When I think of plays I read when I was young, I only remember Romeo and Juliet and Julius Caesar – both by Shakespeare – and both assigned reading at school. It would be another twenty years before I would read plays again for my Literature degree, but also, for pleasure. Plays are meant to be performed, true enough, but they offer something remarkable that no other medium can do as concisely—a lot of dialogue.
The whole propagation of a play, its plot, theme, conflict – everything – is achieved mainly through dialogue (occasionally there can be a monologue or chorus) and some stage directions. How a playwright has the characters utter their lines, serves three modes of communication: the direct message (what we hear), the subtext (what is implied) and the meaning (what we perceive). Think about it! Every sentence of dialogue serves three functions – three layers that build on one another to impact the audience.
I suppose the real question for writers is not: ‘Why should we read plays?’ but: ‘How can we possibly not read plays?’ Obviously, close reading of plays has improved my dialogue tremendously. I recall the early days when feedback groups told me that the dialogue in my short stories was ‘boring’, ‘pedantic’, ‘banter’, ‘unbelievable’, ‘formal’… the list goes on. It was that bad!
During literature classes, I came to appreciate reading plays, analyzing them and scrutinizing them, so that I also started to (and continue to) read plays for pleasure. I like the classical plays by Sophocles or Euripides as much as the modern plays by Brian Friel or Harold Pinter, and whatever’s in between. As I read these plays, I appreciated the only medium available to the playwright to carry out everything that a prose writer carries out in so many ways. Suddenly, as a prose writer myself, I feel lucky. I have the luxuries of a narrator, point of view, descriptions, heck – I can even write about a character’s thoughts. But the playwright only has dialogue (and a bit of stage directions).
So when we come to the modern adage ‘show don’t tell’ – and an excellent advise it is – it falls in line beautifully with well-written dialogue. What characters utter is immediate, taking place in a scene, and is therefore action. And action is showing. It is letting the reader experience the events taking place in ‘real time’. This is where the key of reading plays come into effect. A play is performed in front of a live audience in real time, and the characters interacting and uttering their lines is the only propagation of the story. When a writer can write that type of dialogue in prose – and has honed the skills to do it well – it reads like wildfire. It is immediate and immersive. And it is hard not to write that way always afterwards.
So if you are serious about improving dialogue in your writing, pick up a play text and read it critically.
Samir Rawas Sarayji