Wednesday, June 4, 2008

What Theater Taught Me About Dialogue

Guest Blogger: Amy Atwell

I'm so pleased C.J. invited me to discuss dialogue today. Dialogue is possibly the most valued tool in your writer's kit. Some writers are intimidated by dialogue—how can they possibly get the people inside their heads to have voices of their own and say things that are interesting, while they convey important information and move the story forward?

I've had dialogue in my manuscripts described as "crisp" and that it "zings." But one contest judge summed it all up: "I could hear the twangs and sounds of the secondary characters without being overwhelmed, while providing everyone with their own voice." Jackpot—dialogue that reveals character but doesn't call overt attention to itself.

Dialogue doesn't scare me. I revel in it. It's the natural result of working fifteen years in educational and professional theater. I've analyzed scripts and helped bring them to the stage as an actor, stage manager, director, even playwright. From Shakespeare to Neil Simon to my own work, I've learned heaps about dialogue. But translating those lessons to narrative fiction took some practice. Here are some challenges I faced with my early attempts at dialogue, and how I applied what I'd learned in theater to help me conquer them.

Challenge: My early dialogue was clever, witty, a little sarcastic—the problem was all the characters sounded alike, they all sounded stilted, and they all sounded a little like ME.

Solution: Review your character sketches. Characters are individuals and, as such, have unique qualities to their speech. Gender, age, education, lifestyle, income--these and many other factors come across in how they speak. Guard against writing all dialogue the way YOU speak and think. Feel free to use imperfect grammar, incomplete sentences, and creative punctuation to make your characters' spoken words SOUND like they would say them.

Challenge: My dialogue sounded natural and realistic, but it tended to meander, and scenes went on forever.

Solution: Sacrifice some of that realism. No one needs to read half a page of your hero ordering breakfast from the punk waitress with the nose-ring (unless, she's the heroine). Cut extraneous words that sound so natural: Well, um, yes and no (they're often implied through action or the rest of the line the character speaks), so, then, now, and characters calling each other by their proper names. Dialogue needs to reveal character, convey pertinent information, heighten conflict and progress the story.

Challenge: My dialogue tags were obtrusive. Characters chortled, wheezed, laughed, shouted, and so much more.

Solution: Follow the example of play scripts. They rarely suggest to the actor how to say a line. The dialogue and punctuation is usually self-explanatory. Trust the reader to interpret the character's words. "Hush," she shushed, is redundant. "Hey!" he shouted, is redundant. The simple tag "said" is the least obtrusive—for most readers it's invisible.

Challenge: My dialogue scenes were filled with characters looking up, down, across, and over, nodding, smiling, blinking, breathing (sometimes not breathing), staring, gazing, standing, sitting—it was BORING.

Solution: Many play scripts are 99% dialogue, with very few suggestions as to action, except where it becomes vital to the plot of the play. Directors and actors spend weeks working out the "stage business" or "blocking" of what the characters do while they talk. Often, we get so caught up writing the dialogue, the internal thoughts, the emotions, we forget that our characters aren't in a bubble. Let them interact with their surroundings.

Extra tip: Many actors use "props" (short for properties—any item the actor handles onstage) to help convey their character to the audience. This can be as simple as a pair of sunglasses for your hero (does he rest them on his head, lower them down his nose to peer over them at the heroine, hide behind them, readjust them at a key moment in the dialogue).

Challenge: My characters made speeches. You know, those lengthy paragraphs of monologue.

Solution: Monologues work in plays—if your character is alone onstage. If there are two characters, the playwright uses the second character to interject comments and break up that big speech. This is a good opportunity to reveal more about both characters and increase conflict—your scene has conflict, right?

Challenge: Important bits of information got buried within my dialogue scenes. I wanted to find a way emphasize it that felt natural to the reader.

Solution: In staging a play, directors have actors "point" certain moments. You can point a bit of dialogue or point an action. In narrative fiction, you can use this same technique. First and last sentences of paragraphs tend to carry more emphasis to the reader. If you're combining dialogue with a narrative action, whichever you put last will tend to carry more emphasis.
"Dialogue" + Action will point the action, while Action + "Dialogue" will point the dialogue.

One of the best self-teaching tools I implemented was to review my dialogue scenes by reading the narrative parts and tags silently, but reading the dialogue out loud. It gave me a physical illustration of how the reader's brain had to switch gears while reading. Another way of doing this is to highlight the dialogue—just the spoken words. You may even want to use different colors for different characters (this comes in extra handy if you fear your characters are all starting to sound alike).

Do you have blocks of pure dialogue? This can be a good thing, especially if there are only two characters in the scene. Once the reader gets into the flow of the conversation, it's unnecessary—and disruptive—to tag every line.

Do you have a dialogue paragraph where the character speaks, has an action, speaks, has a tag, speaks, has another action? These can be hard on the reader, because every time the writer interrupts the flow of the dialogue, your reader has to shift gears. It's not necessarily wrong, but I recommend using it minimally and for specific effect.

Playwright George Bernard Shaw summed up the importance of the spoken word in his immortal play, Pygmalion, later adapted to the award-winning musical, My Fair Lady. Below, a brief line sung by linguist Professor Henry Higgins:

An Englishman's way of speaking absolutely classifies him,
The moment he talks he makes some other Englishman despise him.
Use proper English, you're regarded as a freak.
Oh why can't the English learn to speak?
—My Fair Lady's "Why Can't the English," lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner

The movie offers a great research opportunity to study dialogue. Its London setting provides characters with different dialects, different social classes, different economic and educational backgrounds. The scenes are dialogue-heavy, because it was originally a stage play, and that dialogue is designed to reinforce character, illustrate the conflicts, and move the plot forward. Plus they're celebrating the importance of language throughout.

If you're familiar with the movie, but don't have three hours to watch it, pop by this site and skim through George Bernard Shaw's original play script.

Best wishes to you all on your writing. If you have other tips on dialogue, please leave a comment here. I'm always looking to add to my bag of tricks!

Former theater professional Amy Atwell realized her love of plays stemmed from the stories they brought to life and launched her quest to tell the stories in her head, first as play scripts, then as novels. Her Golden Heart® Finalist manuscript, Public Relations, features a soap opera hunk and a Broadway wanna-be finding love in the heart of Manhattan. Read more about her at


  1. Hey Amy! This is a really helpful post. A while ago, C.J. posted about dialogue tags (saying pretty much the same thing you did about using "said" or nothing at all if it isn't necessary) and I just finished running through my novel and taking out all the unnecessary tags...shocking how many I had.

    Now I'm going to go through and read each dialogue sequence outloud and make sure all of my characters don't sound like the same person!

    Good stuff here. Thanks.

  2. Amy - I love the parallel you drew between dialogue in novels and on the stage. What a fun and informative post. Thanks!

  3. Amy - great post. Lots of helpful info. I like the suggestion about having the characters interacting with their surroundings. Good way to get away from relying on the "boring" stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  4. Excellent post, Amy! Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I really like the idea of color coding dialogue for different characters, to make sure each one has their own distinct voice. I will have to try that.

    I get dinged from my crit partner all the time about using less-common words in dialogue, not especially difficult words, but still words you don't hear spoken as frequently. She points out that just becuase I have a big vocabulary doesn't mean *several* of my characters do. I'm still working on catching those types of things on the first pass....

  5. Amy, this is a fantastic post! Very helpful...especially since the best pieces of writing use dialogue to build character, establish conflict, advance plot, and ramp up the emotional barometer of the scene - all at the same time.

    And I'm a HUGE My Fair Lady fan so extra points for referencing that!

    Why can't a woman be more like a man? LOL.

  6. Thanks for the comments, gang. I'm consolidating replies here:

    mayberry tuesday: I *just* completed a revision on my first novel (written back in 2000), and I can't tell you how many awful dialogue tags I had. Back then, I thought I knew what I was doing, but the dialogue paragraphing was screwy. What can you do? Keep writing, keep learning.

    anne: while writing this blog, I realized there's a *lot* of similarities between plays and novels. I may have to post a series of articles on my website...

    keli: some readers press that they want more "emotional" (i.e. internal) reactions mixed with the dialogue. And in the romance genre, I can see how important that is. But from my theater background, I know the audience can pick up a ton of clues as to a character's emotional state by watching body language. I try to use a little of all.

    rachel: I'll confess, I think I first picked up the highlighter idea from author Laurie Brown--she has a whole highlighter editing system that's pretty cool. Also, author Tracy Montoya gives an incredible workshop on gender variations in speech patterns, so if you ever have your heroes sounding a little too feminine, she's a great one to track down.

    C.J.: Thanks so much for inviting me! Here's my last Henry Higgins-ism: "Let a woman in your life, and your serenity is through. She'll redecorate your home from the cellar to the dome, then go on to the enthralling thought of overhauling you." Honestly, the use of language in this play is a marvel!

    Thanks all for reading and commenting!

  7. Amy,
    Great post!

    I especially liked being reminded about not interspersing EVERY line of dialogue with a tag or an action. It can get very rollicking, very quickly, in a very bad way. :-)

    I still have to work on that sometimes.

    I often worry that the conversation itself will feel too 'bare-bones' & won't hold the reader's attention (i.e. I don't trust my writing). That's when I start feeling the urge to 'spruce it up' a bit, just as you described.

    Bad urge.

    Thanks for reminding me of it as I am mid-stream on a revision. :-)


  8. Yea, Amy! What a great post. I have had some of those problems in the past. Still working on not putting action, then a tag unless they're together.

    I love My Fair Lady, and you're so right about the different dialects spoken in that movie.


  9. Excellent post, Amy. Very interesting.

  10. Amy, these are fantastic tips! You should teach a workshop on this!

  11. Amy, love your post! In Tess Gerritson's, The Surgeon, via her characters' dialogue, the personas leapt off the page, from an educated doctor, to a mild-manner cop to an Italian female cop with an ax to grind, you knew who they were via their dialogue.

    I do have one complaint :) I'll have Rex Harrison flitting through my brain an entire afternoon. Why indeed can't the English learn how to speak! Great topic!

  12. Awesome post Amy!
    Thanks for sharing it with us.


  13. Checking back in--thanks for stopping to read!

    Kris: I find the "bare-bones" dialogue works great for quick repartee between two people. This keeps the reader engrossed in the conversation at hand, then when you hit a climax point in the dialogue, add a tag. Be sure to START the interchange, so the reader is confident which character is which. I bet your revision will go great!

    Sandy: I think even the best authors continue to have trouble with dialogue. Getting the right balance of dialogue, tags, "stage direction," and emotional reaction could take a lifetime of experience. Thanks for stopping by.

    Amanda: Thanks--I've been dreaming up workshop ideas for years. Hopefully someday I'll actually outline and prepare one. There aren't enough hours in the day, you know?

    Donnell: I love Tess Gerritson! And sorry to plant My Fair Lady lyrics in your head. I've been walking around for days singing tunes from the show. Should I be worried that I'm singing all Rex Harrison's songs and none of Julie Andrews'?

  14. Thanks for the tips, Amy! Ditto what Kris (and everyone else) said. I'll be thinking about much of this as I work on my revision, too.

    A workshop would be awesome!

  15. Hi, Amy!

    Great post. I've been looking at dialouge a lot because of the screenplays. Loved the suggestion about characters interacting with their surroundings.

  16. Great post, Amy! I would never have tagged you as sarcastic. Clever and witty, yes. :)

  17. You explained things so well! I love dialog that's well done.

  18. VERY good, Amy. I really soaked up the info. This could be a class in itself!

    Thanks so much for sharing these invaluable insights...


  19. Hey Amy...there are so many things I could comment on...including my bad grammar. Anyway, your tutelage in dialogue goes way way way back as I recall from a certain production of Alice in Wonderland (which isn't all the way back either). I knew you were a good writer, but a good teacher too, who knew!?! Now, if only I had the attention span to write a novel. I know who I'd ask to review it. As for Rex Harrison's songs in your head. You don't want my take on Kudo's to you my friend on all your successes!!! I'm looking forward to owning a few of your books...autographed of course.


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