Before I started writing stories and essays, I wrote plays. This was more of a happy accident than anything planned. I loved theatre and loved being in plays, but my performances were hit or miss. Some days, I was full of energy and confidence and would belt out songs in musicals as if I were destined to be Annie on Broadway. I played Charlie Brown in a musical at summer camp and had a lead in the musical “Bells Are Ringing” in middle school. After school, I went to the Pittsburgh Playhouse and studied drama and theatre hoping to ride my success as Chuck into a high school theatre career, but puberty made my shy and self-conscious. The other actors were able to express complex emotions on stage. They had adult bodies and adult thoughts and emotions and I felt like an awkward freckled freak in their presence so I shut down and was slowly moved into the chorus. My love of theatre didn’t end, it changed shape. I learned about the world of theatre backstage. The stage managers, the prop master, the carpenters who made the sets and the artists who designed the lighting.
After eleventh grade, I went to a summer program at Vassar College with the New York Stage and Film to study playwriting. While there, I also fell in love with lighting design. I had no fear of heights so climbing the rafters to hang lights and place gels was fun and exciting. In the mornings I worked on writing original plays with teachers like Eric Overmyer and Jon Robin Baitz, and in the evening I sat in the lighting booth watching night after night of Lysistrata and Dark Rapture.
In fact, it was my experience working with Eric Overmyer that summer with New York Stage and Film that inspired me to apply to and then attend Reed College.
More importantly, it has been my experience reading, watching and writing plays that has had the most profound impact on character development in my writing. When the mantra of nearly all writing teachers and editors is “show, don’t tell” many writers end up creating overly complicated scenes and writing lengthy background narratives in an attempt to show the character’s history, motivations, family or experiences. This ends up being, much to the writers disappointment, even more “telling” and not showing. On top of that, it slows down the narrative, takes the reader on unnecessary tangents and is a waste of time.
“The best way to reveal character and get your story moving is through action and dialogue.”
The best way to reveal character and get your story moving is through action and dialogue, both of which are staples of stage theatre. Film is different because in film you can zoom in on details, expressions and objects or you can pan out to a setting or scene. These are great tools of narrative as well but not available in stage theatre. That makes dialogue, action, and the audience’s imagination the most important tools for creating a compelling world and story. Because dialogue and action are two of the three tools available to the playwright, their importance is much greater. To succeed as a playwright you have to master them. Narration is a crutch. It makes for slow reading. It indulges the writer’s ego and bores the reader. We want conflict, movement, and change. Action and dialogue are the flint that gets the story burning hot.
If you want to improve your story’s momentum and write more compelling characters, study theatre.
An excellent example of an author who uses dialogue to reveal character is Pat Conroy in The Prince of Tides.
In the opening scene to the book we have 366 words that pack so much punch there is no way we are going to put down this book.
Using minimal narration we learn the following from dialogue alone:
- The narrator has a sarcastic temperament
- The narrator’s wife doesn’t take him seriously
- The narrator is dramatic
- The narrator is not politically correct
- The book is funny. Conflict and friction create humor in the right hands.
- The narrator hates his mother
- The narrator is full of empty threats
- The narrator’s mother calls all the time with dramas
- The narrator doesn’t take his mother seriously
- Sally doesn’t take the narrator seriously.
- Something has happened that might or might not be serious.
As readers, we aren’t sure if we should trust the narrator. He might be an insensitive ass who doesn’t like his mother, disrespects his wife and doesn’t take anything seriously. He also might be smarter than everyone else who panics over nothing and exhausts him. It might be somewhere in between. We are certainly curious now to figure out who’s side we are on.
Here is the passage in full.
It was five o’clock in the afternoon Eastern Standard Time when the telephone rang in my house on Sullivans Island, South Carolina. My wife, Sallie, and I had just sat down for a drink on the porch overlooking Charleston Harbor and the Atlantic. Sallie went to answer the telephone and I shouted, “Whoever it is, I’m not here.”
“It’s your mother,” Sallie said, returning from the phone.
“Tell her I’m dead,” I pleaded. “Please tell her I died last week and you’ve been too busy to call.”
“Please speak to her. She says it’s urgent.”
“She always says it’s urgent. It’s never urgent when she says it’s urgent.”
“I think it’s urgent this time. She’s crying.”
“When Mom cries, it’s normal. I can’t remember a day when she hasn’t been crying.”
“She’s waiting, Tom.”
As I rose to go to the phone, my wife said, “Be nice, Tom. You’re never very nice when you talk to your mother.”
“I hate my mother, Sallie,” I explained. “Why do you try to kill the small pleasures in my life?”
“Just listen to Sallie and be very nice.”
“If she says she wants to come over tonight, I’m going to divorce you, Sallie. Nothing personal, but it’s you who’s making me answer the phone.”
“Hello, Mother dear,” I said cheerfully into the receiver, knowing that my insincere bravado never fooled my mother.
“I’ve got some very bad news, Tom,” my mother said.
“Since when did our family produce anything else, Mom?”
“This is very bad news. Tragic news.”
“I can’t wait to hear it.”
“I don’t want to tell you on the phone. May I come over?”
“If you want to.”
“I want to only if you want me to come.”
“You said you wanted to come. I didn’t say I wanted you to come.”
“Why do you want to hurt me at a time like this?”
“Mom, I don’t know what kind of time it is. You haven’t told me what’s wrong. I don’t want to hurt you. Come on over and we can bare our fangs at each other for a little while.”
I hung up the phone and screamed at the top of my lungs. “Divorce!”
The passage gives the reader everything they want from a story:
Compelling, complex characters
Both Sally and the narrator have friction. They speak in contrast to how they behave. This makes them fascinating to the reader. This is also a very common creative tool in developing fascinating characters and creating conflict in a story. I will go into detail about friction in another post because it deserves a lot more attention.
Someone to root for
We don’t know if we will root for Sally, the narrator or the mother but we have three characters with three different, somewhat opposing perspectives, we are going to choose one to root for and identify with. Since they already have someone opposing them, we have something at stake to get excited about. The size of the prize doesn’t matter at this point. The prize in this instance being who is right about if the mother has a legitimate complaint. The fact that someone can be right and someone can be wrong gets us excited to root for and against someone.
The beginning of a story
Margaret Atwood has said, you don’t have a story until you have an interruption. You need a break in a pattern for a story. Everyday life isn’t a story. Routine isn’t a story. A story is when the routine is interrupted. A story is when the repetition of every day life is broken by something new. A stranger, an event, etc.
In Prince of Tides we have two interruptions. The phone call interrupts the narrator and his wife sitting on their porch. The mother’s problem that she claims is more serious than other problems is another interruption. The expectation is set by the narrator that she is always claiming there is a problem that is serious. He expects this will be the same as always. The suspense over if this time will be different makes us want to keep reading.
Suspense, A reason to keep reading
On top of the active, action-based interruptions, the phone call and the mother’s visit. We have an entire series of dialogue where the characters are setting up what is “usual” and what is “unusual.” Each one raises the stakes.
- Is it unusual for Mother to call? No. It’s usual.
- Is it unusual for the narrator to not want to talk to her? No. It’s usual.
- Is it unusual for him to ask his wife to make a dramatic lie to get out of talking to his mother? No. Based on her dismissive response, it’s usual.
- Is it unusual for mother to by crying? No. It’s usual.
- Is it unusual for him to be so disrespectful to his mother? No. Based on Sallie “you’re never very nice when you talk to your mother,” and his mother “why do you want to hurt me all the time like this?” it’s usual.
- Is it unusual for his mother to come over? No. It’s usual.
But with each mini conflict the stakes are rising. Something is bound to break! This might be different. Their interactions are unusual to us. The way he speaks to his mother and his wife are very unusual and strange to us as readers (most likely) but are usual to the characters. The wife is not bothered by the threat of divorce, the mother is not discouraged by his description of them baring their fangs at each other. This is a very unusual world with very curious people who do things we might never do and behave and speak in ways we would never speak and it is usual for them, almost boring and rote. If their routines are so strange, when those routines break it will be even more interesting.
Now we can’t put the book down. We are hooked. We have a story. We have established a pattern (even a very small pattern is enough to set the tone) and we have interrupted it. We have something new and unusual, a world and people unlike our own to get lost in. Once interrupted, we have some excitement and until it is resolved, we have suspense.
All of this was created with dialogue. We have three fleshy, alive and vibrant characters, we have the beginning of the story, we have someone to root for and we have suspense.
If you can create this in 500 words or less, you can do anything!