I was humbled to be asked to make a presentation on writing dialogue for the Ballarat Writers Member’s Night this month. I hoped to give some advice on how a fiction or creative non-fiction writer might absorb some of those methods into their own to make their dialogue pop.

For those unfamiliar with the process of playwriting, please see my earlier blog post, which I reprised for the presentation. We were able to indulge in some tangents about altering works like Shakespeare for modern interpretations, how copyrights work with living playwrights and why it’s problematic to teach classical play scripts as part of a literature/English curriculum.

When your playscript is ready to be abandoned (I won’t say finished, because it never is!) it is given to the director, actors and producer to enliven your writing. So how exactly do they do that? Everything the director and actors needs to know about the story is hidden in text by the playwright — both intentionally and unintentionally.  The playwright would have spent hours imagining, if not actually writing, about the whole world of the play. I do things like make a ‘mood board’ style collection of images of characters, settings, colours, objects or anything that speaks to the world of the play. I often write out descriptions of the set, make a timeline or history of the plot, make character profiles, and note all the things that must have happened in the world of the play between each scene which is written in the text. All those details will inform the text, but don’t appear in the text itself. Basically, anything that you are not willing to have compromised by the director or actors, you include as a clear directive. These are called stage directions and are usually notes about actions you want the characters to do (called ‘business’), technical notes such as music or lighting changes, or notes about delivery (for example noting that a particular line of dialogue should be said ‘sarcastically’). Everything else must be up for interpretation.

Let’s work an example. Here’s a piece of script. See how much information you can infer about the characters, setting, time of day, background of the world etc.

Bushman:    Where’s that loaf I swapped the zucchinis for at the market yesterday?
Daughter:    Pantry.
He turns away from the stove and is distracted by the painting of his wife.
Daughter:    Dad! Dad!
Bushman:    (to himself) I love it how the morning sun catches –
Daughter:    Dad, you’re burning it!
Bushman:    Oh, sorry darl.
Daughter:    Ugh. It’s too far gone. I said I would do it myself.
Bushman:    I’m sorry –
Daughter:    I don’t know why you think you have to be all domestic, Dad!
Bushman:    I’m just trying my best, okay?… How about I do you some porridge instead?
Daughter:    Nah, it’s okay.
She looks at her mother’s portrait.
Daughter:    You don’t make it right, anyway.
Bushman:    I know. I miss her too.

Now, compare to the same scene as prose.

The farmer put the pan on the heat and turned to get the bread from the bench, his wife’s sultry stare catching his eye. The portrait took pride of place over the dining area, facing the morning sun-soaked window and it seemed to him that wherever he went in the room, she was watching over him. He was trying to live up to her standards, trying to fill the gap she had left in her daughter’s life, but that gap was within him too. His daughter was calling his name, but it was the sharp smell of burnt bacon that smacked him out of his reverie. She inspected it, but it was too far gone. He should have let her do it herself, like she has said.

‘How about I do you some porridge instead?’ he asked her.

‘Nah, it’s okay,’ she replied, dismissing him.

But he felt like it wasn’t okay. It wasn’t okay that she had to grow up without a mother now.

Both have merit. It’s not about one way being better, but about deciding how much of a picture you want to paint, versus how much you’d like to reader to make up for themselves. The enlivening of playscripts is one of the parts of playwriting that I love the most. It’s fascinating to watch your work evolve and be interpreted in different (sometimes better) ways. We’ve all read books and drawn a picture of the hero in our mind, and when the film adaptation gets made they look nothing like our imagination. For some of you that prospect will terrify you. You want to have orchestrated every image, down to the length of the hero’s eyelashes. But some of you will enjoy the idea of allowing space for the reader to become a co-author of their own version of your text.

But for dialogue to hold its own, I would argue that it still needs to tell the reader things they need to know, without relying on the prose. If it’s simply a bonus to the prose, and doesn’t move the plot forward or reveal any details about character, why have it there at all?

So, what are the benefits of using dialogue in prose if you don’t have to? We talked about using dialogue to bring immediacy, naturalism and a sense of action and pace to the story. Dialogue can build familiarity or trust in the characters, especially if you have an unreliable narrator. Or, it can serve to add depth to character by seeing them say what they don’t mean and witnessing social, cultural or power differences between characters at play.

And what makes for good dialogue? We agreed that verbatim speech patterns were a no-go and that dialogue must be a stylised version of reality. Dialogue that moves the plot forward, deepens understanding of character or reveals something previously unknown was key.

Something I am still working on is the character’s unique voice. Every character sounds like a version of me when I first write dialogue. I’ve even had audience members who know me say they could ‘hear me’ when they watched a play of mine — and that was after several script development sessions with actors, and a director (not me) and actors rehearsing it for months.

So how do you stop all you characters sounding like you?

  1. Build a strong character profile — education, parent’s ethnicity/accents, place of birth, age, class, culture and pop culture/interests can all inform a character’s speech patterns.
  2. Consult. Talk to people who are like your character. Listen to them speaking and include those inflections, sentence structure, slang or idioms into your writing.
  3. Read it aloud. Firstly to yourself. When you’re ready, have it read aloud by others. Friends, family or fellow writers are okay. But I strongly suggest having actors to read your work, with a different actor playing each character and another person reading the prose. You mustn’t read a part. Record it so you can listen back later. This gives you an objective hearing of the work.

My key tips for writing dialogue like a playwright.

  1. Say more with less. Make sure your dialogue moves the story forward and stands alone without the prose. Look at details doubled up in prose and dialogue — choose one or the other.
  2. Remove the author’s voice. Make sure all your characters sound idiosyncratic.
  3. Get it read aloud by actors.
  4. If you love dialogue that much, maybe you should just be writing a play…

Megan Riedl is a Ballarat-based arts management professional and independent theatre producer, with a creative practice in poetry, playwriting and directing for the stage. She’s had six plays produced by independent and community theatre companies and poetry included in Minerva Speaks and Weathering The Future projects. She can be seen performing poetry at Words Out Loud and will be directing ‘Medea’ for Ballarat National Theatre in September.