Monday, September 10, 2012

Some Notes on Writing Dialogue

It's a new term, and I've been going through my old notes, collating handouts and exercises for various teaching commitments I have coming up. I found one handout in particular, breaking down some of my thoughts on writing dialogue, which I'd forgotten I'd put together. I think I did it a couple of years ago for the Goldsmiths MA Playwriting modules that I teach. Anyway, I thought it wasn't bad, and that some of you might enjoy it. So here it is.

Writing Dialogue
Notes from Fin Kennedy

Mastering writing dialogue can be tricky, especially for the wide variety of voices you will need to use in your work as a professional dramatist. It can be just as hard a skill to teach, and is often just a matter of endless practice. I personally found it to be like riding a bike – after years of trying and failing (it always sounded too ‘written’, too pre-meditated, or just too like me), one day I found I could suddenly do it and there was no looking back.

The play where it suddenly seemed to fall into place was an early fringe show I wrote called To Be Someone. Although it was set in London, almost all the characters were Geordies from Newcastle, a part of the country with a very distinct accent and dialect – neither of which I had any direct experience of (other than the odd episode of Byker Grove). The trick I found was just to go and hang around up there. The director I was developing the play for was from Newcastle, so I spent some time up there one summer, ‘researching’ the play, which mostly seemed to involve drinking large amounts of alcohol with various groups of Geordies. One night I went out with mostly boys, the next with mostly girls. We didn’t really talk about the play as such, just about anything that came up on a night out ‘on the toon’, though sometimes I’d interrogate them about certain aspects of local life or culture, or ask them to repeat words or phrases hey used which were specific to the area. When I got drunk enough, I’d have a go at the accent myself and they would all laugh at me.

It all felt terribly self-indulgent and the clock was ticking on my deadline. But when I got back home and set pen to paper I suddenly found all this Geordie tumbled out. The characters’ voices were so clear in my head that they almost wrote themselves. Something about that immersive experience had ‘locked’ the energy, cadence and rhythms of young Geordies deep into my subconscious, to the extent that I found I could now call upon it to reproduce it on the page. (Plus I had a group of new Geordie friends to run the first draft past to correct any mistakes.)

I had a similar experience working on my first professionally-produced play Protection. The process was heavily research-led and involved interviewing and recording to tape lots of different social workers and others within the care system. Typing up their interviews, word for word, was painful and took hours, but had the same effect of somehow ‘locking’ their mannerisms into my mind. Those interviews became character archetypes, in terms of age, professional profile and personal background. The speech patterns that came with those categories were carried with them into the play.

The same was true of my first teenage play Locked In, set in an east London pirate radio station. Recording real pirate broadcasts to tape and transcribing them eventually helped me master the subcultural dialogue of east London’s Caribbean and Bengali MCs and DJs (with a little help from and Half Moon Theatre’s youth group). I was also lucky in that my other half was working in an inner city college at the time and got her students to make me a slang glossary one lesson, under the auspices of it being Sociology (which I suppose it is.)

Similarly, during my time as writer-in-residence at Mulberry School in Tower Hamlets, it has been a gift to work so closely with the students in a variety of classes and after-school clubs, allowing me effortlessly to absorb the rhythms of female Bengali Muslim teenage self-expression – a group removed from me on almost every level – but for whom I now write with ease. At its best, playwriting for such diverse groups really does feel like listening to voices in your head, almost to the point of channelling something which doesn’t seem to come from you at all.

I’ve been lucky. I have had interviewees willing to talk to me, and worked with organisations willing and able to offer me an immersive experience with very specific groups. But how do you master the wide variety of different voices in the absence of this support? This handout is an attempt to break down some of the factors that influence how a character expresses herself, and look at how they interact.

It is sometimes said that there are only two functions of dialogue in a play:

1.     To advance the plot
2.     To illustrate character

This may not always be the case, but I find it hard to think of scenes in any play which do neither (or any good play anyway). Obviously the ideal situation is to do both at the same time. Dialogue written merely to convey plot information on its own will quickly become bland and functional. While too much languishing in character psychology at the expense of anything happening would similarly cause a play to drag (though there are some honourable exceptions to this, see for example Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem). But let’s look a bit more closely at what we mean by these two functions of dialogue.

We have already established in previous sessions that plots are made up of key events, which in turn are themselves (usually) the cumulative result of a series of smaller actions. Dialogue which advances the plot is therefore dialogue which in some way catalyses, reveals or is itself action – the ‘doing’ of something to another character. In this sense, dialogue is the vehicle by which action is conveyed, and in some cases, created.

But if there is the Protagonist advancing action then there must also be the Antagonist blocking it. This can also be made clear in the dialogue. In this sense you could argue that there are two types of plot-driven dialogue:

1.     Offensive Dialogue
2.     Defensive Dialogue

‘Offensive’ in the sense of dialogue that is part of an action pursuing an objective:

            Have you got my money then?
            Why not?
            You said it’d be today.
            Jesus, Dan, you’re always bloody doing this.

‘Defensive’ being words that are part of a block against that action achieving its intended outcome:

            I thought we agreed next week.
            Look, things have been difficult, alright.
            Do you have to be such a dick about it?

In this sense, Type 1 dialogue means words which are part of the plot mechanism driving that scene. They can be broadly characterised as being governed by the active verbs required of dramatic action: probing, evading, persuading, obfuscating, intimidating.

Dialogue which illustrates character can be more relaxed. Its main function is more to unconsciously give away clues about the speaker, to enhance our understanding of the personalities and energies driving the action. I would say there are three ‘filters’ through which this type dialogue travels, and which shape its outwardly articulated form:

1.     Character background
2.     Character psychology
3.     Character situation at that moment

‘Character background’ includes things like: geographical area the person was raised in (accent/dialect), class (articulacy/confidence), age (generation-specific references and tics), ethnicity and culture (specific words and phrases linked to membership of a minority group), education (articulacy – and how far some of the other factors have been ‘bred out’) and gender.

To extend the example, the lines written above could be tweaked to give them a Geordie inflection:
             Howay, y’got my money then?
             Why not, man?
             You said it’d be today, like.
             Fuck’s sake Dan man, you’re always bloody deeing this.

The gender question is interesting. In her book You Just Don’t Understand: Men andWomen in Conversation, linguist Deborah Tannen posits a theory. She says that men use language largely in practical terms, to discuss an issue in hand, and immediate courses of action. Women, on the other hand, use language predominantly to create an emotional connection with another speaker, and less often for practical problem-solving. Tannen argues this is why men accuse women of gossiping, and why they see little value in regular conversations with female partners or relatives unless there is ‘something to say’. The reasons for speaking at all are fundamentally different between the genders.

‘Character psychology’ covers things like personality type, confidence, status, recent personal events, mental health and other factors affecting state of mind. Thus, you could have a working class 30-year old woman from Salford who has risen to the top of her profession as a corporate lawyer. Her background might lead you to expect her to express herself a certain way, and remnants of that will of course still be there. But her psychology, the recent past that has shaped her state of mind, indicates that this will have a particular slant due to the world she is now operating within.

Similarly, our Geordie money lender above might be inflected with a further nuance if we were to make him low status and lacking in confidence:

             Howay Dan man. Just wondering, y’know, if you had that money I lent ya?
             Oh right. That’s a pity. D’you mind me asking, like, why and that?
             When d’you reckon then?
             Alright. Well … it’s just. Y’know. I need it and that. Sometimes you do this don’t ya? 
            Not saying owt but, y’know, I’m just a bit skint and everything myself this week.

And finally ‘character situation’ is entirely circumstantial – and includes things like status in a certain location, or in relation to other characters, whether they are under stress or in an otherwise emotional state, what has just taken place and what is about to happen. So our working-class corporate lawyer from Salford would express herself very differently if she was:

a)     in bed with a new lover;
b)     speaking to a client threatening to withdraw their business;
c)     in the dock on charges of embezzlement from her law firm.

Together, these factors intersect and play off each other to materially affect the words a character chooses (or doesn’t choose) at any given moment in the play. Some, like accent, are permanent and unchanging (unless the play covers a very long time period). Some, like status and confidence, will change from scene to scene, depending on what is happening to the character, where and with whom.

The trick is to keep all these balls in the air at the same time. It is only by mastering the requirements of the plot, while also allowing for the influences of character background, psychology and circumstance that your drama will really fly.