Playwriting with Tom Wells #3: Dialogue and Scenes

By Tom Wells, associate artist

This week’s topics are Dialogue and Scenes. We’ll have a look at the way people talk to each other in real life, the way characters talk to each other on stage, and the way this can be shaped into a scene that feels sparky, energetic and alive. We’ll start gently, though, with a bit of Gogglebox.

Exercise One

Here is a clip of Giles and Mary from Gogglebox, talking about Clapping for Carers:

And here is a transcript of their conversation:

Mary shows Giles a film clip on her phone.

GILES: If I had known that I was allowed to bang a saucepan with a spoon, I would’ve definitely got a sauce-

Mary laughs.

Mary I would’ve loved to bang a saucepan.

Mary is crying a bit. She takes her glasses off, wipes her eyes.

MARY: Joseph said it was very moving.

GILES: Yeah, now, steady Mary. Steady.

MARY: It was.

GILES: Don’t… At this stage of the day don’t get upset. But if I’d known I was allowed to bang a spoon, Mary –

Mary blinks.

– against a, a copper pan, I would, just like Bez, there’s something very satisfy –

Mary laughs.

– satisfying about doing that. Especially if someone else is doing it at the other end of the village.

MARY: Yeah, yeah well we’ll do that next week, it’s going to be every week apparently.

GILES: Is it?

MARY: Yeah I think so.

GILES: What every week a…? Mary.

Mary sobs.

MARY: Yes.

 

The first exercise is to have a go at doing this yourself. Record a conversation, a real-life conversation, just a short exchange (ten lines or so) between two people, and do your best to write it down accurately. Don’t be tempted to correct it or change it to make it clearer or to give it different grammar. Just write it exactly as you hear it. If you don’t have a way of recording people at home then try doing it with a clip from Gogglebox. There’s lots to choose from on their Twitter feed.

This will take a while, but it’s really worth doing. Listen to the exchange a number of times as you go along. Pause it and restart it. Do your best to record all the little details of their speech.

Once you’ve finished, have a read. Look closely at it. Look at the pauses, the repetitions, the strange punctuation, the rhythms and the music of it, the way mistakes and mispronunciations – and silence, things unsaid – add a warmth and depth of meaning to real-life speech. Those are the things we are doing and hearing all the time, they’re the things that make dialogue feel alive and characters feel truthful when they speak. They’re the things to bear in mind when you’re writing dialogue of your own.

Exercise Two

The idea behind this exercise is to understand the difference between two people speaking to each other in real life and two people speaking in a dramatic scene. In real life, two people talking can be funny or truthful or to the point or beautifully observed, but it can often feel as if nothing is actually happening. Two people talk, but everything stays the same. Dialogue between characters on stage is quite different to this. It’s most interesting if it’s active, if it feels like there’s something at stake or something might change, if one of the characters wants something, and the other character can help them get it or get in their way. It’s useful to have a go at writing this.

So, to begin with, we’ll revisit the lucky dip objects from last week. Pick one of these:

  • a key
  • a phone
  • some chilli flakes
  • a pound coin
  • a box of juice
  • some painkillers
  • a screwdriver
  • a stamp
  • a condom
  • a safety pin
  • a Kitkat

and give it to Character A. Imagine it is the thing that Character B needs more than anything at this moment. Have a go at writing the dialogue between the two characters as Character B tries to get the thing from Character A. Think about the sort of strategies which Character B might use to try and get it. Write an exchange where they have three separate gos. You can give them names if it makes things easier. Don’t overthink it though. Just have a go. Spend about ten minutes writing it. And, once you’re done, have a read of it.

It’s just a quick exercise, and the truth is it might not be a very realistic set-up (it’s not often a person will try three different ways of convincing someone to give them a safety pin). But hopefully, in its simple way, it shows you some of the differences between talking, which passes the time, and dialogue, which is always trying to make stuff happen. Hopefully you’ve started to feel the need for dialogue to be an active thing, to have the potential for changing the situation between characters on stage. Fingers crossed that’ll be helpful in this week’s last exercise.

 

Exercise Three

This exercise is about balance. The first thing to think about is to crafting a scene that feels alive and exciting for people to watch, with one character trying to get something from the other, while things keep getting in their way, like you did in Exercise Two. The second thing to think about is making sure the characters speak in authentic-sounding, believable dialogue, a bit like the detailed real-life transcripts you made in Exercise One. It’s worth spending a bit of time on balancing these two things. Once you crack it the writing properly sings.

Think of two characters you’re interested in writing. Think about something one character might want from the other. It might be as simple as a Kitkat, like the lucky dip objects, but it might also be something that can’t be held in their hand – forgiveness, for example, or to be listened to, or to be left alone, or a kiss. Think about the things stopping them or getting in their way. They might be obstacles caused by the other character or the outside world, but they can also come from within – it’s a very human and recognisable thing for a character to be their own worst enemy, because of stubbornness or shyness, hotheadedness or self-doubt.

Now you have a sense of the workings of the scene and who the characters are, spend a bit of time thinking about the way the characters speak to one another. Do they find it easy? Are they a bit hesitant, or do they overshare? Are they scared to ask for the thing, worrying about potential conflict? Are they a bit demanding, quick to argue, not very good at keeping calm? Do they avoid talking about the things they really want to talk about? Do they miss out words, or get them wrong, or lose momentum so their sentences trail off? Do they speak before thinking, lash out a bit, interrupt each other? What else do they do alongside talking? Picture the situation in your head.

Now, have a go at writing the scene. It doesn’t have to be long. Show one character trying to get the thing they want from the other. Try to make the dialogue sound truthful and authentic. By the end of the scene, even if it is a tiny thing, something should have changed. Compare it to the transcript you wrote of a real-life conversation. You will start to get a sense in your own writing of what it is that makes a scene dramatic.

Feel free to share your writing with us on social media: simply tag @middlechildhull on either Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

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