Dramaquill's All Things Writing

January 15, 2018

What writing for the stage taught me about writing a novel

Filed under: Writing — dramaquill @ 5:51 PM

For over twenty years I had to create original play scripts for drama students at my studio, Slightly off Broadway.  The drama program enrolled students as young as three years of age and included children, tweens, teens and adults.  Some of my characters included pirates, game show contestants, French chefs, hillbillies, ogres, wizards, aliens, scientists and the like.  

Writing for the stage taught me a lot about writing in general, but I was particularly amazed at how much it taught me when I began to write my first novel.

Writing characters for the stage forced me to listen to speech patterns, accents, pacing and rhythm as well as habits, quirks and ticks. Stage characters use their words as their main form of communication and hearing those words come alive through the voice of the actor/character really helped me *hear* the characters in my novel. Writing what they said wasn’t about being grammatically correct or sounding like a poet, it was about having them speak in a way that made them real to the audience and to each other.

On stage, even when characters have lengthy conversations, they don’t just stand or sit in one place. How boring would that be for the audience? Perhaps they’re fixing dinner together while they talk, or walking through a park, or meeting on a subway. They’re real people. They’re alive. They move. Often their movements define their personalities but just as often the movements help propel the story along. Writing stage directions definitely helped me remember to keep things moving in my novel.

It can be easy to lose sight of your characters’ personalities when writing a novel, especially when plot and pacing are so important. On stage, the characters stand before you. You can visually see who they are as well as hear who they are through their dialogue. When I wrote my first suspense novel, I pictured them physically which helped develop their individual traits and voices. You don’t want to write characters that all sound and act the same. They need to be distinct and memorable.

Novels rely on vivid descriptions to help the reader visualize where everything takes place. In plays, it’s the sets, props and costumes that bring the scenes to life. Again, I had to visualize what my environments would look like and then chose words that could communicate exactly what I was seeing to my readers. This was somewhat of a challenge for me at first because my audience (the readers) couldn’t see anything unless I was able to describe it properly for them.

Monologues belong on the stage  
It’s not unusual for characters in plays to spend several minutes on stage alone delivering a monologue. It’s a great way for a character to share their deepest emotions with you or move the story along by divulging information. Monologues work well on stage.  Big, long speeches do not work well on the page. Readers don’t want to wade through paragraphs of emotion and information. It definitely slows the action and it also just doesn’t make sense in the context of a book. So check your characters’ dialogue and make sure they aren’t *talking too much*.

Immediate reaction versus waiting for revues
Once the play is performed it’s easy to see if the audience gets the jokes and how they react to the characters and their situations. Applause is great for immediate feedback. Once your novel is written, it’s out there somewhere but you won’t be able to sit and watch each person read it and their reactions as they do. At best, if you’re lucky, they’ll post comments or reviews on the websites where they have purchased the books or email the author directly if they enjoyed the book. I’m somewhat prone to the immediate reaction of the theatre. 

So if you’re writing novels, why not try to write a scene or two as a play? You never know what it might add to your writing.

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