In The Artist’s Way, author Julia Cameron wrote: “In order to function in the language of art, we must learn to live in it comfortably. The language raft is an image, symbol. It is a wordless language even when our very art is to case it with words. The artist’s language is a sensual one, a language of felt experience. When we work at our art, we dip into the well of our experience and scoop out images. Because we do this, we need to learn how to put images back. How do we fill this well?”
I’d like to suggest that one way is to attend plays.
Why plays? The authors who wrote them are interested in the skills of the actor to make the meaning known. A well-written play helps us see characters as actors, helps us understand pauses, what is not being said, subtext, delicacy, and timing.
Novelists can observe pauses. When you are writing dialogue, you want your pauses to add to the meaning, not detract from it. A skilled actor in a play knows how to do this. Do characters in a play pause when then touch objects? Do they pause when they are interrupted? When do they think another thought? When the emotion of the moment is too rich for them? When there is a disruption? Novelists who take note of this learn that adding pauses to dialogue often makes it richer. The silence between speakers is just as important as the words around it.
Novelists can observe subtext. Like in fiction, every dialogue is a push-pull. If you study skillfully written plays, you’ll notice the characters want two things — what they SAY they want, but what they really want instead. Who has the most control over the exchanges? How are they wielding their power? What conflicts are rising to the surface in the dialogue? The skill of recognizing motivation is a critical one for an actor to learn as he forms his interpretation of the role. If you are a skilled novelist, you must know how to recognize the motivations of your characters and then shape their dialogue to demonstrate it— both the subtle and the obvious.
Novelists can observe delicacy — the best dialogue is not obvious dialogue. They’re arguing over something trivial, but it means something else. They want their mother to do this one thing, but it’s really about this. Your characters can do the same thing. Write with a light, subtle hand, not a heavy obvious one. Don’t worry about spoon-feeding things to your reader — give them credit and challenge them to follow you, but don’t make it too weird.
Novelists can observe good timing. Skilled actors know how to speed up or slow down their speech. The actors have made these choices for the sake of emphasis. You can do the same thing in your written dialogue. You want all of your speeches to go at a varied pace, some fast with short, crisp sentences for a sense of urgency or speed. But if you have melancholy, slow, contemplative speeches, they need to slow down a little. if one character wants to go faster than the other, then you may have another layer of conflict.
Novelists observe thoughtful blocking. Blocking involves the physical position of every character in every scene. A thoughtful director has made his blocking decisions based on the necessities of the action, but could also be displaying other meanings. How is the blocking relevant to the story? What is communicated by how they move? Even though your characters aren’t seen, you use blocking to give information to your reader about what’s going on.
Novelists also can observe structure. Many plays demonstrate classical story structure,(beginning, middle, and end). An observant novelist knows when to look for specific actions to take place and make a note of any structural variation. I find that if I watch a play with a strong structure it’s helpful for me to have the concepts demonstrated once more.
Check out your local community theaters, your local high schools, and community colleges and take a notebook. You just may learn something.