A few years ago I was at home playing with my seven year-old daughter, Talia.
All of a sudden she jumped up, ran out into the front yard, and started a conversation with another little girl. It went something like this:
TALIA: Hi, I’m Talia. What’s your name?
EMILYe: I’m Emily. I’m seven. How old are you?
TALIA: I’m seven too. Let’s be friends.
EMILY: Yes, let’s play a game.
TALIA: I know. We can get married.
EMILY: Yes! Let’s get married! Let’s invite people!
TALIA: I’m going to invite my dad. He’s inside. DAD!
And so forth.
It’s a really sweet exchange. If only life was still that simple!
If only were still that direct and straightforward…but we we aren’t––and anyway, it’s just not very good drama. In fact it’s pretty boring to be honest.
So what does it lack that would make it drama?
1: It lacks conflict. The fiction rule: no conflict; no story, still holds true for for play dialogue.
2: It doesn’t lack desire, but it lacks differences in desire.
3: There’s no ‘NO’ dialogue. Each character agrees with everything the other character says––or builds on it in a way that the other character totally agrees with.
4: There’s change in both characters––they each make a new friend––and get married, bu there’s nothing blocking the change that has to be overcome.
5: Both characters say exactly what they mean. This is realistic with seven year-olds, but the older we get, the more distance there is between what actually say and what we mean.
6: Silence. There are no silences in the exchange. Silence can speak volumes in both fiction and drama. Silence can balance like a giant boulder over the heads of the characters.
7: There’s no sentence variation; no contrast between long and short exchanges, that give dialogue its musicality.
8. There is no sound other than the two voices. It sounds to simple to even state, but sound effects in both fiction and the theater can interact with the dialogue, and intensify the emotions.
It’s been said that we don’t watch a movie as much as listen to it.
Make a list of the number of non-non-dialogue sounds that can be in a stage play: baby crying, dog barking, traffic, music, music, music, radios, TV’s, characters whistling, rain, wind, thunder…
Seriously, make a list, and keep it––and add to it when you think of new ideas.
So, let’s re-visit the ‘making friends’ scene, but this time with drama.
(Wilma sits at the counter in a dingy dive bar. She nurses an empty beer glass. Several other patrons of the bar are slumped unconscious over the counter or at small round tables. The Rolling Stones’ I CAN’T GET NO SATISFACTION plays on the juke box. Fred enters, looks around, and is about to leave again when he notices Wilma. He goes over to her).
FRED: (Loudly, over the juke box). Hi, What’s your name?
WILMA: (Sings along to the juke box) I’m riding in my car…What?
FRED: I said, what’s your name?
FRED: That makes no sense. Why would I ask you what anybody else’s name was?
WILMA: A lot of people ask me what my dog’s name is.
FRED: But your dog isn’t here.
WILMA: (Scans the bar theatrically) Crap! (Takes a drink from her empty glass). Typical. Male dog. Probably went home with a cocktail waitress.
FRED: So, what’s your name? And what’s a nice person like you doing in a shithole like this?
WILMA: Name’s Wilma. Pleased to meet you. (Holds out her hand for Fred to shake, but whips her hand back as Fred reaches for it).
FRED: That’s funny. Your name’s Wilma, and the bar is called Wilma’s. What are the chances?
WILMA: Extraordinary coincidence don’t you think?
And away we go.
So, this is what I’d like you to try:
Write a new scene, or continue on with the scene you began for the previous exercise.
Have two characters.
Make sure the exchange uses as many dramatic tricks as possible: Sound effects, concealed meaning, dramatic silence, ‘no’ dialogue, have both characters want something, but want different things.