A Monologue About Dialogue and the Importance of Genre Exploration
A one-act play I wrote last semester under the tutelage of Mark Medoff was recently read onstage at the University of Houston's Wortham Theater. While primarily a fiction writer, I found playwriting to be an exercise in creating powerful scenes, scenes that impact the audience's emotions with mostly the dialogue's diction and intonation. In fiction, the writer is free to explore his or her characters' interiority. Not in playwriting. In plays, the stories have to be built on solid scenes, and the playwright's script is the foundation, the words the basis of whether or not a play might work. The rest is left to the director and actors. But without a good script, where does a play go?
When I watch (or rather listen to) movies, I find myself obsessed with the dialogue. Perhaps this is because I'm vision impaired, and even the best directors, cinematographers, and visual effects artists in the world can't affect me since I lack the vision to see their art. So I'm left to ponder only the dialogue. With this method of movie consumption, I am much more likely to love a film merely for its strong, believable dialogue. Forget the questionably accurate portrayals of Indian slums or the wild versions of Leonardo's dream worlds collapsing in on one another (so I was told), my award-worthy picks always favor the movies with smart words.
My obsession with the Oscars forces me to listen to the best picture nominees before the Academy pageantry every year. No matter how wonderfully someone might describe a film's visual effects of cinematography, I can't get excited about it unless it also has great dialogue. This is why I disliked Black Swan and Inception, was only lukewarm about 127 Hours, and admired most The King's Speech, The Kids Are Alright, Blue Valentine, and The Social Network. When I think back to movies that have inspired me to write, films with smart dialogue like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine come to mind. The characters are painted clearly through their conversations with one another, and I, the blind consumer, am given an entire story without having to experience any visuals.
Watching theater and films with carefully-crafted dialogue not only gives us cerebral pleasure, but it helps us as writers, no matter the genre, to remember how important it really is not simply to write good dialogue but also great words. In a recent non-fiction workshop, the topic of of non-fiction versus poetry arose. We noted that while poets are often taught the importance of words, since words are their tools, fiction writers are mostly made to believe that their stories' shapes and arcs are the primary concerns. With prose, we sometimes forget the power that can be unleashed by diction alone: how a sentence sounds when one word follows another, how lyricism can evoke images and feelings that enhance our readers' experiences. We often hunch over our computer screens, hands gripping our mussed hair, trying to eke out narrative structure and fictional logic. But what if we followed the poets' lead and concerned ourselves more with lyricism? How might that affect our fiction?
My advice to all writers is this: Try taking on a different genre for one, three, or six months. Crank out at least one project in that genre. Apply what you learn to your primary genre, and see how it charges your writing. To the prose writers, try your hand at playwriting, screenplays, and poetry. It will open your eyes to the vitality of dialogue and, naturally, words. At the very least, you can become a jack of more trades, falling back on a million dollar screenplay should your other magnum opus fail. And if you can't stand it, just know that there is an end date to your foray, and that soon enough, you can return to your comfortable prosaic nest.