How to write Dialogue


Dialogue is the meat and potatoes of any play. The script is immovable. Unassailable. It is the basic structure of the world in which directors, actors, set designers, costumers, stage managers, lighting and sound people, producers and audience must navigate in. While sets, lighting, stage business, actors, interpretation, and just about everything can be altered from one production to another, the script cannot. It is always open to interpretation, never renovation. The script is always the first measure of a play. And for all intents and purposes, the script is basically dialogue; two people talking. That sums up the simplicity and the complexity of theatre. Two people talking. The words are the bricks and mortar of the architecture of the play.

What tools does a playwright need to write great dialogue?

  • Imagination
  • Access to actors
  • Keen understanding of human nature
  • A cosmopolitan view of the world
  • A local view of the world
  • Access to great plays
  • A place to work

Part One-Imagination

This will be the first in a series of articles about writing dialogue. The other articles haven't been written yet, but in the coming weeks, they will be.

The writer needs to have a great imagination, needs to be able to create fully-fleshed human beings with wants and desires, with goals and frutrations. The writer is playing God and creating life. He or she has to understand how people think and then how they act or speak. In the writing process there is usually some sort of disconnect between how a writer wants his character to sound and how they end up sounding on the stage. One way to harness your imagination and make it work for you as a writer is always to be writing so that your mind works in synch with your hands to create great dialogue. Automatic writing, where the writer just writes and writes without conscious thought, is a great way to practise suppressing the clumsy restrictive dialogue of conscious thought. Since in real life, the conscious mind is rarely engaged in dialogue, as it is an automatic response to other verbal stimulus, writing should also be quick and unthinking. The brain will slow down to match your writing if you are ditching conscious thought. Think of conscious thought as a small room with a door. Beyond that door is a vast world of Imagination which is harnessed by the sub-conscious. I realize that scientifically that might not be true, but for practical writing terms, it serves as a good process for unlocking the imagination.


Perhaps a good analogy for writing dialogue would be to play chess against yourself, and wanting to win, no matter which chess piece you are playing; black or white. Whether a character is good, evil or in the great muddle between, the writer has to pay attention to their goals, to what each character wants. You might set simple goals for your characters. One might want to leave a relationship. The other wants to prevent that. Imagine the basic reasons that would enable and disable those goals. There you have a protaganist and antagonist and you set them to work in your imagination and at the tips of your fingers. You have thus created a battle and a confrontation.

Understanding Improvization is a good way to understand how to harness your imagination the way subconscious writing might. If you have two characters with opposing goals in improv, the actor that generally comes across as losing in Improv is the one that tries to win. That is because you can't force your agenda on a scene in Improv. You have to be in the moment and go with it. You have to say yes and...That means, whatever the other performer comes up with, you have to accept it, go with it and not try to win. As a writer it means that your characters, if you are lucky, will take on a life of their own.




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