Last Saturday, for the first time ever, I had the privilege of seeing some of my writing performed on stage alongside that of some professional authors. It was a humbling experience. There’s an elusive quality about truly good work that, when set alongside that of an enthusiastic amateur, really comes to light. Particularly when spoken aloud. Now, as the raptor has pointed out, script-writing is a different medium to novels. There are inevitably going to be necessary changes in style, and the expertise learned in one doesn’t always transfer seamlessly to the other. When it comes to scripts, the required change in dialogue technique is thrown into rather harsh light.
You might not have thought (I certainly didn’t) that there’d be any difference between colloquial-style dialogue and the spoken word. It wasn’t until I heard the actors speaking my lines that I realised the difference. It isn’t just about making the words sound natural in their mouths, rather than stiff. There’s something a bit more to it – something meatier, for want of a better word, that’s needed. A weight of personality, of meaning and substance, behind every line that the actor can orient on. To use a nautical metaphor, the meaning is the anchor, the actor is the buoy, and the sentences are whatever boat happens to be moored there at that point. Even filler words, like ‘Er, what?’ need to be considered. You can’t get away with throw-away lines in spoken word, the way you can (but shouldn’t) in written. The moment they’re released into the air, you know that they have no substance. Oh, sure, the actor can cover for you up to a point, but they shouldn’t have to. If you want to be good – and I do – then your words should be able to stand up for themselves.
I don’t mean, by the way, that it should all be terribly serious and meaningful. You can write comedy which has substance. The point is that you have to make it feel real – that’s what escapism is about, after all. Regardless of the subject matter, your words should be made of stone. If they’re only paper then no-one will believe them. Worse, they’ll detract from the stone that went before.
Because this tends to be how I work, I turned to my current craft book for advice. Sol Stein, author of Solutions for Novelists, had this to say:
The aim of dialogue is to create an emotional effect in the reader… Dialogue sounds artificial when it’s coherent and logical. In life we try to avoid shouting. It shows we are out of control… Dialogue is at its best when it is confrontational and adversarial… not an exchange of information but a kind of game in which the opponents try to gain an advantage over each other.
Here’s a hint. If in a verbal duel you find yourself wedded to the beliefs of one of the characters, try your damnedest to make the other character win the argument. Try to subvert your prejudices. It will make your exchanges far more interesting.
What counts in dialogue is not what is said but what is meant.
The only really practical suggestion I’ve got is to have someone read your dialogue aloud to you. Don’t do it yourself – you’re too familiar with it and will fill in the meaning mentally. In someone else’s voice, though, you can hear where there’s only paper on the page. The worlds and people are real inside the writer’s mind. Just make sure you get that reality all the way across.
For those who are interested, the piece that was performed is here. I’d love to know what you think of it and, most importantly, how it might be improved.