Saturday, February 19, 2011

When Three People are Talking, Why Isn’t Called “Trialog?”

I did theatre in my early twenties.  In fact I majored in theatre for a little while there.  It was a lot of fun, and I was even pretty good at it, at least on a college/community theatre scale.  I mostly did supporting parts(read: waiter #2), but I had a few leading roles, too.  I even directed a few shows.  I was nominated for a national scholarship named for Irene Ryan, who played Granny on The Beverly Hillbillies.  One might say I had a passion for theatre.  My bookshelves were lined with plays both ancient and new.  I read everything I could get my hands on.

And then I stopped.  I don’t know why it happened.  Part of it was necessity; theatre is a very time-consuming pastime.  More than that, though, I reached a point where I was just done with it, as though it had served its function, whatever that was.

Flash-forward about fifteen years to me today, an aspiring (read: not-published-yet) novelist.  I’ve read countless writing books, as well as the great novels of the past and contemporary works, too.  I’ve learned from reading, and I’ve learned from writing.  Still, I can’t help but think that my time as an actor prepared me being a writer in ways nothing else could have.

I’ve always considered dialog my biggest strength, mainly because for half a decade I lived dialog.  Not that I’m saying I’m great at it, but out of all the aspects of writing, it’s the one that gives me the least trouble.  Often I’ll “see” a scene in my head, a future scene from my WiP, or from a future project, and I’ll jot it down.  Most of the time, that scene is straight dialog, with only minimal stage direction that I don’t want to forget.  It’s always been easier to write dialog than, say, description.  Even when I was new at this, and my writing sucked, the dialog would often shine through the crap like a Monopoly token the baby swallowed.

Dialog is tricky.  As everyone knows, it should seem like real speech, but shouldn’t actually be real speech.  (Be careful with exposition in dialog; if the other characters already know the information, then your character probably wouldn’t say it without a good reason.  If you can start a piece of dialog with, “As you know,” you probably don’t need it.)  More than that, dialog carries a function.  Real speech does, too, usually: making plans, expressing feeling, chasing goals.  Beyond that, though, dialog has to take the characters (and the readers) from one scene to the next.  Unless you’re writing something artsy or experimental, every scene, and therefore the dialog of that scene needs to deliver readers from point A to point B, so they can can hop the next transport to the following scenes.  Your dialog should either accomplish a goal for your character or set up a problem your characters will have to deal with.

It’s okay to take the scenic route, in other words, to sprinkle the dialog with niceties and tangents like the neighbor’s dog, or the local sports team, or the politics of Southeast Asia, so long as the trip reaches its destination.  How much “sprinkle” you use depends on the style and the genre (literary, hard-boiled mystery, YA all would present dialog differently), but it still needs to transport.  If the dialog goes round and round and the reader is back where she started, then maybe it wasn’t necessary in the first place.

There’s far more to dialog than just that, of course, like knowing your character’s voice, and using dialog to reveal character.  And of course, there’s subtext – saying something by saying something else or nothing at all – absolutely my favorite aspect of dialog.  I’ll save that for another post.  The basic thing to remember is the purpose of the dialog, and then adding the “sprinkles” and the nuances to taste.

Your turn: What do you consider your writing strengths, and how did you develop those strengths?


  1. I love this post! I too did theater for a long time, and still harbor a secret desire to continue. I agree that working in theater is a definite help when it comes to writing, and especially dialogue. For that, I also revel in writing dialogue, and I'd consider it one of my strengths as well.

    I think that when you work with inflection, and subtext day in and day out you learn to recognize it in everything. And what I've taken away from theater is that the subtext is often time more important than what's actually being said.

    I can structure whole scenes around a pivotal conversation that I know has to happen. So, I'll write myself a script for that scene, and then ask myself 'what logically brings these characters to this point'.

  2. That's an great perspective, Dan. I don't think I have much difficulty with dialogue. I do find it hard work (although Critiquers sometimes compliment me on how natural it sounds, which is a good thing) but it's certainly not my weakest area.

    I think my strength, though is in description. I think that is because I'm able to paint a clear visual in my mind of what I'm trying to describe, and that probably comes from the fact that I've always been strong at drawing and painting since I was old enough to hold a pencil.

  3. Debate, especially extemporaneous debate, taught me to gather my ideas quickly and to express them concisely and with feeling.

  4. Dialogue is my strength... and I did theater as well. I write it all organically, like my characters are chatting, then go back and add the action beats (stage direction).

  5. My strength is dialogue, I always thought, until my beta reader commented how strong my descriptions are. Go figure :)

  6. Unlike pacing, dialogue is one of the aspects of writing I'm confident in. It's a great way to expose personality and yes, information if it's correctly done. GP!

  7. my sister is majoring in theater right now. She's having good time.
    Dialogue is my strength as well. It's really easy for me to write and requires less editing from me later

  8. I think my real strength is that I have an overactive imagination.

  9. I bet theater is indeed a great training ground for dialog! I thought I was good at dialog initially, but I think those early efforts were too much like real speech, with all the 'uh's and 'well's--in reality--written dialog needs to usually run a little smoother or it's distracting. I still favor dialog--my first drafts are very dialog heavy, as it is how the story unfolds for me, but then the rewrite needs a fair bit of pruning, as I've given too much detail via dialog that isn't necessary to the story.

  10. I'm with you on theatre and dialogue. In fact I went to The American Academy of Dramatic Arts West in Pasadena in 1997. Theatre was my life and then screenplay writing became my life for a lot of years because I enjoyed dialogue so much. I would have to say my dialogue is my greatest strength.

    This was a great post and a great thing to learn about you.

    Hope you're well!