Let’s Get Some Action Going
Have you ever been reading a script when the action suddenly felt clunky, heavy-handed or, even worse, stopped mid-scene?
Probably it was the result of poor dialogue.
Like everything else on stage, dialogue must push the story forward and reveal character, plot points and exposition on stage. When inexpertly done, the action drops dead on its feet. Poor dialogue makes the audience disconnect, makes the plot unbelievable and results in actors overreaching in their attempts to make their character come to life.
It’s the worst.
The Rehearsal Process in Development
Recently I was directing a new play by a young, inexperienced playwright who was clearly overwhelmed by the production process. In a particular scene the actors were presented with some very poetic, very flowery dialogue. It was beautiful prose, but it definitely wasn’t something that would come out of anyone’s mouth.
My actor was talented and experienced, and everyone in the scene tried really hard to make this dialogue work – but it was extremely difficult to justify these words on stage. Our many suggestions for a modification of these lines were all turned down, and so we were left struggling with a very clunky, heavy scene that stopped the action mid-play. Not great for a comedy.
What to do?
Active Dialogue is not Prose
Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that diction was the 4th most important element of dramatic action. Although Aristotle seems to infer that diction was more part of the production process than the writing process (more pertinent to the art of the actor than the art of the poet), he also defined diction as the metrical composition of the play, the way that spoken language is used to represent the characters themselves.
Diction is the actual composition of the lines spoken; if Aristotle’s “thought” deals with what is said, then diction deals with how it is said.
In other words, Aristotle’s diction we now call dialogue – not only what a character says but how he says it. If the words don’t sound believable coming from a character in this moment, it is not good dialogue. If it sounds good on the page but completely wrong when spoken out loud, it is not good dialogue.
Prose is not good dialogue, no matter how eloquent it appears on the page.
How to Write Good Dialogue
Dialogue isn’t an issue with writers who know their characters. If you live with your characters for any period of time, you can write dialogue that accurately reflects who they are and what they’re thinking.
In writing dialogue, use this as a checklist:
- Dialogue must accurately represent the character in terms of background (geographic, socio-economic, era, age, time of day and state of being)
- The structure, or meter, of the spoken dialogue must stay true to the overall structure inherent in the play (that is, whether the play is written in verse, is a sung-through musical, is sparsely written with minimal lines, composed of long monologues, etc.) and true to the rhythm, pacing and tone of the script
- Great dialogue reflects the internal action, or psychological action, of the character in that moment. What does the character want right now in this scene, in this beat, in this moment in time? It gives insight to the character through both psychological and physical choices, and changes to reflect a different intention.
- Active dialogue moves the story, or the plot points, forward in every moment.
Is This Really How People Talk?
Always give yourself a reality check: is this really how people in the world of my play talk? Are these lines moving my plot forward, revealing something about the character or giving important exposition that the audience needs to know? Is it structured in a pleasing way? Typically, long monologues tend to stop the action, as will flowery, detailed passages trying to pass as dialogue.
So what happened in the rehearsal room after that? As a director it is my job to justify the words of the playwright, no matter how expertly (or inexpertly) written they are. My choice was to tweak the action of the character to read word for word the flowery prose from her journal, to reveal the “hidden poetry within her soul.” Since this character wouldn’t speak like this, I had her write like this to reveal something hidden within.
The audience bought it, enjoyed the scene and gave accolades to the young playwright. A job well done.
Ah, the hidden art of the director.