We asked Lisa Drostova, critic turned actor, her thoughts on great dialogue. Take it away, Lisa!
Write things that are exciting or powerful to say, things that make an actor hyperventilate with desire to speak your words out loud. Actors are sweet on writers who pay attention to this point. There are plays that get performed for years, decades, even centuries after they're written because actors want to do them . Not just because directors feel they're "important" or subscribers find them satisfying, but because actors agitate to get them staged. Hang around with actors for any length of time and you'll hear them delivering lines they love, even from plays they've never done. Last month I shared a dressing area with a woman who sings Gilbert and Sullivan's A Modern Major General between acts of a completely different show just because she loves lines like "I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes." Meanwhile out in the parking lot, other castmates were wandering around quoting each other's lines from shows they'd worked on together in the past. Comic, poignant, angry, seductive, bleeding, raunchy. Outrageous lines are the way to an actor's heart, and from there to the audience's. Not to mention that directors and literary managers, as they consider plays for production, are imagining how they'll sound.
Play with line lengths. Don't give every character the same number of words or lines because you're worried the actors with less will feel bad--believe me, if they're out of high school, they won't. You can show a lot about characters by how much they speak in relation to each other, both to comic and dramatic effect. Make sure you're reading what you write out loud. This seems obvious, but I've read scripts where the writer clearly hadn't taken the time to sound out the work. If it sounds clunky and wrong coming out of your mouth, chances are it's not going to be any better coming out of mine, and I won't thank you for making me say something clumsy in front of paying strangers and long-suffering friends.
And when I say out loud, that's exactly what I mean. Go ahead and mumble it at your desk first if you have to, but at some point do it on full voice, with commitment. Roll the words around in your mouth for their flavor and texture, just as the actor does as she makes them hers. Notice which words strike you, which ones make you giggle, which ones make you feel strange or angry or powerful as you say them. Keep those. The ones that make you sleepy, euthanize.
If you're stuck for what to write, go outside. Real conversation is more outrageous than we realize. Playwright Anne Washburn works extensively with "stolen" text and is a great teacher to boot. She transcribes scraps of the conversations around her and then either integrates them directly into her text or riffs off them. Is this cheating? Sure, if you think all true creativity entails sweating blood alone in your garret, but there are advantages to working this way beyond scoring some free dialogue.
Transcribing overheard conversation exposes you to the real rhythms of people's speech. It opens you up to folks and what they worry about and the wild ways they talk about it. The rise of the cell phone and the iPod are a godsend to writers of every stripe. As people go deaf from their music and forget that there are others catching the details of their visit to the gynecologist, they get louder and more self-revelatory. You can hate that you're getting all the dirt of a stranger's life as you stand in that packed commuter train, or you can grab a notebook. Check these out:
It's giving me the willies with all that yellow.
I shrunk your head. And then I blew it back up.
"It's beautiful, but it's full of suicidal squirrels. I swear, we were riding there, and there were twenty squirrels lining up. They were really waiting along the sidewalk until we came up to run across the trail."
Those were all harvested from conversations I overheard on the train, in art classrooms, at a party. None of them are "finished" dialogue, but they're full of weirdness and energy and can tell you much more about the relationships between the people speaking than pages of exposition. They're also the sort of thing that if you heard it, you'd be eager to hear what comes next. And finally, they make great jumping-off places for your own dialogue.
Go on, go too far. Make your characters say things that seem overblown, dangerous, and extreme. You can always pull back if they sound wrong read aloud. Go out and write something that will make actors and audiences dizzy.
Lisa Drostova was an award-winning theater critic at the East Bay Express in Berkeley, California for seven years. She jumped the fence in 2007 to become an actor and dramaturge. She is now a member of Concord's Butterfield 8 Theater Company, where she's played Theseus in A Midsummer Night's Dream and Gwendolen Fairfax in The Importance of Being Earnest. She's also on the literary committee for the San Francisco Playhouse, where she solicits and evaluates scripts to help the artistic director choose the company's seasons.