|This topic sheet was originally
devised for the Exciting
Writing for Theatre course. There is a table
of links to other teaching resources towards the bottom
of this page.
Theatrical dialogue is governed by a number
of principles that apply to dialogue in general (novels, film,
etc), in addition to some specific principles. Let us begin with
the general and progress to the specific.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD SPEECH?
- Perhaps it consists of one or more well
written sentences, logically organised.
- It is relevant to the plot.
- It is true to the spoken word, i.e. it
sounds like real speech rather than written text being read
- Perhaps it is short, maintaining audience
interest and keeping the piece moving along.
- If it consists of more than a few sentences
it is calculated to achieve a specific purpose. Examples of
"good reasons" for longer speeches include:
making and reinforcing a crucial point in the plot,
marking a key stage in the revelation/development of
having a calculated effect on the audience (e.g. rousing,
hypnotising, evoking empathy),
providing a summary of past or planned events and
acting as a bridge to mark the passage of time.
- Perhaps it facilitates concentration and
memory by exploring or reiterating complex words, ideas or aspects
of the plot.
- Perhaps it makes provision for effective
use of silence.
- Perhaps it refers to a previous speech
or scene, giving a conflicting account which reflects the speakers
particular point of view.
- Perhaps it contains inconsistencies that
reflect the character of the speaker.
WHAT MAKES GOOD DIALOGUE?
- Each characters speech prompts questions/issues in
the others mind, directly triggering a response, or perhaps
causing the next speaker to change tack.
- Each speech connects with the previous one, unless of course
the speaker deliberately deviates from the established line
- Perhaps a speech challenges or contradicts a previous speech.
- Perhaps the characters contributions to the dialogue
reveal conflicting motives or objectives.
- It reveals some new aspect of at least one of the characters
involved, and ideally all of them.
- Perhaps it marks a significant development in the plot.
- Perhaps it resolves an outstanding issue and/or gives rise
to a further issue to be resolved.
- It involves well timed interaction between the characters.
- It exposes aspects of character that might not be apparent
from descriptive text.
WHAT'S SPECIAL ABOUT THEATRICAL DIALOGUE?
The specifics of theatrical dialogue are governed by the essential
features of the theatrical environment. These are perhaps best
explored by considering other media in which dialgue plays a part,
such as film, literature and radio:
- Film is probably the most realistic of all creative media
insofar as it engulfs viewers' minds with sights and sounds.
Dialogue is not necessarily important, since film's power to
communicate lies largely in the richness of its visual imagery
and non-verbal soundscapes.
- Nor is dialogue necessarily important in literature. Novelists
and storytellers can easily get their message across through
reported speech, or even exclusively through descriptive text.
Where dialogue occurs, it usually depends heavily on the context
of descriptive text, so that the reader may understand who is
speaking and may know enough about the character to be able
to create a reasonably satisfying mental picture of the situation.
- Dialogue is crucial in radio, however. The absence of the
visual dimension may be partly compensated by imaginative, suggestive
use of sound and, to a lesser extent, a narrator. Only the dialogue
can provide any further information needed to complete the visual
picture in listeners' minds. Accordingly, radio dialogue must
be cleverly designed to impart information that fills the gap
of the missing visual dimension.
Of these examples, only radio dialogue comes close to theatrical
dialogue in terms of its nature and importance.
Theatre audiences obviously have the benefit of the visual dimension
that radio listeners lack, so that theatre playwrights do not
need to put the same visual slant on their writing as do radio
Having said that, the visual power of theatre is not nearly as
intense as that of film. Whereas the film director can fill the
screen with a meaningful flicker of an eyelid, the theatre director
must rely to a far greater extent on the writer and the actors
to ensure that subtle imagery communicates itself all the way
to the back of the upper balcony. Dialogue that might readily
be cut from a screenplay, where the camera says it all, may come
into its own in the theatre, where words are a crucial factor
in the process of communication.
In short, whereas most writers in fields other than theatre can
"get by" with lacklustre dialogue-writing skills, writers
for theatre (and radio) simply cannot.
We shall consider the specifics of writing theatrical
dialogue at various points in this course. For now, it is enough
to say that theatrical dialogue must flow as naturally and as
effortlessly as normal discourse.
The physical presence and proximity of the actors
and the fact that the action is live give theatrical dialogue
a heightened sense of realism that cannot be matched in any other
medium: the excitement of theatre lies largely in the fact that
that no one, not even the actors, knows for certain what it going
to happen next.