Talk To Me

Dialogue.  At last, my forte.  As a playwright, all I write is dialogue.

We all know dialogue needs to sound natural.  And my blogmates have made great comments and suggestions about how to do this.  So let’s move on from the actual words to the flow of conversation.

How many times do your real life conversations sound like this?

Or do they really sound more like this? 

(Not hard to tell what was going on at my house while I was writing this.)

The point is, we don’t talk in clean sentences with an “Over” at the end like in military radio lingo so the other person knows it’s their turn to talk.  We interrupt.  We talk over the top of each other.  We change our minds.  We say ummm . . . and uhhhh . . . and we speak in ellipses.  We stop abruptly and leave our sentences  . . . well . . . to just sort of trail off . . . or . . . you know, like my 13-year old.  She used to have this very annoying habit of ending sentences with  “so, yeah . . .” because she just kind of ran out of words and didn’t know how to stop.

Remember the show Moonlighting?  They were the kings of overlapping dialogue.  Check out this clip to see what I mean.  (And if you’re too young to remember Moonlighting, you’ve probably never seen Bruce Willis with hair.)

The point is not for the audience to completely understand what each character is saying.  You don’t need to hear every last word to get the gist of the conversation.  But this is what happens when you’re in a conversation.  Especially with more than one other person.

Along with overlapping dialogue is the concept of overlapping conversations.  I come from a talkative family.  (For those of you who know me, I know that comes as a huge surprise.)  I once counted 5 conversations in a room with 7 people.  A couple of us were engaged in more than one conversation, others were simply eavesdropping on a second conversation and contributing tidbits from time to time.  Those moments find their way onstage frequently in my plays.  Actors either love it – because it’s fun – or hate it because the timing is tricky, and their cues frequently have nothing to do with their next line.

When you sit back and listen to a group of people in real life, you’ll hear a jumble of words.  And if you write it, you’ll get something like this.

On the page, this is a messy, indecipherable glop of words.  But onstage, with Walter and Marian clearly speaking to each other and Marty and Fran clearly speaking to each other, it works.  And it feels like you are in the room with siblings talking, arguing and ignoring each other.

The problem is, for those of you who write prose, I have absolutely no suggestions on how to make that kind of conversation work.  Can any one out there help me?  Because I feel like I’m giving you a recipe that lists all the ingredients but doesn’t tell you how much of each item you need, what temperature to cook it or for how long.  And I hate leaving you standing in the kitchen befuzzled.  But as a playwright, I don’t . . . I mean I’d like to help, you know . . . but, uhhh, I’m kind of out of ideas . . . so, yeah.

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  1. #1 by Mark McKellar on November 26, 2012 - 3:30 pm

    That’s one of the reasons I always enjoyed Robert Altman’s movies. They sound so much more like real life then other director’s work. He often had multiple conversations, background conversations and incomplete sentences messing up his scenes. Probably drove the writers nuts, but that is how people really communicate.

  2. #2 by priceswrite on November 26, 2012 - 3:34 pm

    More likely it drove the actors nuts! I’ve had lots of actors and directors “complain” about my penchant for overlapping dialogue and overlapping conversations – the timing and pacing can be very tricky.

  3. #3 by wordimprovisor177 on November 27, 2012 - 11:49 am

    I think we’re related! You brought me back to my family dinners. To outsiders it sounded like a dozen arguments going on at the same time. I’ve written dialogue like that in a few short stories. I didn’t use many dialogue tags, but maybe interspersed a bit of stage business here and there to keep readers grounded in the action and the emotion behind the dialogue. It gets very tricky on paper because you don’t want readers to have to go back to figure out who is saying what. Oh! I totally forgot Bruce Willis had hair once upon a time!

  4. #4 by priceswrite on December 4, 2012 - 12:38 pm

    Darlene, I think we were separated at birth! The family. The humor. The hair! I’d love to read your short stories – I’m fascinated with how it works on paper. On stage you certainly don’t have to keep track of who is speaking!

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