Sunday, May 13, 2012

Put More Drama in Your Writing—Using Dialogue to Define Character and Set the Mood

By Chris Mathews

One important way to put more drama in your writing is to understand the language of drama, dialogue.  Fiction and non-fiction can be written without dialogue; drama cannot. We know the story of a play through what the characters say and do on stage.
In prose, the writer has the advantage of being able to describe the characters’ motivations, but this can also be a pitfall. Description can deaden writing when it usurps action or tells the reader too much. Dialogue has the advantage of actively engaging the auditor. There are no intermediaries with dialogue. In fact, the reader is the audience in any quality writing, actively supplying the missing pieces of the story. Stories in which the reader is told what happens but not allowed to experience the story first-hand can easily become literary dry-gulches. 

I based my one-act Gargoyles (published by Baker’s Plays in 2005) on an actual event, a high-school Halloween play banned by a school board in a small mountain town. A preacher in the town provided the major push to ban the play Bats in the Belfry, decrying Halloween as “a pagan ritual.” The actual play was a comedy, in my opinion about as innocuous as Bewitched, but deemed “satanic” because it contained a warlock. 

To tell this story, I decided to create characters that could comment on the play-within-the- play (which I renamed Raising Spirits) and lighten up this controversy. I chose gargoyles as my dual narrators because of their traditional role as guardians-of-the-Church. As I wrote I realized the gargoyles were becoming a kind of medieval Siskel and Ebert, speaking in Latin-sounding phrases. Through their banter, I was able to both create a gothic atmosphere and comic repartee. In the opening scene, the gargoyles define themselves, setting themselves up as observers of humankind.

Here is the opening dialogue of the play:

As the lights come up, two gargoyles are perched on a platform flanking a large, gothic door.  Ornate medieval music is playing.
FIRST GARGOYLE.   Stone silence…
SECOND GARGOYLE.    …Mocks mankind’s folly.
FIRST GARGOYLE.    Demons dwell in eaves…
SECOND GARGOYLE.     …Caught in granite guffaws
FIRST GARGOYLE.     We outlast your short time
SECOND GARGOYLE.    Withstand your orangutan rantings…
FIRST GARGOYLE.    …Your humanegomania.
SECOND GARGOYLE.   Your acid haze
FIRST GARGOYLE.    Corrodes our veins
SECOND GARGOYLE.    So permit us
FIRST GARGOYLE.    From our lofty perches
SECOND GARGOYLE.    To comment
FIRST GARGOYLE.      To criticize
FIRST GARGOYLE.    To view from afar
SECOND GARGOYLE.    To scrutinize with a looking-glass
FIRST GARGOYLE.    To provide comic relief
SECOND GARGOYLE.    Though these humans provide their own quite well.
FIRST GARGOYLE.   We will be their funhouse mirror.      
SECOND GARGOYLE.   –Grotesques.
FIRST GARGOYLE.    It takes a grotesque to know a grotesque.

 If your characters know what they want  and listen to each other(unless you want them to ignore each other), dialogue often writes itself.   In the next writing, I will look at how conflict works in dialogue.

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