Unlike novelists who can tell us what their characters are like, tell us about their circumstances, describe their inner states etc, playwrights must do it other ways, such as through good dialogue. Dialogue is one of the few ways that a playwright has to communicate important things to the audience through his/her characters.
So what is the purpose of dialogue in a play?
Dialogue is not simply conversation between characters. It has the semblance of conversation but functions in a very “engineered”, purposeful, multidimensional, structural way. Below are some of the features/functions of dialogue in a play.
- Firstly, it may be used to convey information, as a device for exposition. Of course it is important that dialogue used for this function flows naturally from the character and the character’s situation at the appropriate point of the play. Otherwise it seems awkward and jarring.
- Dialogue reveals character. A character’s words tell us much about the character’s social/cultural background, education and emotional/psychological state. In revealing a character through dialogue, a playwright must make important artistic decisions to do with how a character speaks. For example, is dialect important to the way a character speaks? And what vocabulary range will the character display? Will the character use slang?
- Regarding slang, a writer might wish to use slang to give the play a strong contemporary feel. Ironically, slang can also date a play extremely quickly as certain slang expressions disappear quite swiftly, thus lessening the “shelf life” of a play. A heavy use of regional dialects and local references, which might give authentic flavour to the piece, might also alienate audiences outside the region, who feel “left out”. If your play is intended for a broad audience, this is an important artistic consideration. There are really no hard and fast rules. What might be effective in one play, might prove ineffective in another. It often comes down to the intended audience and how far and how long you want your play to travel. It’s a judgement call, specific to the piece.
- Dialogue usually contains “provocation” towards action. It is part of the action/reaction flow between characters. One character says something, the other reacts, moving the drama along in the direction of the spine. Thus, dialogue should relate to the spine, to the character’s role and purpose in the overall structure and theme of the play. Put another way, what a character says at any point in the play, should not be extraneous, but relate to what the whole play is about. If some dialogue is not working in your play, it may be because it has lost connection with the character or play’s dramatic direction.
- Generally, dialogue should show us what a character is feeling, rather than tell us. We should experience through the character’s dialogue something of the situation they are going through. In their interactions with others, dialogue reveals the nature of those relationships and what they want from others. Dialogue therefore contains motivation and character objectives. Discovering a character’s motivation and objective gives the actor the necessary insight to play the character.
- Dialogue, depending on the style of the play, may contain poetry and metaphor. The poetic component of dialogue often reflects the play’s themes and, because of this, gives the dialogue great dimension and power. Even very realistic dialogue, in its thematic context, can have poetic qualities because it relates to a greater whole.
To make all the above a little more concrete, I will use an example from my one-act play, Two in a Room. The dialogue is between a prostitute and her client. The style of the play is realistic but with “absurdist” features, used to express the pathos and comedy of the situation. Both characters are lonely; both damaged by events in their lives. Both share a sense of abandonment. He suffers from loss through death; she from abusive people who treat her as a commodity and do not value her as a person. The spine of the play is to do with “survival”. Both characters are locked in a battle for personal survival and both need each other in different ways – she needs him for her livelihood, he needs her for his psychological survival in a hostile world. He imagines they are in a relationship; she knows she is engaged in sex work and that relationships make you vulnerable. In terms of motivations and objectives, the man is trying to maximize what he can get from the exchange, while the woman is trying to minimize what she gives away. In terms of action, he wants to stay, she wants to him to leave. The dialogue below, concerning a tattoo she discovers on him, shows the contest between them, with the man trying to manipulate the woman into a kind of intimate relationship she doesn’t want. He probes her defences, she stops his advances.
At the end of the play, the motif of the “tattoo” returns in the dialogue, this time with a greater force and poetic meaning as the man declares that next time he visits he will bear a tattoo with her correct name and that he will smell the tattooist’s breath before he starts.