Saturday, May 19

Real Life Diagnostics: Say it Out Loud: Writing Dialog for the Stage

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose them on the blog. It’s part critique, part example, designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, check out the page for guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

This week’s question:
Does this dialogue sound sincere?

Market/Genre: Stageplay (Musical)


Note: This is an interesting RLD today because I know next to nothing about scripts. But this question is about dialog, and that I can talk about. Any scriptwriters out there with some feedback are encouraged to chime in.

On to the diagnosis…

Original text (Please note the formatting is best I can recreate for a blog):

SCENE THREE..............................................................................................
(The bakery, nighttime. ROBIN is stuffing her belongings into a basket. OWEN enters, eating an apple.)

OWEN
Hi, Robin. Whatcha doin’?

ROBIN
I’m running away.

OWEN
(Inserts a knuckle into his ear to clear it out.)
What? Did I hear you right?

ROBIN
Yep.

OWEN
(Sits down next to her)
Well, then. As your older cousin---

ROBIN
You seem to have forgotten that I’m older than you.

OWEN
By a week! Anyway, as your just plain cousin, I have the responsibility to talk you out of these things.

ROBIN
You’re not talking me out of this.

OWEN
C’mon, Robin. Where d’ya think you’re gonna go?

ROBIN
There were these people. In the woods.

OWEN
You’re crazy. They’re probably outlaws. Or at least cannibals.

ROBIN
At least?

OWEN
Whatever. But you can’t go.

ROBIN
Owen, I can’t stay here any longer.

OWEN
(Quietly)
Your ma wouldn’t have liked you just throwing your life away like this.

ROBIN
Your ma wouldn’t have liked you sleeping on the streets.

OWEN
It’s not like I have a choice!
(Sighs)
Just stay one more day.

ROBIN
All right. One more day.

OWEN
(Stands up.)
Good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.

ROBIN
Good night.

(OWEN exits)

My Thoughts in Purple:
SCENE THREE..............................................................................................
(The bakery, nighttime. ROBIN is stuffing her belongings into a basket. OWEN enters, eating an apple.)

OWEN
Hi, Robin. Whatcha doin’?

ROBIN
[I’m] Perhaps cut this, since she's answering his question with what she's doing, not stating what she's doing running away.

OWEN
(Inserts a knuckle into his ear to clear it out.)
[What? Did I hear you right?] This feels a little forced to me. Perhaps just the what, or even why.

ROBIN
Yep.

OWEN
(Sits down next to her)
[Well, then. As your older cousin---] They both know he's her older cousin, so this feels like information through dialog (though if this has been a running joke for them it might feel natural). If someone threw a shocker like this, I'd suspect the first reaction would be "why?"

ROBIN
[You seem to have forgotten that I’m older than you.

OWEN
By a week! Anyway, as your just plain cousin, I have the responsibility to talk you out of these things.

ROBIN
You’re not talking me out of this.] All of this feels a little forced to me as well, and Owen isn't addressing the running away part at all.

OWEN
C’mon, Robin. Where d’ya think you’re gonna go?

ROBIN
There were these people. In the woods.

OWEN
You’re crazy. They’re probably outlaws. Or at least cannibals.

ROBIN
At least?

OWEN
Whatever. [But] Perhaps cut for flow you can’t go.

ROBIN
Owen, I can’t stay here any longer.

OWEN
(Quietly)
[Your ma wouldn’t have liked you just throwing your life away like this.] This feels a little too correct grammar if that makes sense

ROBIN
Your ma wouldn’t have liked you sleeping on the streets.

OWEN
It’s not like I have a choice!
(Sighs)
Just stay one more day.

ROBIN
All right. One more day.

OWEN
(Stands up.)
[Good night. I’ll see you tomorrow.] Would he try to reinforce the idea of her staying? "You'll be here, right?" or the like

ROBIN
[Good] Perhaps cut as folks often shorten this, and if she's upset and running away, she'd likely be abbreviating things. She's been pretty curt so far night.

(OWEN exits)

The question:
Does this dialogue sound sincere?

Parts do, parts don't. The thing that strikes me more than anything here is that Owen never addresses why Robin is running away. Maybe this is all knowledge he has going into this scene, but even then I'd expect him to try to talk her out of it by addressing the problem, not just saying she can't go or that he has responsibilities and whatnot. He spends more time trying to convince her that's he's older and has the job of talking her out of this than he does actually trying to talk her out of it.

I'd also expect his responses to focus more on why she's leaving and what he can do to fix her problems, and how he can help (males are typically problem solvers by nature). She'd likely vent about why she can't stay. They'd talk about things that matter to this problem. (unless they're trying to avoid that, but none of the stage direction suggests that's the case here)

It also feels a little too correct in how it's written. People don't speak in proper sentences, and they don't use names very often, if at all. In a book, things are a little different because you can't see who's speaking, but listening to dialog has a different feel.

I'd suggest reading the dialog out loud and seeing where you stumble or it feels awkward to say. Get someone to read the other part and do the scene. I suspect you'll hear where it's not quite working and what is.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress, not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

5 comments:

  1. I like Janice's feedback. I was trying to "see" this in my mind. I can tell Robin's stressed. But Owen seems to be trying to just be funny. Until his one, serious sentence. I wonder if they are from a higher class than a bakery worker and vagabond because of the referral to what their mothers would/n't have liked. A past reversal of fortunes?

    But I agree that Robin gives in to Owen's "compromise" of staying one more day too easily. If she was as worried as she seemed, the danger she feels would compel her to resist until he gives her a good reason to stay. Or tells/shows her it would be even more dangerous to go.

    He doesn't have to spell it out too much if the audience knows the dangers themselves.
    example: "What are you going to do? Tiptoe past the guards and hope they don't see you? Or maybe flirt a little and hope they let you go on your way? Do you know what happens to girls who try to sneak out of the city at night?"

    Or maybe she's just lying to him so that he'll get off her case and she's gonna leave as soon as he's gone. If that's what's happening and Owen is just too blind to see it, then I THINK it would work. But how well does he know his cousin? Does he know she's easily influenced or stubborn as a mule?

    You can show a lot of character here with the dialog to show that they trust each other or they know what the other person will/won't do.

    This was so fun to read a script. Very cool! Best of luck!

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  2. It didn't feel very honest to me personally, not so much because of their proper sentences as much as the lack of tension. Running away is a BIG DEAL, and Owen probably knows better than others how good she's got it. But there's no emotion in the first half on his part, it feels kookie-laughtrack to me. The first line of his that feels real is "Where d'ya think you're going to go?"

    And then, after that I feel like you have the bare bones of what could be a very good scene. But nothing is elaborated on. ESPECIALLY how easily Robin gives in to the whole not running away thing. I think Owen needs to get angry at her, or else give her a compelling reason to wait a day. Right now I'm left wondering if Robin would even have gone through with it herself at all.

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  3. Yeah. I've sort of been in a writer's slump recently, and this is one of the sad byproducts of that. :(
    It's happened to me before. I write a huge amount of something, then realize that it's really not that good. The plot is lame. The characters are boring. The stakes aren't high at all. And everyone just says it's great! Urrgh. I don't mind honest criticism.

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  4. One of my utter pet hates with dialogue is when it's info-dumping. Equally as bad is when there's internal dialogue that's an info-dump. I read a novel recently that was riddled with the latter. Urgh.

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  5. As a reader (and writer), it seems stilted.

    As an actor, I would be blacking out the playwright's stage directions. :-)

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