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How Acting Helped Me Write Better Dialogue

As I’m sure ya’ll know by now, I’m a little on the dramatic side. But, you probably don’t know that I actually have an extensive background in acting, theatre, and playwriting. I’ve been acting since I was five years old and been in dozens of stage productions, musicals, and amateur films. I went to college on a performance-based theatre scholarship, majored in theatre, and my mother even became a local drama teacher. During High School and College I taught her middle school students workshops on makeup for the stage, stage combat, and even Shakespeare.

That’s right, Shakespeare. The father and creator of words and phrases we STILL reference to this day. As a playwright and poet, his published works are heavy on dialogue. He not only created completely new words in the English language, but a different tone and cadence with iambic pentameter in which to speak them so that you could understand or infer their meaning through context within his written speeches. Shakespeare learned how to speak to his audience first as an actor, then he translated his understanding of how to communicate with his audience into something completely new and wholly original through his writing and is touted as a literary genius.

That’s the first lesson. Figure out who your audience is. Until you know who you’re writing for, your dialogue won’t have a lens to focus through. When you know who they are, you’ll understand better how you should talk to them. (And by you, i mean your characters of course).

Next I want to speak to you about Anton Chekov, another playwright and brilliant short story author. I could fill a whole shelf with the books and articles I’ve read dissecting his unique writing style that perfected the art of… subtext. His plays are well known for having hidden meaning between the lines of dialogue. That’s where the acting and interpretation would come in, allowing actors to create an entirely new narrative based on subtext alone. Understanding effective and innovative dialogue in writing is knowing that there is 1. What you say and 2. What you mean, and that 3. Those two things are hardly ever the same.

So, how do you find the balance? That’s lesson #2- Find the balance. I suggest going scene by scene, figuring out what your characters motivations are, and how much or how little they’re willing to divulge. You may find a lot more places to cut unnecessary fluff from dialogue and that your dialogue is translated easier to your readers with less, instead of more.

Remember that unless you’re writing a play, you have the benefit of using exposition to describe a setting, world build, give us a general sense of your character’s motivations, thoughts, feelings, goals. Dialogue is a tool we use to create tension and change within a narrative. Communication issues or assumptions can be a vehicle for comedy like in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. Or the cause of tragedy. Subtext can be used to take a boring meeting and infuse the scene with sizzling sexual tension, or intimidation from a nemesis.

Lastly, I want to quote my own mother ‘It’s not WHAT you say, it’s HOW you say it.’ Often when I was growing up I heard this, not just in her classroom either. I have to say that I was definitely a sarcastic teenager and oftentimes I would say ‘yes ma’am’ in a tone that left no room to the imagination that I was still being a rebellious little brat. Shocker, I know. But this is Lesson #3- It’s not WHAT you say, but HOW you say it. In other words, Tone Matters.

But, how can you write tone? Have you ever read a book and when you get to some section of dialogue you could hear it SO CLEARLY in your mind? That’s how you know an author has written great tone into their dialogue.

Before I go into this further, let’s clear up a common misconception. Tone is not writing a local dialect into your dialogue. It’s not adding ya’ll’s and ain’t’s and chopping off the ends of -ing words only to add in’. Those dialect specific changes if used to carry the weight of tone in your character’s dialogue can come off as cheesy, offensive, and lazy in your writing. Typically, I don’t advise writing them in until you’ve done a few drafts and rounds of edits and tightened up your dialogue as a whole.

Writing tone is a lot like foreshadowing a plot twist. It’s about breadcrumbs and character development. How a person speaks says a lot about them. Does the leading man in your southern romance have a long drawl that makes your protagonist swoon? Or does he speak in clipped, authoritative sentences hinting at a troubled past and walls that have been built up around his heart? Do the elves in your fantasy novel speak in slow, formal tones that remind your main character of wind chimes? Does the best friend in your road trip story round the O sounds like they always have something in their mouth they’re talking around annoying your main character to no end?

All of these phrases and considerations can be added into character development and exposition setting the stage for the dialogue throughout your novel. Like breadcrumbs, sprinkled throughout the character descriptions or scenes so that readers get pulled into the world and hear your dialogue right alongside your protagonist. It goes a lot further than putting in a ya’ll or two in any case.

So, those are three of the things that my acting experience taught me about how to write effective dialogue. Just to recap: 1. Figure Out Who Your Audience Is 2. Find The Balance 3. Tone Matters.Writing and Editing dialogue is one of my favorite things to do, and having a background in theatre has really made it a strength of mine. A short reminder that I do offer editing services that include helping you make your dialogue really take your novel to the next level on my website.

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