere because they’re following the characters (my friend, Caleb Pirtle, deliberately writes this way), and they want to be surprised along with readers.

          I write thousand of words that I never intend to be part of the actual story – as many as I need to sort things out as I’m plotting AND as I’m writing, but I have a hard time generating the ones which will clothe the structure skeleton, and will discard only to polish (even diamonds lose weight when polished).

          It is a real difference: pantsers I know say they get bored if they know where the story is going, and I’m aghast that they don’t already know!

          Some things cannot be resolved by compromise.

          I think pantsed stories are different in the end from plotted ones, and that readers fall in either camp, but I have no proof: only a gut feeling that such different processes cannot lead to the same place.

          What do you think about the final product?


        4. Holly Jahangiri

          I know that for longer works, we pantsers definitely need a good editor, to be sure we haven’t changed the main characters eyes from brown to green halfway through. (It behooves even us pantsers to take notes along the way – not an outline, but at least a record of established FACTS that we might need to go back and alter, later.)

          We all discard the chaff. I think we just generate it differently. I think I came to my approach after having to rewrite a 5th grade report – written in careful longhand, in blue-black ink, every time I made the tiniest error. That was torture.

          And so, I learned to write the final draft FIRST – I’d go back and inject the errors to a second copy if my teachers insisted on a “rough draft,” and “revisions.” We didn’t have PCs, back then, and I learned to type on a stiff-keyed, institutional-grade, manual typewriter.

          Even now, with the luxury of word processing and infinite possible revisions, the drama plays out first in my head – I liken it to taking dictation from the characters (we writers just found out how to hang onto our “imaginary friends” in socially acceptable ways). If I try to stage manage my characters, they become wooden puppets – not interesting to me, certainly not to readers. I will never managed to slog through to an “ending.” I’m with your pantser friends who say they will get bored if they know how it ends before they get there.

          But don’t feel bad – I think we’re weird, too. I just know that trying to outline and plan and write a bunch of detailed character sheets does not work for some of us AT ALL. I wish, sometimes, that it did. I can’t help but think it would be easier, somehow.

          As for the dead ends and bits we discard (if we do – I usually do not), we can always recycle them as other stories. Or not. I suspect the plotters discard just as much, even if they do it in a more orderly fashion. 😀


        5. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I plot with Dramatica, and it has a very specific way to create characters which works for me, and would drive you unhappy, so I won’t even tell you. But I start with the main characters, and the others are easy to fill in that way.

          I was just wondering if there was an analytical difference in the kind of stories that were published after these processes. I know I am unhappy with a lot of stories I read, but I can’t tell you if it’s fixable by an editor. I don’t use one.


        6. Holly Jahangiri

          I’ve published some short stories on this blog before; I am pretty sure you’ve read them (most are tagged “Fiction” or “short story”). I don’t now. I can tell you that almost anything is improved by an impartial and skilled editor. Even the best of my best work is improved by a good editor, and I have been lucky to work with some really terrific ones over the years. (But you won’t find that HERE, on the blog – you’ll get that “first final draft in pen” here, with minor spelling and grammar corrections.

          Remember that scene in “The Sound of Music” where Liesl says, “And I DON’T need a governess!” Later, soaking wet and dirty after climbing through Maria’s window, she admits that maybe she does need a governess, after all. This is my mental image of the writer who insists they don’t need an editor. Maybe not, but your work will be better if you find yourself a GOOD one. It’s a luxury, though, and a good editor is worth their weight in gold. Their services will cost almost that much, too.


        7. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          We’ll just have to disagree on editors – and paying for services you can learn to do yourself.

          Many writers skip that step, and think an editor can fix garbage. GIGO. So even if she uses an editor, a writer should be producing clean copy as a matter of course (except the dyslexic ones!)


        8. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I do have people read who are very good at realizing when they’ve had a ‘bump’ of some kind; it is unlikely than you would catch everything all the time. But editors also introduce errors, foul up an author’s voice (assuming the author has one yet), and impose standards which may not work. And they want you to pay them for this!

          I’m not saying the work shouldn’t be done. I’m saying many authors don’t bother to do it.

          We’re arguing editing style – mine works for me. If you need an editor, for goodness’ sake, get one you like, trust, and can afford.

          Or hope for readers with little discernment.

          Some writers can’t wait to get someone else to do ‘all that boring editing stuff,’ and they’re probably putting out reasonable books at great speed. I discovered that I like doing the editing (and the proofreading – my proofreader was in the middle of a messy divorce when I was ready for her).

          But I dumped the editor (and a reviewer) who didn’t understand that:

          ‘Thunder shook the house like a terrier a rat.’

          is a perfectly grammatical sentence – the second ‘shook’ is implied, and the literary device is one of the simplest, ellipsis.

          I found it baffling to have to tell a ‘professional’ editor she was wrong.

          A couple of those, and I found it easier to do it myself. One doesn’t like to go around correcting grownups. Unless they ask for help.


        9. Holly Jahangiri

          I think what we’re dancing around (not ARGUING, surely!?) is what constitutes a GOOD editor. I’m talking about a real, professional editor. Not just a willing proofreader who charges a few bucks – you know, there are all sorts of people who prey on writers, and a whole INDUSTRY of them out there, in fact. I’m talking about a GOOD editor. Not a proofreader (I agree, 100%, that that is MY job). I’m talking about someone who does NOT rewrite (my evil editing compulsion), or change the author’s voice (unless, as one of my publishers says, that voice is a frog’s croak). I have been lucky enough to work with a few really excellent editors, and know the difference. The results of their work, on mine, are humbling. But they don’t turn straw into gold. They turn gold into a work of art.

          The unfortunate thing is, the people who most need a college student to proofread their work wouldn’t be able to tell the difference between an editor found on Fiverr and a top-notch pro. And the writers who would have to correct that college student at every turn know they probably can’t afford the editor they most need.

          As for your example, “Thunder shook the house…” the editor might have felt that the average reader would stumble over the implied shakes/shook – and removing those stumbling blocks matters. In other words, you’re not wrong. But add the second shakes (I’d argue for “shakes,” not “shook” with terrier) and the reader doesn’t pause to fill it in and wonder why you didn’t. It’s not the accuracy of the sentence or your use of a literary device that matters, but the FLOW for the reader. Is that a spot where you want the reader to stop and think about how you chose to construct the sentence? Or do you want to set the mood – invoke the storm – and have them move on to the next and the next sentences?

          By the time you can competently edit your own work, THAT is precisely what you should expect from an editor. Not the grammar corrections of a schoolmarm, but an objective and skilled view of what makes the prose flow from point to point. Someone to catch the little inconsistencies you’re too close to the work to see. At that point, any little grammar errors they catch should be minor and that’s not their job.


        10. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          Yes. I do want the reader to stop where I want the reader to stop.

          If you read my work, the sentence scans, and the one with the extra ‘shook’ – not ‘shakes’ – doesn’t. Try it out loud. In context. With the surrounding text.

          I chose that. It’s the way I want. And I don’t want to argue with someone else about MY work.

          When you write literary fiction, you make these choices all the time, in context – and you put far more thought into them than the average reader – and you have a reason for what you do.

          And you prefer the results.


        11. Holly Jahangiri

          In much the same way that you start with characters and outlines, I am baffled that you know who your characters are before they’ve been through what it is they’re going to go through in your story. 🙂


        12. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

          I don’t start with characters. I start with a premise: what if X and Y were to happen – how could I make Z follow?

          Why? Because I don’t care which specific characters end up telling a story – I want to find out how to make Z happen. Then the characters with the right traits will present themselves: organize first into a single storyform (Dramatica terms), or you don’t know which of 32,767 others you should use.

          The questions narrow it down, make you think what you’re doing (once you learn the rather arcane terminology) – and you end up with a story that does what you want, not one of the other 2**15 possibilities.

          It took work; the results have sustained me through nineteen years so far. I LIKE the way everything dovetails. There are things on page one which won’t be satisfied completely until about 8000 pages later – by design.

          I may be crazy.


      2. Holly Jahangiri

        As far as critique goes, about the only thing that cuts me is the word “boring” without further explanation. I get it, if the intro is too wordy. I get it, if the dialogue drags. I get it if the storyline’s just not the reader’s thing – we’re not all interested in the same things! (I can’t stand televised golf, for instance, but that’s on me – not on Tiger Woods.)

        Having said that, I’ve about reached the point where, if the critic can’t be bothered to give a reason, I can’t be bothered to be upset about whatever they say, either. I know the difference between nonsense and what rings true, so if you give me a REASON, I can act on it. Or not. 🙂 I have a strangely miniscule amount of ego tied up in it, either way, but I do love constructive feedback from anyone willing to give it. (The destructive kind is more of a waste of everyone’s time, here. A waste of the critic’s efforts, unless they just need to be nasty to someone to feel better about themselves, and can imagine I’m over here dying because they’ve crushed me with their harsh words, simply because I haven’t bothered to respond.) I don’t get much of that negative kind, these days. There are, unfortunately, a million easier targets for it, among hopeful writers.


    1. Alicia Butcher Ehrhardt Post author

      Dialogue is storytelling without props. I think most of my scenes – the actual words which come to me – are improv, too. They now come very strongly in the voice of my three main characters – how they think, how they talk, what they do – automatically.

      I edit the output, but the first pass is more like recording what they actually say – after I make them real again in my mind.



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