Wednesday, February 18, 2015


     In a recent discussion group for playwrights, the conversation turned to the subject of how dialogue should look on the scripted page. One individual stated that dialogue on paper should please the printer, i.e., the words are spelled correctly, and the sentences are grammatically correct. Another individual concurred, adding that improperly spelled words would automatically be corrected by the proof reader, and, if uncorrected, would draw attention of the reader to the seeming error rather than to what the playwright might actually be saying.

     I absolutely disagree with both of these viewpoints.

     First, let’s take a look at how thoughts are communicated in spoken words. (And spoken words, as playwrights, are our stock in trade.) Spoken words and written words are not the same. In normal day-to-day conversation, generally a speaker will say only enough to get his or her message across, and then stop speaking. Most of what is being said may be in complete sentences, true enough, but a part of this rhetoric may also be in fragmented sentences. Indeed, portions of what is being “said” may not be in words at all, but in gestures and body language. Further, people rarely say combinations of words the way they are written. For example, if you were to tell someone you are going to the store, that’s how you would write it – “I’m going to the store.” If you were telling someone, you might say “I’m goin’ t’ th’ store.”

     Another misapprehension is that playwrights create characters. They do not. Actors create characters. Playwrights suggest characters. The choices of words, the rhythm of the words, the pace, the slang, the actual number of words in a sentence, the phonetically (as opposed to incorrectly) spelling of words – all these things help an actor visualize a character from whom these words, gestures, and thoughts, would believably flow. (You don’t believe me? Take a Shakespeare soliloquy, give it to an actor, and have him read it back to you. Then give the same soliloquy to your next-door neighbor. In both cases the words are the same. Who created the character?) Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but the point is this; words flow from character, not the other way around.

     And so – simple enough – when a playwright places dialogue on paper, he or she is communicating directly to the imagination of the reader, asking that reader to hear the words being spoken the same way the playwright hears them. Toward that goal, there are no rules, no uniform structure, no ridged grammar. Whatever works is what works.