Here are some more of the great things I learned about how to fix problems with dialogue in your plays at the “Dialog Isn’t Talking” session at the Dramatists Guild conference.
There’s no subtext, or the characters spend too much time talking “on point”
I’ve noticed this problem in the plays I’ve been reading for The Inkwell over the past several months. The characters always say exactly what’s on their mind, and they are saying the point of the play over and over.
Think of dialogue as the Loch Ness Monster
Kate Snodgrass (http://www.bu.edu/playwriting/profile/kate-snodgrass/), one of the panelists, made this suggestion: think of dialogue as the Loch Ness Monster.
Now, I was running on too little sleep and too much adrenaline, so now I’m not sure what in the hell she meant by that. 🙂
But I think she meant that you may not ever see the Loch Ness Monster, but you know it’s there. The words that the characters say is the surface of Loch Ness. The subtext, the “point,” is the Monster.
So, decide what each character’s Monster is, and make sure it’s always there, under the surface.
Look at good examples of subtext and talking “off point,” a.k.a. the Monster
An example of the Monster is when Kate Snodgrass had her and another panelist read the start of “Death of the Salesman.” It’s amazing how much you know about the characters, especially Willy, from the first dozen or so lines. It’s clear that Linda didn’t expect him back, so right away you know something’s wrong. She wonders whether he smashed the car; she wouldn’t ask that if she didn’t think it was a possibility, so you can figure maybe he smashed the car before.
Willy says he’s tired to the death, he couldn’t keep driving any more, he can’t keep his mind to it. So you can figure that he’s been doing something for a long time, but he may not be able to do it any more. It’s also clear that Linda is helpful, solicitous, and in denial.
If you know what your characters have been doing before, you know what concerns them now, and what they’ll talk about.
The dialog doesn’t have a point for the character
The third panelist was Dean Corrin (http://condor.depaul.edu/dcorrin/). He said dialogue isn’t an entity in and of itself. It has to have a *purpose* for the character.
Dialog you can cut
That dialogue that you describe as “where they’re talking about” something? Cut that dialogue.
That dialogue you describe as “it shows something or other”? Cut that dialogue.
Dialog you can keep
I think another way to put this is this: that dialogue where the character is trying hard to get something he or she needs from another character? Keep that dialogue.
Dialog that does too much
The dialog doesn’t have to contain all of the story of the play. In fact, it shouldn’t.
Dialogue is the encoding of a play, or of a story, said Dean Corrin.
Here’s what I think he means by this. Suppose you wrote an entire story — description, action, dialogue, etc. — and then took out everything that wasn’t dialogue. Somebody who reads this story should be able to figure out the rest of it from just the dialogue.
Dialogue isn’t the story. Dialogue is what you give the director, and the actors, so they can figure out what the story is.
The characters sound the same all the time
Dean Corrin also said to remember that people talk in different ways, depending on who they’re talking to.
So figure out how your character talks when he or she is talking to the other characters in the play.
Here’s one way I thought of to practice this. Figure out how your character talks to his or her spouse, an employee, a police officer, a physician, an old friend, a taxi driver, etc.
Try these, and let me know how they work for you
When you try these, post a message here and let me know how they work for you. And if you have any questions, ask me, and I will answer.