Some Notes About Dialogue from Lee and Naked Playwriting
last revised 2/20/08
I always tell students that dialogue is not real, it is realistic (or
not if we're dealing with some postmodern or absurdist works). Like
the famous postmodern novelist John Barth says, " . . . our conversations
are tedious beyond appraisal; our bodies are preposterous, our minds a bad
joke,” but our novels are meaningful, ordered universes. And so are our
other words, just as characters are not real people, but cohesive bits of art,
dialogue is also a cohesive bit of art. Naked Playwriting backs
this up. They take it a step further by saying, "Dialogue is action:
action taken to satisfy a want or desire . . . Any line that is not a motivated
action will fail" (142). The book likes to talk about everything in a
play being action, but I like to make more distinctions. Sometimes
dialogue is about revealing character, for instance. Sometimes it's about
revealing the major dramatic question or premise or theme, and that isn't
necessarily action at all.
Still, chapter 6 has a lot of very good technical advice about dialogue that
I think can especially help you when you revise:
- In real life we often disguise our desires, thus if you want more
of a sense of real-ism, let your characters do the same, but of course with
a sense of very pointed subtext, or "secondary meanings"
(142). That pointed subtext is what makes it art. This also
helps you avoid "on-the-nose" dialogue which is the kind of
dialogue you hear a lot in a soap opera ("Henry, I hate you and that's
why I'm having your daughter's baby!"; 145-46).
- If our characters have strong desires and wounds,
they will often hear only what they want to hear, which means automatic
miscommunication and conflict (142). When Bob says, "I love
you," he really means he wants to have sex.
- A beat is a "small section of dialogue that's accented by a
particular emotion, action, subject, or idea" (147). Beats are like the
the smaller parts of French scenes, if you want to think about really dissecting
the sections of your play. You can
look at the beats for each scene and see if any of them don't seem motivated
or pointed toward character and conflict development (150). Oh, and
though NP says the word "beat" doesn't usually appear in a script,
I do see them once in a while (like in the final shooting script for Napoleon
- NP has a lot of good advice about how to help the audience be aware of the
backstory without using clunky or obvious exposition
("Henry, I see you just returned from your trip to the Bahamas.
How was it?):
- Make the exposition part of the conflict ("You artsy
types are always romanticizing." "Unlike
mother, you've always been a sloppy drunk."
- The present conflicts in the play are very likely to bring up skeletons
from the past (154). But of course you probably want to avoid the
wavy screen effect of, "I remember back when Terra was a great and
good thing," and then we basically get a flashback. The only
way to do this any more without looking silly is in a parody of that
kind of cinematic technique.
- You can use old techniques to show backstory like soliloquies
(or monologues; 157) or even a confidant that the
protagonist can tell backstory to (or can confess secrets to; a phone
conversation can stand in for a confidant), but these really are old
moves, and might come off sounding silly (155-56). However, Lee
always likes a good monologue, so she disagrees with their broad
critiques of that form. Not every writer is going for realism.
- As the screenwriting teacher in Adaptation said, "No
voice-overs." In other words, NP suggests that you avoid
overt narrators like the one who takes by the hand in Thorton
Wilder's Our Town (158). But you know me, I sometimes like
the meta qualities of an overt narrator (it isn't very realism oriented,
- You don't need to have the audience know everything about the
characters' backstories. NP says, "a bit of mystery is
always more seductive than the harsh light of complete exposure"
(159). After all, Roland Barthes says the strip tease is more
seductive than the full frontal (Pleasure of the Text).
- It also helps to scatter your expository moments throughout the
play so they don't appear in clunky chunks (159).
- I think NP has some very interesting things to say about the character's
- Try to imagine a certain actor or person speaking the lines you are
- Use some poetic aesthetics:
- let assonance and consonance be part of a certain way a
certain character speaks. If your character uses a lot of
consonants, it could likely give them a sharper edge (161), like
Tennessee Williams' "Cotton Carnival Queen." This
makes the character, Maggie, seem bitchy and catty and witty all at
- let sentence lengths/rhythms (tempo) give your character a
certain voice (163). Run on sentences and short sentences can
give a character's voice a very fast tempo which might imply
impatience or hyperactivity, for instance.
- let the character have a certain sense of imagery or
metaphor and simile (165), and you will likely make them seem
dreamier. If they avoid that kind of imagery all together,
they might seem more to the point or even cold. Still, I would
say that if you have a character rhapsodizing imagistically, it's
hardly the kind of thing that supports realism (and that's fine with
- As a general rule (ha ha), avoid generalities, or "conclusionary
statements" (163). All writing is really made up of very
concrete details, even in dialogue. And conclusionary statements are
worse because they tend to shut things down (and tap in to the
"on-the-nose" dialogue problem; "I know you're guilty.
It's written all over your face." Notice the cliché problem here
- Please don't write using dialect to show an accent (167)! All you
need to do is use a quick bit of narration in italics to indicate accent.
- Avoid fluffly filler language like, "Well," "You
know," etc., and avoid having characters regularly call each other by
name (they all know each other's names already, and the audience has
a Playbill listing the characters names; 168).
- And avoid clichés unless these are used to help flesh a character who
always speaks in clichés (169).
- Be a student of humanity, or at least eavesdrop on the way people speak
so you can catch interesting rhythms and phrasing (169).