Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Lessons Learned From Writing Scripts and Acting

Over the years of writing stage plays and film scripts, as well as playing on stage, I have learned quite a bit about writing dialogue, and "these are a few of my favorite things":

  • Don't include all the "polite speak" - Thank you, You're welcome  
  • Don't tell an actor how to speak - politely, angrily, sarcastically 
  • Pay attention to the rhythm of the words  - make sure the line can be easily delivered
  • Use dialogue to propel the story - each line needs to have a purpose
When I start editing for a client, I can usually tell if this is a first book by the sometimes clunky dialogue, including all the "polite speak" as well as repeating names:

"Hi, Tom, this is Scott."
"Hello, Scott. How are you?"
"I'm fine, Tom, how about you."

Those are extreme examples, but I have actually seen dialogue close to that, and that does nothing to move the story along or reveal character, or do more than simply take up space.

As for the use of adverbs, the first script writing class taught me never to include them when writing dialogue, so I have been super sensitive to the over-use of them. In my upcoming Editing Workshop, available in June at Short & Helpful, I gave examples of how too many adverbs actually weaken dialogue: 

"Hi Jesse," Evie waved back excitedly. ---   Wouldn't it have been better for the author to have shown the excitement?

"My dad has to go," Jesse said sharply. --- This was in response to another character inviting Evie to visit later and meet Jesse's father. The terseness of Jesse's comment has the sharp edge and doesn't need the adverb.

"We know where we're going," Theresa said adamantly. --- Here again the dialogue is already adamant. She is responding to Jesse's father who said the young people couldn't leave without him.

 The emotion behind the words can also be shown in action or facial expression, as another way to eliminate the adverb but get the essence of the line across.

However, there are times that an adverb is necessary in a dialogue tag. The following example came from Kristen Lamb's blog. She commented that generally one should avoid using adverbs to show how someone is speaking. For example:  "She whispered quietly."

Lamb wrote, "Okay, as opposed to whispering loudly? Quietly is implied in the verb choice. Ah, but what if you want her to whisper conspiratorially? Or whisper sensually? The adverbs conspiratorially or sensually tells us of a very specific types of whispers, and are not qualities automatically denoted in the verb. Therefore, the adverb use works in those instances."

From my acting I have learned the importance of timing, especially in comedy, and how to get the drama into the dialogue.

Here is a line from the play "Squabbles." I played Mildred, opposite Abe, whom I did not like. He also did not like me. At a time when he has been particularly obnoxious, Mildred says, "I had a dream last night. And now it all becomes clear to me. I dreamt I was walking through a forest when I came to a field. In the middle of the field was a horse. But as I got closer, I could see that only the horse's head and his front legs were there. The rest was missing. I wondered...whatever became of the back of that horse. (turns to Abe) And now I know."

That last line works the best when there is a long pause between it and the previous one, which the action provides.

As an example of timing to create more drama in a line, this example is from "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" in which I played the character of Big Mama. In this scene Big Daddy has gone on a long rant to Big Mama, telling her all the ways he has been unhappy with her for years. Her response, "Oh, Big Daddy, in all these years you never believed that I loved you----And I did, I did so much. I did love you. I even loved your hate and your hardness."

In both examples, the playwright gave me cues as how to deliver the lines for the best impact, and I have learned to use some of those cues in writing novels:
  • Broken sentences
  • Adding an action that provides a pause
  • And using punctuation that indicates pauses
Do you have any tips on how to effectively use dialogue? What are some of the mistakes you made when first starting to write? I cringe when I read some of my earliest work. It's not always pretty. Extra credit for those who can say where "these are a few of my favorite things" comes from. 

Posted by Maryann Miller - novelist, editor and sometimes actress. Her most recent role was Beth in "String of Pearls," which was maybe her favorite after Big Mama. She has written a number of mysteries, including the critically-acclaimed Season Mystery Series that debuted with Open Season. Information about her books and her editing rates is available on her website. When not writing, Maryann likes to take her dog for a walk and work outside on her little ranch in East Texas. 


  1. Great tips and examples, especially: don't tell your actors how to speak.

    1. Thanks for the affirmation, Diana. That collaborative effort between writer, actor and director has taught me so much, especially as I have played on all sides of the collaboration. Seeing the story from three viewpoints is quite an interesting exercise.

  2. Ah, yes, those pesky adverbs...they do get in the way of snappy dialogue. Lots of good advice in this excellent post, Maryann. Writing great dialogue is an art form that can literally pull the reader into a scene. Use it to your advantage, and your story will improve by leaps and bounds.

    1. Glad you found the post helpful, Linda. The first screenplay I wrote was full of adverbs. The writing instructor just red-lined them all. LOL

  3. I'm with you on the adverbs. Ack!

    1. We're in good company with Stephen King and Elmore Leonard. :-)

  4. I identify completely. I'm in the middle of a new script and am so aware of the rhythms. Reading it aloud makes it clear.

    1. I knew you would connect with this, since you are a playwright.

  5. I recently offered to turn my current wip into a play for my children's school to produce. While I haven't finished the book yet, I did start the first few scenes of the play and realised straight away that it is going to be an excellent way to revise the book. So I'll finish the first draft first, but I'm already looking forward to turning this into a play and then using what I learn in translation to improve the book.

    1. I have done the same thing with a couple of my books, but did screenplays instead of stage plays. And I did learn a lot from writing the scripts, which I then applied to a rewrite of the books. I love lessons learned. :-)

  6. I love this post, Maryann. Timing in dialogue is so important. I'm listening to an audio of a book by a very famous writer, and almost every attribution has an adverb: she said softly. It's driving me crazy. I don't know whether I "hear" it more than when I "read" it, but it does diminish my estimation of the author. I look forward to getting back to my play. I may take the online course from Aaron Sorkin when I finish my WIP. IF I finish it.

  7. No "ifs" about it, Polly. You will finish. That is your pep talk from me.

    Like you, I find the dialogue attributives annoying in the audio books, and not so much when reading. I think our eyes tend to skip over them in print. I know for years I loved reading Robert B. Parker's books, but it drives me crazy to listen to them. The constant "saids" are an assault. I think I mentioned in a previous post here that I wish narrators would have permission to skip them, especially the narrators who are so good with voices. It is clear who is speaking when there are only two people in the scene.


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