Those who follow me on Twitter have heard a lot about the play I’m in. I promise I’m not going to harp on it forever, but I thought I’d mention one more thing that I find interesting about plays—from a writer’s perspective.
The character I play is a foreigner. There is a brief paragraph in the front of the script about what my character is like. But when you look at the actual script itself, there is very little direction as to how I deliver my lines.
Scripts are interesting beasts. You don’t have the luxury you do with books to use phrases like “his eyes smoldered” or “his voice was cold”. All I have are the lines. I don’t even know if I’m supposed to stand up, sit down, slam my fist on the table, or cry. The dialogue has to convey all of the emotion.
By the time the play opens, we’ll have run the play close to 20 times. There are lines of dialogue that didn’t make sense when we first went through the play. I read the line and wondered why it was in there. It didn’t make sense. But the more I performed the lines, and the more I got into the head of my character, the more the lines make sense. I came to the very pleasant and surprising conclusion that the author of this play very likely pored over every single line of the play. It feels almost like one of those Bev Doolittle paintings. At first glance you see one thing, but as you study it, you realize there is more there than first met the eye.
As a writer, this goes back to the whole show not tell idea. It’s easy to say, “Jim was furious.” It’s much harder to have Jim say something so that the reader understands that fury. But when it’s done well, it’s much more powerful.
That’s not to say you have to convey everything in dialogue. Sometimes a simple action can be just as powerful. Several folks in my writers group do this so well. They set the tone or emotion of a scene without ever having to say, “he felt”, or “he thought”. It’s harder to write this way. I can stack up the word count with the best of them, but I find when I try to focus on showing and not telling—when I’m really focused on dialogue not just to move the story along, but to give insight to character and emotion, it’s much more difficult. I find myself writing for an hour, with only a 300 word difference.
Words can do so much more than just express a fact, you just have to find the right ones.