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Pic for website 2012     Hello, again! Maureen Pratt here with my monthly blogpost about the craft of writing. Today, I'm going to focus on techniques to employ to find and write distinctive voices for each of your characters or individuals in fiction or non-fiction.

    I began my professional writing career as a playwright, earning my Master of Fine Arts in Theater Arts with a concentration in playwriting from UCLA and later having a number of plays produced. Unlike writing for the movies, playwriting "runs" on dialogue. A professional script for live theater contains very little, if any, description except to set the scene, and actor's notes should be non-existent. (Once a play has been published, which assumes it's been produced, these notes are usually inserted as guidelines for subsequent productions, however, original scripts do not include them.) So, it's vital that a playwright master the art of dialogue, crafting lines that contain meaning, emphasis, and character without "indicating" these in the script.

Example: "Mary: He did what? How? I don't believe it" instead of: "Mary (raising her voice and her eyebrows): He did what? (She sits down on the sofa) How? (She sighs) I don't believe it."

Writing effective dialogue is much more than copying a verbatim "real life" conversation. In fact, one very basic playwriting exercise is to do just that, and then edit to make it dramatic. (If you haven't done this before, try it – it's very revelatory).

Example: This: "So, I was, like, walking along, minding my own business, you know? And, like, fifteen people, well, that's an exaggeration, but it seemed like fifteen people, must have stopped me to ask where I got my shoes. I was, like, wow!" becomes this:"I was just walking along, and people kept stopping me to ask where I got my shoes. I couldn't believe it!."

Even if you're writing a news story, you'll find that "filler" words ("like," "you know," and the dreaded "uh") can be excised without harming the original intent of a quote. Also, many times people talk in partial sentences, and these can be culled to become complete thoughts.

Playwriting dialogue is active. Sometimes, an action can be distilled into a single word.

Example: "Mary: Shoo!" instead of: "Mary: Will you get out of here, cat?" or "John: Look!" "John: Turn your head to the right and look up at two o'clock." Choosing the right active dialogue can help the characters leap right out of the page.

In Playwriting, syntax makes a huge difference in cluing the actor and audience into characters and the relationships between them.

Example: "John: What did she do?" or "John: She did what?" Another Example: "Mary: Come with me to church." or "Mary: Do you want to come to church with me?" give different glimpses into action, character, and relationships.

Many other elements of dialogue in playwriting translate to fiction. Choice of words (an educated character might use more erudite language than one who is not as well-educated), regionalisms, and words derived from another language ("not my forte" instead of "not my strength") all help develop character.

A playwriting class can be extremely beneficial in developing dialogue skills. So, too, are a linguistics class (the "science' of language – why we say what we do) and an acting class (to enable the writer to see the other side of dialogue and become more flexible about moving from one character to another). Besides these, reading dialogue aloud, tape recording it and playing it back after a few days are very helpful, as is closing your eyes and listening critically to dialogue in a television program or a movie. Also, selecting a Shakespeare play and "translating" the dialogue into modern English is both fun and instructional.

Have fun with dialogue. Play act a little. Soon, you'll feel as if you know the characters and individuals you're writing – and so will your readers!

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One Thought on “Finding and Writing a Character’s Voice: Lessons from Playwriting

  1. Mary Allen on May 25, 2012 at 8:54 AM said:

    I really like dialogue that moves the story along. These are some great reminders on how to do just that. Thanks.

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