By Sharon King-Campbell
When I was 9, my English teacher (one of a long line of superhero English teachers) assigned us a 2-page story for homework. I wrote 7 pages of my Hilroy notebook in large, clumsy cursive writing. I think it had something to do with a haunted house. Mrs. Pereira (superhero) was encouraging and kind. I don’t remember my grade on that assignment, or if she graded it at all. I do remember that she contacted my parents to let them know they had a writer on their hands.
Writing has followed me my whole life. As readers of this blog will know, it’s a versatile skill. Essays, instructions, dissertations, fiction, journalism, poetry: it’s all part of one giant umbrella. I wrote obsessively as a teenager. And when my artistic – and then my professional – eye turned to theatre, I started writing for that, too.
The more I write for the stage, the better all of my writing gets.
My fiction in particular has improved since I started to take playwriting seriously.
So, here are the top things I’ve learned from writing for the theatre.
1) Dialogue should sound like people talking
OK, yes yes, we will start with the obvious. OBVIOUSLY, since dialogue is when you write down what your characters say, it should sound in the reader’s head like those characters talking to each other.
But, here is the trick: they should not sound like the author.
People are different and speak differently from one another. Maybe one of your characters is from Orkney and the other one is from Queens, so you are writing accents and colloquialisms.
Maybe it’s not anything so pronounced, but one of them has been awake for 36 hours straight and the other one got up 2 hours ago and has had 4 cups of coffee. So Character A is searching for every word through a fog of exhaustion and Character B is whizzing through their thoughts at light speed.
We walk in our characters’ shoes to imagine how they feel, what choices they would make, how they see the world… we have to imagine how they use language as well.
Also of interest: people interrupt each other, and people often don’t finish their thoughts.
Some people (like me, for instance) regularly lose track of their point halfway through their sentence because they’ve wildly gone off on some sub-topic and are now totally invested in a brand new subject.
Not every conversation that’s full of interruption is about the tension of one character interrupting the other. It’s a rude thing to do, as we teach our kids and insist at board meetings, but it often isn’t, really, if all parties consent to an abrupt change of topic. You’ll be surprised at how complex the dynamics of even a simple conversation are once you tune into it.
2) Say only what needs saying
Since, when playwriting, you are dealing (almost) exclusively with dialogue, you start to develop a sense of what can be text and what must be subtext. People (and characters) lie. They tell half-truths. They lie about stuff that doesn’t matter in order to conceal stuff that does matter. OR, they bring up topics that are close to, but not actually, the topic they want to talk about.
You can have a whole scene in which people can discuss one thing but they are actually talking about something else.
Moreover, when you include in the dialogue what should be subtext, it’s starts to feel stilted and unbelievable. Your characters start saying what they’re feeling out loud. In addition to being unrealistic (unless your character is exceptional in this way), this would be, in real life, a healthy communication strategy, and that is the death knell to a compelling scene.
If you can show in the dialogue that there is something deeper going on, you won’t need to tell your audience about it. And, since we’re talking about fiction, you have a few extra tricks that are show-y and not tell-y.
You can show us one character’s eyes darting continually to their cell phone, or the colour draining from their face, or the nervous fidgeting, and we’ll know something’s up.
3) Actions matter… specifically
I mentioned above that playwriting deals almost exclusively with dialogue. The other bit is stage direction. Playwrights use stage directions to indicate when there is a pause in the conversation, or to give important pieces of action, or – sometimes – to indicate how the actor should deliver a line.
However, for reasons relating to the way theatre scripts were published in the middle of the 20th century, an overabundance of stage directions is often interpreted by actors and directors as a license to ignore them. If your play starts with a long and detailed description of the set, for instance, the average actor will just skip it. Most directors will politely read it once and then throw it all away and do the thing that makes the most sense to their creative team. Similarly, actors don’t love being told how to deliver every line; they like to figure that out for themselves.
So, I avoid writing stage directions.
But sometimes I really need them.
I am working on a play now where the first few minutes happen before anyone speaks. It’s a person freaking out in their kitchen, and then someone else comes in and witnesses the freak out. So I wrote a series of stage directions that are my best shot at an objective observation of what is happening in my imagination, and that means some very specific actions – throwing a coffee-soaked dishtowel into the sink, for example – are standing in for the panic that the character is experiencing.
And here we are – another lesson in showing and not telling.
4) Tension is the root of everything
When you’re watching a play, you can’t skip pages. You can’t fast forward through the slow bits. Keeping an audience engaged is a full-time, every-moment project and the stakes are the success or failure of the play.
There are a few ways to keep a theatre audience engaged, but my favourite is tension.
The easiest example of tension is when two characters want things that are at odds – Jane wants to finish her report before 5pm so that she can leave work on time, and Sara wants to talk about her father’s medical situation. But characters can have internal tension as well, and that is a fascinating thing to watch on stage; Shakespeare built several good monologues around it. Regardless of how many people are on stage, if there is something going on that’s in conflict with something else, it’s going to be more interesting.
Once that lesson is learned, it is easy to apply to scenes in fiction writing. Character vs. character; character vs. nature/circumstance/the universe; character vs. themself: tension keeps the reader engaged and zipping through the text.
5) It’s cool to collaborate
The truth is that theatre is, at its core, a collaborative art form. Even if a play emerges from a playwright’s mind fully formed like the birth of Athena, it’s going to be seen by actors, directors, designers, managers, and producers before it ever gets in front of an audience.
The goal of all of those readers is to make the play work as well as possible, so if they give notes on the text, they are worth taking into consideration. Nobody’s job is to “judge” the script; they are just trying to make it awesome. And most plays don’t come out like that – they need a few drafts, which brings even more people (dramaturges and workshop actors) into the circle of collaborators.
You know that horrible, destabilizing fear of showing your work to new readers (editors, publishers, even close friends and partners)? That gets better with practice.
It might even go away completely if you live long enough. If you trust your people to have the same goal as you – to make your work as good as it can possibly be – then you can only gain from showing it to everyone you can.
And if you’re really used to sharing your work and hearing back from them, it’s easier (I don’t know if it ever gets easy, really) to send it off to people whose job is to judge it for possible publication.
If some of these tips sound familiar, it’s probably because you’ve heard them before: give your characters distinct voices, use no extra words, Show Don’t Tell, keep the tension, and invite feedback.
They’re lessons that benefit from learning and relearning, and are as true in fiction as they are in playwriting.
So, go see a play. Bring your notebook with you and see what happens at intermission. Happy writing!
About the author:
Sharon King-Campbell is a St. John’s-based theatre artist, storyteller and writer. She is most of the way through an MA English and owns a blue wingback armchair that exists only to be read in. Three of Sharon’s plays have been produced and she’s working on numbers 4 and 5. Visit sharonkingcampbell.com for more information.