July 14th, 2017

What Playwrights Can Teach Us About Dialogue

Amy Poeppel

My first real job after graduating from college was working as an actress. I spent about five years performing in plays, shooting commercials, and acting in probably the worst episode ever made of America’s Most Wanted. I learned the ins and outs of union affiliation, auditioned for all kinds of roles, and developed a very thick skin. I gave up acting for a number of reasons (such as lack of talent and weariness of rejection), but I never stopped reading plays, attending productions, and discovering new playwrights. I strongly believe that there’s a lot novelists can learn from theater, in particular, what makes great dialogue.

Notice how truly compelling characters talk.

One feature that becomes apparent when reading or watching well-wrought plays is that interesting characters rarely speak to each other in a straight line. Listen carefully to how they converse: They don’t always follow a direct line of thinking, answer questions exactly as they were asked, or stay on a single topic. Rather they jump around, unexpectedly express anger or amusement, throw in a non sequitur, answer a question with a question, and interrupt. It’s that kind of unpredictable dialogue that keeps an audience on the edge of its collective seat.

Trust that the audience is watching.

My first and only attempt at writing a play, which was the origin of my novel Small Admissions, was performed as a staged reading at the Actors Studio Playwrights/Directors Unit, and there was one criticism I got that came across louder and stronger than any other: It’s too repetitive! This experience taught me how important it is to trust that the audience is paying close attention. I realized that in good theater, characters rarely remind each other (thereby, the audience) of something that has already happened on stage or restate known information.

A novelist’s audience members, meaning readers, are also smart and attentive, and they’re keeping up with the plot, so it’s a good idea to keep conversations moving forward, rather than circling back. If there’s a section of dialogue in your novel that is retelling something that has already been well established, consider taking it out! Deleting unnecessary lines in a conversation can dramatically improve a scene.

Listen to your dialogue out loud.

One of the most important lessons to learn from theater is the value of hearing what you’ve written. And it’s especially important to consider that conversations are meant to be spoken out loud. Ask friends to read through some pages of your dialogue (skipping the he said-she said), just as if you’re doing a staged reading. Your ear will be able to detect words that don’t ring true and lines that are repetitive.

But don’t forget to fill in the blanks!

Now, problems can occur when novelists (like me) stick to the form and style of scripts too closely. Unfortunately, I often resist expressing clearly enough what’s actually happening “on stage.” In my mind, I can see my characters sipping their wine, rolling their eyes, shrugging their shoulders, or looking out the window, and I forget that those actions are only in my head, not on the page. My editor will read my drafts of back-and-forth dialogue, and she will make a note in the margin: “But… what’s actually going on during this conversation??” Or she will simply write, “Place them in the scene!” I will then go back and fill in everything that is missing, a task I happen to find quite challenging, but one that is obviously essential for novelists.

Read more plays!

Make the time to read excellent plays. For example, I highly recommend Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The four characters, George and Martha, and their guests, Nick and Honey, spend a long night of craziness, doing little but talking and drinking, sometimes dancing, often fighting, and occasionally even throwing up. And we learn so much about these people, from the intimacies of their marriages, to their vulnerabilities, to the games they play, to the secrets they have never divulged before. It’s an amazing play, both to watch live and to read. George and Martha speak to each other in a fierce, smart, provocative, combative, endearing way:

Martha

Make me another drink… lover.

George

My God, you can swill it down, can’t you?

Martha

(Imitating a tiny child)

I’m firsty.

George

Jesus!

Martha

Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want … so don’t worry about me!

George

Martha, I gave you the prize years ago. … There isn’t an abomination award going that you….

Martha

I swear … If you existed I’d divorce you….

George

Well, just stay on your feet, that’s all. … These people are your guests, you know, and….

Martha

I can’t even see you… I haven’t been able to see you for years. …

George

… If you pass out, or throw up, or something….

Martha

… I mean, you’re a blank, a cipher….

George

…And try to keep your clothes on, too. There aren’t many more sickening sights than you with a couple of drinks in you and your skirt up over your head, you know….

Martha

… a zero….

George

…your heads, I should say ….

Martha

Party! Party!

 

What Albee illustrates so well in this short passage, is that conversations can be funny, cruel, deliberate, and fast-paced, all at the same time, and they can reveal so much about the dynamics between people, their attachment to each other, their shared humor, and their viciousness.

Here’s a short list of playwrights (in absolutely no particular order) whose works I recommend reading if you haven’t already. I find their plays to be both inspiring and educational. These playwrights are very different from each other, but they are all masters of dialogue. Enjoy!

Tennessee Williams
Sarah Ruhl
Lynn Nottage
Tracy Letts
Alan Ackbourn
Noel Coward
Horton Foote
Suzan-Lori Parks
Yasmina Reza
Tom Stoppard
Beth Henley
Wendy Wasserstein
August Wilson
Alan Bennett
Paula Vogel

About Amy

Amy Poeppel is the author of the novel SMALL ADMISSIONS. Originally from Dallas, Texas, she graduated from Wellesley College and now lives with her husband and three sons in New York City, where she worked in the admissions department of an independent school. Her next novel, LIMELIGHT, will be out in summer 2018, also with Emily Bestler Books/Simon and Schuster. Her writing has appeared on The Rumpus, The Higgs Weldon, Mock Mom, and Working Mother

Find out more about Amy on her website

30 responses to “What Playwrights Can Teach Us About Dialogue”

  1. Laura Drake says:

    Wow Amy, that was a powerful sequence, and a perfect example! I never thought of using plays for dialogue, and I'm going to see if I can find some to watch. My husband watches, 12 Angry Men, whenever it comes on, and I'm sure that was a play first, right? If I remember, there was great dialogue there, too.

    Thanks so much for this - I'm taking it to heart!

    • amypoeppel says:

      Thank you, Laura! Reginald Rose wrote the play Twelve Angry Men - and I think it was originally written for television (?). Great dialogue, great example!!! Thank you so much for reading! 🙂

  2. Looks like I'll be reading a few plays! Dialogue is something that doesn't come natural to me. Thanks for the tips! (And I'm sure you have tons of acting talent :))

    • amypoeppel says:

      Thank you! and haha, no, very little talent in the acting department. But I am one heck of an enthusiastic audience member!!

  3. Orly Konig-Lopez says:

    Thanks for the great tips, Amy!!

  4. Tank you. I find it difficult sometimes to get my reader in the scene and making the dialogue consistent with the time (era).
    Thanks for the help.

    • amypoeppel says:

      Setting the scene is difficult for me , too. And historical fiction is outside of my skill set - way too hard for me!! But I love reading old plays - I remember reading the satirical play The Misanthrope by Moliere and being shocked that it was written in the 17th century!

  5. carrienichols says:

    Thanks for the great tips, Amy!! I love writing dialogue. The biggest complaint from my CPs and beta readers is "Tag that dialogue!".

  6. Maggie Smith says:

    many of the great plays have been made into movies (thinking of the Richard Burton/Elizabeth Taylor, Who's Afraid production and also Glass Menagerie and Long Day's Journey into Night. A quick trip to Amazon or Netflix if you'd like to check out dialogue but don't want to read in play form. I'd also suggest Pinter as someone with oblique dialogue.

  7. Fae Rowen says:

    I used to read plays—long ago during my acting years. And I've had a theater subscription for years. Thanks for reminding me about how great the dialogue is in a good play, Amy.

    • amypoeppel says:

      Thank you for reading!!! Dust off those plays! I still have my copies from college and high school.

  8. Great article! I appreciate when authors share their experiences from related fields and show how certain skills can transfer to better writing. Deb Raney wrote an article about how she learned to write stronger scenes and as a result of her first novel being made into a movie. Like this post, Deb's article has some great takeaways.

  9. lrtrovi says:

    Really great. Fresh insights into dialog. I love that the most interesting character is the one who doesn't answer the questions and the repetition is a good point (especially for mystery writers who tend to hammer too much home in dialog). Oh, BTW, I grew up near Wellesley College...hope you enjoyed your time there.

    • amypoeppel says:

      I love the Wellesley area!! My kids go to school in Boston, so I go back there whenever I'm visiting them! Thank you for reading!!

  10. johntshea says:

    Good points! I do 'fill in the blanks' but mainly those I consider important. I deliberately omit many of the 'bits of business' and gestures etc. that other writers use to punctuate dialogue. I like the late Michael Crichton's clipped and economical approach, which sometimes omits attribution tags entirely, particularly in duologues. The result looks like a script of course, and some readers (other writers!?) dislike that, but our mileages always vary! I also often omit internalizations by my first person narrator, so he doesn't always telegraph what he's going to say before he says it. My objective is brevity and pace, but I'm wary of overdoing it.

  11. Thanks, Amy for this grand post. 🙂 --- Suzanne

  12. […] was happy to celebrate the paperback release of SMALL ADMISSIONS! She also wrote a piece for the Writers In The Storm blog on how reading plays can be useful to […]

  13. Zan Marie says:

    Beautiful points! I love dialogue. Even though, it comes naturally to me, I read it out loud to catch the "verbal tics" that creep in--Well, Oh, Yeah--all the little things we say all the time. Reading them is tiring. Great post, Amy!

  14. […] Characters drive the story. Tonya Kuper demonstrates how to engage your readers more deeply with your characters, Martina Boone shares her character brainstorming worksheet, Janice Hardy discusses developing your characters, C.S. Lakin explains why your protagonist should have a past “wound”, and Amy Poeppel shows what playwrights can teach us about dialogue. […]


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