One of the best presents I ever received from Santa Claus was a brown paper bag filled to the brim with paperbacks. It had a red bow and a card that simply read, “Enjoy!” I certainly did. They were all plays: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, and other playwrights that made words dance and characters leap off the pages. I put all (almost 50) plays lovingly on the bookshelf and would run my fingers along them, deciding which to devour next.
My first true love was the theatre.
If you read a play by Shakespeare you will find very few stage directions. Stage directions usually tell the actor where to move, when to sit down, enter or exit and can be quite elaborate. Instead, my friend William used dialogue to indicate what an actor should be doing. There is no filler, only perfectly precise exclamations of love:
Doubt thou the stars are fire; Doubt that the sun doth move; Doubt truth to be a liar; But never doubt I love. – Hamlet
And this, our life, exempt from public haunt; Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks; Sermons in stones, and good in everything. – As You Like It
There’s place and means for every man alive. – All’s Well that Ends Well
I was a playwright, mostly writing productions for my students. Dialogue was the star. I started writing novels after reading “La Charca” (The Pond). La Charca, considered a Puerto Rican classic by Manuel Zeno Gandia (and my great great grandfather) is a novel that reads like a play. His narrative descriptions are few and concise. The dialogue is what shines and advances the plot. I had never seen a novel written like that, and I wanted to try my hand. After all, it was in my blood!
The transition between all dialogue to dialogue and narration was bumpy. In an effort to compensate for my novice abilities at writing narration, I overdid it with too many adjectives (the hooked crunchy striped candy cane), among other newbie writer mistakes. It was my mother who suggested I focus on what I know best, dialogue. It was then I started to find my rhythm.
Try this: Write 10 lines of dialogue only, character A and character B. They MUST only speak about popcorn, but by the end, both characters must change not from what is said, but from what is unsaid, the subtext.
A – Thanks for making me popcorn.
B – Yep, anytime.
A – It’s salty and delicious.
B – Sure is.
A – We used to hold hands in the popcorn container.
B – What was the last movie we went to?
A – Gone with the Wind.
B – Right. That was a while ago.
A – You know I like popcorn.
B – Oh, did you want some?
At first read, this might seem like a nostalgic exchange about sharing popcorn. Read it again knowing that B is stuffing his face and never gives any popcorn to A. All of a sudden it turns into a relationship in trouble. Gone with the Wind suddenly alludes to the state of their relationship. The dialogue is not at all about popcorn.
What makes a successful dialogue?
1. Characters express the way they are feeling by talking about something else, creating a metaphor for what is actually going on. Dialogue is more engaging when the reader has to read between the lines.
2. Characters are in the moment, and the dialogue is free of back story and exposition. There’s nothing worse than an exposition dump to catch the reader up. Dialogue is more interesting when we learn things a little bit at a time.
3. Dialogue is clean and precise, free of interjections like, uh, um, and other unnecessary words. These tend to interrupt the flow of the scene. Unless these interjections are essential for the way a character speaks, they just clutter up the page and add to the word count.
4. Characters are surprising, and often say and do things we are not expecting them to. When I was teaching playwriting my students would ask, “How do you know what your characters are going to say?” My answer was always, “I don’t. I let them tell me.”
5. It’s often said that theatre is life without the boring bits. The same can be said for writing dialogue for novels. If the dialogue is not integral to the action of the plot, then you probably don’t need it.
Therefore, since brevity is the soul of wit; And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes, I will be brief. – Hamlet
RELATED POST: When Dialogue Rambles on Miss Snark’s First Victim
Check out Alison’s Amazon Author Page and Books 1 & 2 of The Smith Family Secret, as well as two plays she has written for her students!
Writers’ Rumpus will be taking a break for the holidays. Look for our first post of the New Year on January 3, 2014. Happy Holidays, everyone!