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 The Power of Dialogue in Playwriting

By Audrey Quinn

If you’re a writer or avid reader, you know how crucial dialogue is to crafting an engaging story. Whether it’s a novel, short story, news article, or prose, dialogue serves as a narrative device that moves the story forward, reveals personalities and relationships, creates tension, and creates or resolves conflict. But what about in plays? Read on to discover how dialogue is even more crucial in playwriting and presentation!

Dialogue Shapes Narrative

Unlike many other modes of writing, plays are intended to be viewed as a performance, not read by their audience. Because of this, playwrights have to come up with an effective setting, engaging characters, and a cohesive plot– all of which rely on actors and stage directions rather than prose to tell the story. Naturally, dialogue is a critical device that helps shape the narrative within plays.

Let’s say a writer wants to tell the story of a seemingly simple scene: a nervous person headed to their job interview waiting at the bus stop. If this was a scene within a novel or short story, intended to be read by the audience, it might look something like this:

Allie drummed her fingers against her grey polyester trousers, a nervous tic she’d had since high school. She stood ramrod straight under the dingy blue bus stop awning, scanning the street both ways desperately. She absolutely, positively, could not afford to be late for this interview. Besides her, a sleek-looking man in a teal turtleneck sniffed imperiously, and checked his watch.

Why is a guy like that waiting at the bus stop? Allie thought to herself, daring a side-eye at him. Unfortunately, the man caught her right at that moment. His brow furrowed, his piercing blue eyes lazily scanning her polyester-based trousers and dress shirt from Goodwill. He sneered at her, a mixture of disgust and disdain warping his angelic features, and pulled out his phone.

Because all of this is intended to be read by an audience, I am able to set the scene without one word of dialogue between the nervous person, Allie, and the sleazy business person next to her. But if this was a play, I couldn’t do that, because the audience can only see what is on the stage, not what I’ve written down. So in order to shape the narrative, I would need to use dialogue and stage directions, like this:

Scene: Allie is waiting at the bus stop. She is unbearably nervous, and drumming her fingers against her leg. Her costume consists of grey polyester trousers, a matching suit jacket, and a slightly wrinkled white dress shirt. Beside her is a man with a briefcase wearing a cashmere teal turtleneck, and black wool dress pants. He is also wearing a Rolex.

ALLIE, awkwardly: Um, excuse me sir, but do you have the time?

BUSINESSMAN, derisively: What?

ALLIE: I just was wondering what time it is. I don’t have a watch, and my phone is almost dead-

BUSINESSMAN: It’s 9:55 AM! Ugh. I don’t have time for this. I’m going to be late to a very important meeting, you OBVIOUSLY wouldn’t understand. He looks Allie up and down, a disgusted and disdainful expression on his face.  I can’t get distracted right now!

ALLIE, timidly: Oh, actually I would. See, today is my interview at the Shell Town Newspaper. I’m hoping to be a journalist, but I’m really nervous, and if I’m late, it’ll be a horrible first impression, even if it wasn’t my fault but the bus’.

BUSINESSMAN: GOD, lady! Can’t you take a hint? 

The man throws up his hands and stomps slightly off to the side, past Allie. He’s furiously checking his watch.

See the difference? I can’t narrate the personality of each of these two characters, so I have to show the audience who these characters are through dialogue. The businessman will still be dressed in a fancy costume, and Allie will still be dressed in polyester slacks but, other than the costumes, the rest is down to the body language and dialogue of the actors. It’s up to them to show the audience how Allie is nervous about her job interview and self-conscious about her class, and demonstrate how the businessman is a mean, self-important snob. This shows how dialogue in playwriting necessarily helps shape the story’s narrative.

Role of Dialogue in Playwriting

Besides shaping the narrative, dialogue also serves several other purposes. 

Dialogue helps move the plot forward. This function is especially pronounced in plays, since they are performances that rely on the actors’ dialogue to keep things moving as they should (remember the bus scene?)

Dialogue also creates tension, resolves or creates conflict, and reveals different character’s personalities, intentions, and relationships. 

In the bus scene, there is tension between the businessman and Allie as revealed by the businessman’s aggressive words towards her. There are also several conflicts (Allie vs. businessman, Allie vs. internal anxiety about her interview, businessman vs. whatever he’s anxious about).  

In the bus scene, you’re also able to discern Allie has a timid, borderline-apologetic personality, while the businessman has an abrasive, entitled personality. You can also tell that both characters are in a hurry, and are motivated by career-oriented ambitions. 

The relationship between Allie and the businessman is brief, though it has the potential to evolve into something that turns out to be critical to the plot. Right now, it appears these two characters just happened to be in the same place at the same time…but isn’t it odd that the businessman is taking the bus in the first place? Why is he so nervous? Is it really only related to his “super important business meeting?” The dialogue of these two characters reveals a surface-level interaction but, in future scenes, it could end up revealing something more. 

Consider this continuation of the bus stop scene:

The businessman’s cell phone starts to ring. Allie sees him stumble to a halt, his back going rigid. 

BUSINESSMAN: No…not now- He pulls out his phone, rejects the call. Immediately, the phone starts ringing again. I said NOT NOW! He looks genuinely upset, and, Allie realizes, shocked, afraid. He answers the phone, walking several steps further from Allie, though not entirely out of earshot.

BUSINESSMAN (ON PHONE): I said not to contact me. No-I’m not interested, I told you, this was how it has to be. Please don’t call me again.

MALE VOICE ON THE OTHER END OF THE PHONE: Mark-please, I lo-

Before Allie can hear the rest of the conversation, Mark, the businessman, aggressively hangs up the phone. He jams it into his pocket, and wipes his hand on his teal turtleneck, as if it’s dirty. 

Allie averts her eyes, suddenly afraid, but not soon enough.

MARK: What are you looking at?

ALLIE: No-nothing. I’m sorry, I’m just waiting for the bus…

MARK, quietly and venomously: That’s right. You’re just waiting for your bus to take you to some rathole where you’ll plant your little rat nose deep in some boring story about changing out the old traffic lights on the intersection. Forget this ever happened. You don’t know me. You don’t know what I could do to you if you even think about blabbing a word you just heard to anyone. I’ve got connections. Real powerful connections.

Allie–bemused, frightened, and angry all at once-scoffs.

ALLIE: Well, I guess it’s a good thing that right now, you’re just another nobody at the bus stop.

The bus finally arrives, its brakes squeaking loudly as it pulls up and the doors open. Allie scrambles in immediately. When the doors shut after she’s taken her seat, she realizes Mark hasn’t gotten on with her.

ALLIE, aside: What the hell was with that guy?

See how that works? The dialogue Allie overhead between Mark the businessman and his male “acquaintance” on the phone, as well as the dialogue between the two characters directly, foreshadows future interactions, and sets up the possibility for an ongoing relationship. We know Allie is going to (hopefully) get that job as a reporter, and Mark clearly works for a big company and is harboring a personal secret…is it possible Allie will somehow, for some reason, end up being in a position of power over Mark after all? 

Tips for Crafting Authentic Dialogue

Now that you know why dialogue is important to good playwriting, you probably want to know how to craft authentic dialogue. There are several important things to keep in mind when crafting convincing dialogue for something that is going to be spoken aloud and performed for an audience. 

The first is to have well-developed, fleshed-out characters with their own distinct voices and idiosyncrasies. You don’t want to fall into the familiar trap of writing a bunch of dialogue between characters for your play, only to realize they all sound like you. 

To avoid this pitfall, spend time diving deep into each individual character. Some guiding questions for this are:

  • Who are they? 
  • Where are they from? 
  • What ethnicity are they? 
  • Do they have an accent or other distinctive speech patterns? 
  • What do they look like? 
  • How do they carry themselves?
  • What are they afraid of?
  • What do they do for a living?
  • Who do they love? 
  • Who do they hate?

Pretend you’re getting to know each character as you would a new friend. 

Once you have a well-developed picture of who they are, you can consider the other most important thing in crafting authentic dialogue in a play: who is going to play your character? The answer to this question makes all the difference in the world. You need an actor who can deliver the lines as you hear them in your head, that makes you feel as though your character has just come to life in front of you. 

Seek out people who have lived experiences and acting experiences similar to your character’s background. Try out lots of different people reading your characters’ dialogue! See if the dialogue sounds different from actor to actor. If it does, then the good news is that you’ve written a character with a distinct voice and background! So the main thing you need to consider is which actor delivers the lines most authentically.

Combining these two strategies will guide you in crafting convincing dialogue for your play. Don’t be afraid to revise, re-read, and explore many different actors in your quest to bring your story to life!

Now, you know the purpose and methods behind writing powerful dialogue for your play. So get out there and write your Shakespearan heart out!

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