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:
Make me another drink… lover.
My God, you can swill it down, can’t you?
(Imitating a tiny child)
Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want … so don’t worry about me!
Martha, I gave you the prize years ago. … There isn’t an abomination award going that you….
I swear … If you existed I’d divorce you….
Well, just stay on your feet, that’s all. … These people are your guests, you know, and….
I can’t even see you… I haven’t been able to see you for years. …
… If you pass out, or throw up, or something….
… I mean, you’re a blank, a cipher….
…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….
… a zero….
…your heads, I should say ….
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!
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.
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