Saturday, August 22, 2009

Speak the Speech

There are a lot of writers out there who refuse to write for the stage.

 And it is a dangerous thing, the stage. The words your wrote will not be spoken the way you heard it in your head. Writing for actors and directors requires an especially thick skin because they have the utter temerity to think that their creative process should also come into play. Dammit, why can't they just speak the words you wrote for them and then exit gracefully?

(Actually, I feel that way about characters all the time.)

In this visual age, the words you write will be played out in the mind of the readers with imaginary actors cast in the roles of your characters, speaking the words you write for them. Your dialogue will echo in their minds... how is it going to sound?

Thriller writers certainly are not writing for Friday story-time. Books are not speeches and not every writer can or should write for the stage. But dialogue is a conversation between two or more characters, and that means you are writing words to be spoken out loud. If they don't sound like it, then you might want to fix that. Take a section of your dialogue, find a willing friend, and divvy up the parts. Read them out loud to one another.

 Don't know any actors? (Really? How did you manage that?) It doesn't have to be the Royal Shakespeare Company, or even high school drama class; you're not trying to impress the critic from the Times, just get some words into the air.

 Listen when your 'actors' speak the lines of dialogue. Where do they fumble with the line? Real speech has a rhythm to it, something we all recognize automatically. When we watch a play, a television show or movie, we recognize instantly when dialogue sounds fake. Listen for that with your own work. Watch for the places where the dialogue lags or is too short, or just doesn't sound right. (Most of what your ear objects to will probably be exposition, because that's the way this seems to work. That's fine, it just means you need to rewrite it or move it...) I always tell people who want to write that they should read, read and pay attention to how the writer created their story. See how the other guys do it, the more successful they are, the better. I don't generally like to read plays. Just as a novel isn't a play, a play isn't a novel. But writers should attend as many plays as possible, listening and watching the way the lines work... or don't. What sounds good and what sounds stilted and false? How does the dialogue work? What's happening when it doesn't? Incidentally, I say plays instead of movies or television (I'll talk about those another time) because on the stage you're getting the dialogue without the interference of editors. Raw, uncut dialogue sounds different than what comes out of the end of an editing suite after multiple takes are spliced together. Successful children's writers seem to spend a bit of time thinking about the parent who will be reading the story aloud somewhere down the road. Writers creating fiction for adults often think dreamily of their books being turned into movies or TV shows. Too little do they really think about what it is to have your words spoken aloud. Every book is a play that will unfold on the stages of your readers' minds. The words your characters speak will echo in the minds of people you have never met... it behooves you to take an extra moment to reflect on how they will actually sound.
Scott Walker Perkins writes literary thrillers and novels of suspense woven from the threads of history. His current novel is The Palimpsest and he is working on another tentatively titled 42 Lines. Contact Information Email: Blog: Pages to Type Before I Sleep
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Pages to Type is a blog about books, writing and literary culture (with the occasional digression into coffee and the care and feeding of giant robots).