by Taylor Blum
Ever since I was a child writing “books” in my third-grade class about a superhero cat that shot lasers out of its eyes, I knew I wanted to write novels. What I also learned growing up is that I enjoy acting and the comradery that forms between yourself and other actors on stage. After finally having the opportunity to act in college, alongside earning a BA in English and creative writing, I learned how these skills go hand in hand.
The most important thing I realized from my acting experience was how much dialogue affects my writing. Dialogue has always been so important to me–I can’t read something if I find the dialogue unrealistic or stiff. Honestly, the common mistakes of stiff, expository language makes me cringe and takes me out of the story. Dialogue is also something I realized is hard for writers to master. The good news is that when it comes to plays, dialogue is arguably the most important part. By reading a play, you can see how so much can be said with so little words, and by performing in a play, you become aware of your own voice and how conversations work. We’re often told in fiction classes to pay attention to conversations and to eavesdrop on people to understand how people talk, but this isn’t always manageable, and sometimes feels a bit weird to do. But when acting, it is your sole job to interpret the dialogue, to understand how to raise the subtext out of it, and even change the overall meaning of the words through your tone. This teaches you to understand when less is more in dialogue.
Even when writing drama, we’re often told to leave out what would be considered dialogue tags. How many times have you been told to delete a dreaded adverb and replace it with “said”? In my experience, when writing a scene that a director would give to another actor to perform, the director often crossed out my clarifications on how the actor should say the line. If I would write “(harshly) No, you didn’t,” harshly would be crossed out. This mirrors what I usually learned in fiction classes, that dialogue tags aren’t necessary. You should show, not tell. The actor and director can determine their own meaning based on the context clues given, as can the reader in fiction. Once you practice this enough, it is quite simple to transfer this skill to your own writing.
Being put into scenes as an actor gives you a whole new perspective on how they are written. The length of scenes in plays can always vary. Perhaps it is a ten-minute play, or a two act show with two, fifty-minute scenes. Either way, there needs to be a trajectory. A common mistake in fiction is writing scenes with no purpose, often used as filler. I know it is appealing to watch our favorite character hang out with friends and enjoy a mundane life, but this absolutely cannot happen in drama, and understanding this helps you cut down what you write before you even hit the first editing stage. When you perform in a show, you go through the same scene multiple times. The way you perform it may change, but the words and plot points stay the same. After years of doing this, it becomes easy to notice where rising actions and climaxes occur. Furthermore, being put into the scene prepares you to write it much more than simply living real life does. Real life doesn’t always abide by fiction conventions (that said, neither does drama really); conversations drone on and dramatic moments in relationships rarely happen, regardless of what romcoms tell us. Drama’s purpose is to pull apart the exciting or interesting moments in life and construct them in a way that tells a coherent story. Ten-minute plays dramatize moments that could be boring in one’s life, but instead creates a rising action and a moment of realization and a climax all in ten minutes. Plays can often focus on events that happen in just one day, but if we were to record everything that happened to us in one day, there would be so much filler. Plays only put forth the exciting moments. By understanding the method that playwrights use to construct beneficial scenes, we can apply this to our own writing.
Now, it’s easy enough to say that years of acting and studying dramatic forms gives you skills that transfer into fiction writing, but how does one achieve this if they don’t have a community theatre to audition for?
Read Dialogue Aloud
Take a look at published, ten-minute plays, and read them aloud. Pay attention to the flow of the conversation, the way each character speaks, and listen to the natural voices and the moments of less is more. Bonus points if you can get friends to read the plays with you. You all get to try on your acting hats while learning about dialogue.
The same can be done with published fiction. Find a popular novel, perhaps your favorite. How does the author frame dialogue? Is it a natural voice, and do their moments of less is more work? The common advice of reading to write well really matters, and that is what we’re doing. If you feel comfortable enough, take a scene from your work and write it in only dialogue. Without the aid of descriptions or internal thought, how does the character’s dialogue carry the scene?
Practice Writing Monologues
This is doing two things: working on character study and giving your character a distinct voice. Many people recommend using character maps: using this method, you fill out charts to understand everything about the characters. This is great advice, but writing a monologue for your character takes things a step further. Typically, monologues by themselves tell a story from the character’s perspective. When monologues are placed throughout a play, they are often used to show a moment of revelation, or reveal a secret. Big moments of emotion are wrapped within them.
Take one of your own characters, and have them tell a story. Perhaps a story of something that happens to them in the novel you are working on. Play with their voice. If they were a real person speaking to you, would they stutter? Ramble? Repeat themselves? This helps you understand the nuances of their voice, as well as their opinions. What did they think of the story and the people involved? What is their tone like? By understanding these things, it is easier to make them a believable character with a realistic voice.
Dramatize Your Life
Earlier I mentioned how plays can often focus on events that happen in one day, but if we were to record everything that happened throughout our day, it would be boring. Now is the time to turn those events around. Throughout your day, write down the major things that happened to you: driving to work, getting coffee, working, interactions with others, etc. Record what your trajectory throughout the day was. The next day, look back at your notes and figure out the dramatic arc of your day (it’s okay if you have to lie a little, we are writers after all). What was your inciting incident, rising action, climax, and falling action? How would you take those moments and turn them into full, coherent scenes, even if the day was completely mundane and boring? Doing all of this helps you understand scene construction as well as how scenes flow into the next, because even though you went through the day yourself, it is up to you to fill in the gaps of the major moments so that the day is interesting and coherent.
We can’t all simultaneously be actors and writers, but taking notes from both camps can improve our writing. The methods actors use to understand plays is exactly how writers study writing, and often studying a genre we may not usually write in can help our own skills. I felt that I grew a lot as a person and as a writer once I started acting. I gained confidence in myself and my public speaking abilities, as well as my capability to analyze plays and language, which went hand in hand in what I learned in my writing classes. Even if I have doubts as I am drafting new fiction, I can hang onto my grasp of dialogue, and that confidence will carry me through as I write.