Dialogue – The Difficulty of Speaking


“We are bodies that learn language.”
–Kenneth Burke

“The best things cannot be told; the second best
are misunderstood. After that comes civilized
conversation; after that, mass indoctrination; after
that, intercultural exchange.”
–Joseph Campbell

To genuinely “speak” is so powerful that few do it. And those who do speak do it rarely. Human beings use dialogue to avoid speaking. Dialogue is the dance we do to avoid the music. It is, in Harold Pinter’s words, “the speech to cover speech.”

Dialogue is one of the tools we have for negotiating what we want and for negotiating our relationships.

To master dramatic dialogue, one must master both the unspoken and the spoken. Playwrights must work both sides of dialogue’s “street.” Perhaps 95% of the time will be spent on the avoidance side—the side where any words are the words of not-speaking. Of “dancing.” Of “negotiating.”

Most words a writer calls dialogue are words devoted to various strategies of not-speaking. Anyone writing dramatic dialogue must recognize this. Most of the words any of our characters venture hedge what we would say if we truly spoke.

But any writer of dialogue must also be prepared for that fraction-of-time spent breaking the silence. True speaking is fierce. It is painful. It is often involuntary – that is to say: it speaks us; we don’t speak it. It is passionate, raw, poetic, uncontrolled. It is the molten lava, held sometimes for centuries in the belly of the volcano. Volcanoes rarely erupt. But when they do, we can’t ignore them, or they will turn our lives to ashes.

And like volcanoes: in dialogue, the pressure is everything. It is the pressure of inactivity which explodes in activity. It is the pressure of silence which erupts in speech. Too much eruption dissipates pressure. Too much eruption issues little lava and a lot of steam. Release the pressure too often and all you get is hot air.

The proportion, then, of the language-of-not-speaking to the language-of-speaking is extremely important. Narratives are not speakerphones for the broadcasting of intelligence, sensitivity, passion, anger or commitment. Perhaps the greatest temptation, and most frequent error, dialogue writers make is to speak too much.& Think of what you would like to say – or have your characters say for you – and then don’t say it. Or, at least: try your best not to.

“I would like to think that our being bodies
gives us the grammar of universal language.”

–Kenneth Burke

Bodies with Voices

The language of all that is compelling is the language of The Act. “In the beginning, was The Act.” In any final analysis, dramatic characters say by doing. When the curtain falls, any audience has “read,” has “heard” what the physical character has or hasn’t accomplished. In the dramas of our lives we attempt to do. We attempt to do and our bodies lead, and our words stumble after our bodies. Words are only a kind of lubricating oil for the language of deeds. They grease the wheel….or try to.In the world of the dramatic: our bodies speak first.

Our raw and physical biologies seldom lie. Lying is not a DNA function or talent. A circumstance is encountered. The circumstance prints itself in some cluster of neurons. It triggers an impulse—perhaps centuries old, genetically coded. The impulse travels—nerve to muscle, and becomes manifest. It “acts.” We read the action, reaction; we read the body. We hear the body speak. Fear Sexuality. Hunger. Defeat. Aggression. Any person’s body-language is the language of that same person’s struggle for survival. What gets uttered, what gets voiced, secondarily and in accompaniment to the body-language are words which hope to serve that struggle for survival.

So: think of dialogue as survival. Think of words as survival mechanisms. Like skin pigment, like hard shells, like misleading shapes: words can keep us from harm’s way. If we shrewdly choose them. And if we use them well.

Words can change our appearance. Words can make us look brighter, braver, sexier. We change our idiom when we change our social or personal context. We speak differently at work than we do at home. We speak differently to an intimate than we do to a stranger. We speak differently to a man than we do to a woman. Words can provide a mask—or any number of masks. Words are a kind of verbal exoskeleton—camouflage, chameleon coloration. We paint and weave and perform with words. Like the magician, we do tricks; we distract. Often we distract ourselves. We listen to ourselves talk. We believe ourselves. Words are dangerous.

Given the Above: Why Speak At All?

  • To be less alone
  • To give form to possible babble
  • To mark territory
  • To give confession
  • To break the dread of muteness and silence
  • To share
  • To dominate
  • To instruct
  • To give account and bear witness
  • To play God (“In the Beginning was the Word”)
  • To pass on—through retelling and re-enactment: to give Tradition
  • To ask….to probe….to inquire
  • To be less alone

Neck Words; Back Words

A dancer/choreographer friend talks about the “dialogue” dancers have with other dancers on stage. She said that dancers are most vulnerable in their necks. For a dancer to present his or her neck to another dancer is to open intimacy. The reverse, she said, is a dancer’s back. For one dancer to present his or her back to another is to “deny” the other, to shut the other—as partner—out. To offer the neck, then—in the “dance of dialogue” or “dialogue of dance”—is to say: let’s speak; let’s truly and intimately speak. To offer the back—in this same “dialogue dance”—is to say: go away; I don’t care to speak; I don’t care to listen.

It has helped me, since this conversation with my friend, to consider—in my own dialogue writing—the critical difference between neck words and back words. Neck words are words extended from one Secret Self to another. Back words are the words of an Apparent (role-playing) Self. They pose a barrier, a thick crust, between the speaker and other. Back words, almost by definition, don’t allow the other to see the speaker’s face.

Most often, we back into conversations before exposing our necks.

In his book, After Babel, George Steiner looks at language and translation. He probes the complications of “translating.” What happens to impulse-feelings when they make their way into words? Steiner addresses the neck/back issue in slightly different terms. He speaks about “naked words” and “clothed words.”

With naked words, we open ourselves to being known. Clothed words shield us from being known. Naked (neck) words would, more likely, shape the dialogue of a “private” or “intimate” exchange. Clothed (back) words would, more likely shape the dialogue within a public” or “conventional” exchange.

At this point, let’s repeat the words of Joseph Campbell which opened this piece. Think of the concepts of neck and back, naked and clothed language.

“The best things cannot be told; the second best
Are misunderstood.  After that comes civilized
Conversation; after that, mass indoctrination
after that, intercultural exchange.”
–Joseph Campbell



  1. Being with a particular person
  2. Being in a particular place
  3. What you would most want to say to that person
  4. What you would most be afraid of saying
  5. What you would most hope the other to say.
  6. What you would most hope the other not say?

The Power of Wordsl Dialogue as Contest

If, in the strife of “play,” the object is to prevail—to win—then one of the objectives in dialogue is to “wine” the exchange. In the agonistic history of Man, we hear of riddle contests, insult contests, legal trials. In any of these, what the involved individual is attempting to do is win the contest of language. To win the contest of language, the speaker is trying to either maintain or take back the advantage, maintain or take back the power. All of this is obvious in an out-and-out argument. It’s less obvious—but no less present—in casual (or sometimes, even intimate) conversation.

The truth, nevertheless, is: in almost all of our exchanges, we are attempting to be “more.” We are attempting to say the words that are surer. We are trying to say the words that are brighter, funnier, more right, more generous. Whatever we judge the “contest” to be—an honesty contest, a humility contest—most times we enter it and—in our own way—try to win.

What are some of the techniques, then, of maintaining or taking back power in these word-exchanges? Since an audience always prefers a well-matched game to a one-sided ho-hummer, such techniques are valuable. How do characters try to “take the point” in any dialogue?

Here are nine techniques:

  1. Sheer quantity: to speak more: There are those who strategize that the more words they put into the air, the more they “own” the conversation. They attempt power by amassing verbiage. They indiscriminately reason: words=power; the more words….the more power.
  2. Reverse quantity: to speak least: This strategy explores the power of silence and mystery.; It reasons: every word you commit to sound puts you more at risk. The less you say, the less wrong you can be. If you are silent, people will equate the silence with strength. They will assume you are only waiting. The reverse-quantity players are the players to whom other players say things like: “I’m sorry; I’m rambling.” “Excuse me for just going on like that.”
  3. To cut others off: This is a more barbaric form of hoarding and amassing. You not only take all available “air time,” you take others’ air time as well. This technique reasons: grab all your own sentences and chop the sentences of others into little pieces. All the cut-off sentences of other players will be like headless chickens, squawking, while you stand there with the cleaver in your hand, grinning.
  4. To “take” the knowledge: This strategy reasons: if one knows more about what’s being discussed than the other(s), he has the power. Characters who try to “win” dialogues in this way storehouse knowledge (and trivia), accumulate secrets. If you can know what others don’t know or are obscuring, you win! Truth (whatever that is) triumphs!
  5. To “take” the virtue: Another kind of power-through-rightness. It involves winning not through a superiority of fact, but through a moral/ethical superiority. “Truth” is spiritual. A & B have a dialogue. A has the facts. B’s stance is: “You may have the facts, but they’re the devil’s facts. I win!” I have an acquaintance who—no matter what evidence I might advance to make my point—sets loose her eyes in a kind of saint’s drift while a beatific smile plays across her lips. “I hear what you’re saying,” she often says with the utmost virtue and sometimes rolls her eyes. Point Match!
  6. To be the interrogator: The role of interrogator is powerful. I ask the questions – you give the answers. You have to answer to me. Thus, a classical technique for controlling dialogue, winning conversation, is to assume the role of questioner. Even in its most seemingly gracious form—“Please—tell me about yourself”—it has power. In a “close match,” sometimes we see “players” answering questions with questions. I won’t fall for that trap. I won’t become the answerer: I’ll ask you a question. These can sometimes make interesting riffs in dialogue: cross-examining the cross-examiner.
  7. To change the subject: The strategy here is: never utter what you can’t utter with strength. Someone else in the dialogue tries to lead you to an area where he or she will have power and your power will be diminished…..? Don’t go there! Change the subject! Don’t let someone bring you to the net and then lob a ball over your head. Don’t let someone else force you to use your backhand.
  8. To ridicule: This is a subtler form of butchery. You let other players finish their sentences; you don’t cut them off. But then you mock what they’ve said. You verbally cut their words into ribbons. You disempower them through humiliation. In a match between the “more” player and the “ridicule” player, the more player runs all over the court; he tries to cover every inch inside the lines; he tries to be everywhere at once, so that he can be anywhere for any shot and dominate the space. The ridicule player lets him do that and then, simply, places a shot where he isn’t. Stupid more player!
  9. To “Play” with a received line: SHE says, “Where have you been?” HE says, “Where haven’t I been.” Like ridicule, playing with a received line attempts (1) to top the received line, (2) to dismiss the lead of the other player. It shifts the focus from the point to the play. Its gesture is to have fun, to use the received line as raw-material. It masquerades as being playful; instead, it’s both deflation anddeflection.


SHE says: “Where have you been for the last three hours?”
HE tries to take the advantage back

Look at his possible “replies” below, and try to get a sense of the particular strategy-for-empowerment HE’s attempting.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: You don’t want to know.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: I’m sorry. It’s been one of those days.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: Do you have any idea what my day’s been like?

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: (goes and mixes himself a drink)

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: I should have called. I’m sorry.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: In a motel. With a nymphomaniac.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: It might be a good idea to check and see whether one of the phones is off the hook.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: We need to talk.

SHE: Where have you been for the last three hours?
HE: Where were you all morning?

What the above hopes to reflect—besides the various ways HE tries to return the serve and take point—is the infinite variety possible in dialogue. There can be good lines. There can be wonderful lines. There can be exquisite lines. But there are never perfect lines.

It should be remembered that: though the above techniques view “players” in the game of dialogue as contestants—the same is often not true for the audience. We can stand outside a fiercely contested dialouge-match and love the game. We can feel close to and partnered with a dialogue’s play and spirit. Though the players may be separated by the contest, “we” can belong to and be joined in the game.

Mutual Dialogue

All the above techniques apply to power exchanges: how to speak “winning” dialogue. They are the considerations of “zero sum dialogue” – one winner….one loser. What about those rare, sublime and tender occasions when dialogue is mutual: two people speaking naked words to one another, two people leading with their necks? Are there occasions and strategies for shared words as well? Are there strategies for “belonging” and “union?”

Yes. Fine. What are they?

1. To “play genuinely with the received words: Children learn language in this way. Something is said to them, and they play with that something. They practice its pattern in a variety of ways, substituting words at various points.

There’s a kind of call-and-response in this. Such mutual “play”—back and forth—with words and phrases signals an openness and freedom between the speakers. It works toward a “personal language” without rules. It’s a kind of gentle touch and foreplay with words. I reach and touch her nose. She reaches with the same gesture and touches my ear. I reach with a similar gesture and touch her eyelid. She reaches and touches my lips.

2. To repeat each other’s words: This exchange is the exchange of liturgy. Sacred phrases and words have the pattern of statement and response. When we take “oaths,” the ritual often begins with “repeat after me.” “We” are bound by such words. Uttering them in a liturgic repetition ritualizes our boundness and belonging. Listen to the closing of “Penguin” Blues” by John Phillips, a play in which two very separated people come together.

ANGELITA: She was sick, Gordon. She was a sick woman.

GORDON: She was sick.

ANGELITA: I’m not going to hit you.


Ritual, liturgy, incantation are all linguistic means of making the word flesh. To say and repeat brings the spirit of a thing to life. When you and I repeat each other’s words, we are joined in the truth of their spirit. We pledge the mutual truth of our vows.

3. To complete each other’s words: One effect of this technique is that the “players” are so close, so united, that they are of one mind, one voice. The players know one another so well, that each can anticipate the other’s next word. There is also the larger sense that—in completing each other’s sentences—they enact, through language, actually completing each other: making each other whole. This is a technique very much favored by Tennessee Williams. Let me, though, offer a second example from the closing moments of “Penguin Blues.”

ANGELITA: But let her go, Gordon. Let her free.

GORDON: Maybe she was….

ANGELITA: (touching her heart with her fist) hurting….

GORDON: too…

Gordon needs help in releasing a person he’s blamed. He needs help in letting his role of victim go.Angelita offers this help. Together they complete the litany of release and compassion.

Again: dialogue has its roots in ritual and liturgy. “Play” has its roots in the moreopen and less contested world of children. It makes sense, then, that dialogue’s patterns of “union” should take their shape and find their sources in both religious ceremony and children’s play.

It is to the great benefit of every writer—whatever his or her religious choices—to attend religious services of all kinds and listen intently. Internalize the sounds of voices reaching for one another, joining one another, believing in the profound enhancements of belonging. And pause, as well, to listen to the voices of children at play. Often the play erupts in strife. But at those times when the words drift back and forth like a played-with and shared aerial balloon, there are lessons to be learned about dialogue.

Subtext: The Dialogue under the Dialogue

“….We dance around in a ring and suppose,
But the secret sits in the center and knows.”
–Robert Frost.

“The truth is a silence toward which
Words can only point.”
–W. H. Auden

In the dance of dialogue, we dance around what we might say. We dance around ever uttering the secret. Those naked “neck” words come hard.

Subtext is the implied text. Subtext, literally, is the text under the text. It’s what we “dare not speak about” yet lurks, shadows, hints. A possible subtext for the above, “Where have you been?” is: “I’ve been frantic!”

Subtext is always the text of naked words, of “neck” words. That’s why it hides out underground, in the sub-basement of our discourse. Subtext has great embodiment in Harold Pinter’s “The Room.” In that play, the subtext, the “true message” literally hides out in the dark. It exists in the form of a blind, Black man named Riley, who lives behind a sub-partition in the basement and only comes above-ground when called to do so toward the end of the play. Riley is the subtext. Riley bears The Truth, The Secret. Think of a blind Black man living below ground behind a partition in a dark basement—a voice that won’t appear until called upon or forced up or until he can’t stand it down there anymore and runs up the stairs—and you have a pretty good definition of subtext.

It’s Pinter, in fact, who has a telling phrase for that late moment in any play in which something gets said that cannot be unsaid. He calls such surfacings “irrevocable statements.” Once an irrevocable statement gets voiced, things can never be the same in our central character or in the play. When an irrevocable statement climbs the basement stairs and says its piece: that’s the subtext speaking. That’s the subtext becoming text.

If speaking secrets is so hard: why would the subtext ever climb the basement stairs out of the dark at all?! Why not pull up the folding staircase into the dark basement and just leave him there? Why not lock and bolt the basement door? Why not flood the basement?

Because sometimes the Secret needs to be spoken….or we feel we’ll die.

Subtext, if not the Heart of Darkness, is certainly the Heart in Darkness.

What brings the subtext into the text? What are the conditions that make such moments most natural and powerful? As writers: when and why and how does that dark blind-man climb the stairs?

When in doubt: leave him down there! One of the greatest temptations and errors in all narrative writing is to have Riley climb the stairs too soon. Once the Secret is out….once the Mystery is Fact….once the naked heart sits with everybody else in front of the family television…..the story may be over. We take the sacrament at the end of the service.

So: rather than hurrying to bring Riley up the basement stairs, do everything you can to keep him down there. His appearance should seem unavoidable, irrepressible. We should hear his ascending footsteps in terror. He should break down the basement door.

This is not to say we don’t hear him scraping around down there in the dark from time to time. That is not to say we don’t—all during the narrative—hear him clearing his throat, readying himself to speak. It’s those foot-scrapings and throat-clearings that arouse us, scare us, have us looking forward with anxiety to the dread entrance.

In terms of writing, then: the secrets of “positioning the subtext—Riley’s entrance—are:

He’s forced up; he’s unearthed: Another person goes below ground, goes into the dark below the surface, finds the subtext and forces it up the basement stairs. This might be termed pressure from without. The outsider says, “Look who I discovered living in your basement! Why didn’t you tell anybody he was living there?”

He bursts up; he can’t be held down: The Secret subtext is too powerful, too hungry or too large. He can’t be denied. Perhaps the role-playing Apparent Self has too much to drink, gets tired, allows himself or herself to grow emotionally overwrought and becomes careless. The Apparent Self leaves the basement door unlocked. And the Secret subtext bounds up the stairs, two at a time and breaks through the basement door. “I’m….back! Here I am!” the Secret subtext announces and steps into the middle of a party.

He enters invited. Sometimes it’s time. Sometimes we’re ashamed of having locked the subtext in the dark basement. Sometimes the risk is just worth it. Another person has offered us her naked words and we can’t hide the subtext away below ground any more. And so we say: “Let me take you downstairs” to the other person. Or we go to a door; we unlock it; we open it; we turn on the light and say, “Mr. Riley: would you come up here, please?”


One hears about “beats” in dramatic and narrative structures. In part, the term’s musical suggestion is true. In part, as well, “beats” can be explained in terms of subtext.

Imagine the subtext inhabiting the basement. Imagine the basement stairs. Imagine that the stairs have a series of landings. The graphic of all this imagining might look something like:


During the first “beat” our subtext, Riley, climbs to the first landing. Let’s say that Riley carries the painful message of divorce or separation into the household. When he reaches the first landing, he is still at a considerable distance from the surface. As he climbs, during beat #1, A and B smalltalk about why the shopping took so long. Riley pauses at the landing. He may even reconsider bringing the message into the house and descend a step or two. But then he hears the couple arguing about an item in the shopping bag, and he turns around and climbs to the second landing (beat #2).

During the “what’s this?Why did you get this?” conversation, then, the subtext has gotten closer to the household. The sounds of his ascending shoes below have been louder; the rasps of his throat-clearing have cut a bit into the dinner conversation. Again, Riley pauses. The pause is palpable; the rhythm of the dinner conversation comes to a rest. Again, perhaps the subtext reconsiders surfacing and retreats slightly. But then the couple begins a conversation about tastes in music, and Riley once more turns and climbs toward the surface.

And so it goes. Until he’s there. Until the door is open. Perhaps the A. opens it. Perhaps the B. Perhaps both lean against it trying to keep it shut, but Riley just breaks through.

Beats,” then, are the “cover” conversations under which the subtext rises. As any dramatic structure moves toward the surfacing of the subtext, there will be less and less distance between the “cover” conversation and the subtext. Characteristically, there will be a PAUSE or REST or BEAT taken from “cover”-conversation to “cover”-conversation, from stair-landing to stair-landing.

To return to Robert Frost’s couplet which introduced this section: “We dance around in a ring and suppose / But the secret sits in the center and knows.” When—in the final steps of the “dance of dialogue”—we close the circle, get close and touch the secret, touch the subtext……words mean. That is the time for true speaking. That is the time for charged language. That is the time for poetry. At the close moment at the end of the scene, at the end of the act, at the end of the play. Don’t waste poetry. Don’t waste “truth.” Don’t waste ideas. Don’t waste the power of naked speech. The moment is everything with language.

The Music of Dialogue

“Human attitudes and specifically human ways
Of thinking about the world are the results of
dance and song.”
–John Blacking (musicologist)

Words make sound; they create rhythms. Once again we are talking about a power in dialogue nearly independent of meaning. Words make music. And it is not infrequent—in the listening to dialogue—that our listening pleasure is the pleasure of music.

The first dramatic texts, in most cultures, were sung, incanted.They fit set modes, patterns, rhythms.There were b eauty and pleasure in that. When children learn to speak, one of the first elements of language they play with is sound. They utter phonemes. They find a sound they like and repeat it—again and again. Then children find combinations of sounds and repeat them. Then they find and play with words. Then they find and play with structures: sentences, into which they substitute a variety of different words to try the sounds of those words in those places out. They play to see if the different words will keep the same rhythms in the pattern sentence.

It is no coincidence that a large number of playwrights are also musicians. It is no coincidence that playwrights pattern their plays after musical forms. Is it at all surprising that Sam Shepard was once a drummer? Strindberg writes the Ghost Sonata. Another playwright writes a play entitled, “Fugue. Samuel Beckett uses fugue form. Edward Albee says he patterned Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf after Beethoven’s Seventh.

Observe two “dialogue” progressions beside one another, and note the musical elements of both sound and rhythm. The “dialogue” on the left is between Vladimir and Estragon in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. The “dialogue” on the right is the progressive sentences of a two-and-a-half year old named Anthony.

EST: It’s the rope.
ANT: There’s a hat

VLA: It’s the rubbing.
ANT: There’s another

EST: It’s inevitable.
ANT: There’s hat.

VLA: It’s the knot.
ANT: There’s another hat.

EST: It’s the chafing.
ANT: That’s a hat.

When one writes dialogue, one, in part, writes music. One, in part, writes poetry. One, in part, simulates random chatter. The dialogue writer attempts to have the tape recorder’s “ear” for natural and unedited talk….together with the musician’s “ear” for acoustical patterns, tones, rhythms….together with the poet’s “ear” for the naked beauty and power of language.

The poet’s ear often comes into play in dialogue builds. It’s not uncommon for dialogue to create regular metrics: a 2-stress line answered by a 2-stress line—continuing in a sequence. The building sequence may then move on to a series of 3-stress lines and responses….followed by a series of 4 or 5-stress lines and responses. Playwrights like Beckett, Stoppard, Pinter, Williams, Albee or Mamet create these poetic patterns all the time. And they are not surprising in the dialogues of O’Neill, Arthur Miller or David Rabe. As well: check on the detective “noir” dialogue of writers like James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett.

Eugene O’Neill employed extensive use of drums. His drums ranged from the literal, which beat in plays like “The Emperor Jones,” to the striking of objects like bottles or glasses against surfaces, the clapping of hands, the chanting of voices. A common O’Neill “trick” was to accelerate the beat, the chant, the rhythm of the dialogue—so that it began at the rate of a normal heartbeat or pulse and accelerated into “quickening” and then pitched and desperate emotion.

It is the pattern of operatic “builds” that the pulse, the “heart” rises and accelerates to “bursting.” At the end of a quickened back-and-forth, 2-stress exchange, a monologue or aria bursts forth.

At the center of the quickened back-and-forth exchange is tension. At the center of the “aria” or monologue is character….character-through-voice. When you want to increase dialogue tension, shorten the speeches; move them back and forth more frequently. When you want to spotlight a single character, through that character’s words and voice, create a monologue.

But strategize wisely. Monologues must be “earned.” Characters who recite unearned monologues get called long-winded, and we tend to excuse ourselves from their filibuster and get another drink. Monologues must be “arrived at.” They must burst out of the tension which precedes them. Otherwise they risk seeming indulgent, boring, gratuitous.

Research with music supports the ancient Greek notion that different tempos and “modes” specifically paralleled given emotional states. There are a number of “truths” about the relationship between music and emotions that writers of dramatic scenes shouldn’t neglect.

  1. “At an emotional level, there is something ‘deeper’ about hearing than seeing; and something about hearing other people which fosters human relationships even more than seeing them” (Anthony Storr)
  2. Measured in the “action potentials” of muscles, music causes “arousal” in the human body.
  3. Different tempos and patterns of music create different states of arousal: fear, sadness, tenderness.
  4. There is considerable general predictability in cause & effect: “x” music = “x” emotion.
  5. Extreme states of arousal are felt as painful; milder arousal is felt as life-enhancing.

How powerful is the “musical” aspect of dialogue? Again, research would conclude: very. Our first hearing is in utero.

“An unborn child may startle in the womb at the sound
Of a door slamming shut. The rich warm cacophony of
The womb has been recorded: the mother’s heartbeat and
Breathing are among the earliest indications babies have
Of the existence of a world beyond their own skin.”

–David Burrows, musicologist

Psychologist, Anthony Storr, tells us: “A dark world is frightening. ….But a silent world is even more terrifying.

Explore the music of your dialogue to its fullest.

Variations on a Theme

Before you give too many characters in your narrative scenes “speaking parts,” remember: a 3-character script will have upwards of 20 “voices.” A will speak differently to B than he will to C. And A will speak differently to B in a bar than he will in an office, differently again in a bedroom, differently again over lunch. A will have as many “voices” with B as there are places to have voices in. Words are, remember, masks. So any of us change vocabulary, change diction, change discourse—just the way we might change appearance—according to where we are and who we’re with.

In our 3-character script, A, B & C will, of course, have their own “essential voice.” So there will be only three essential voices to capture. But those will shift and adapt. Constantly. Their jargon will shift; their sounds will shift; their music will shift. They will bear their subtexts differently depending on place and person. Any of us do that—shift vocabularies, rhythms, subtexts according to who and where—why shouldn’t we demand the same from our characters?


So: who is the writer of dialogue? The writer of dialogue is, in part, eavesdropper—the uncanny reproducer of motel conversations, street-corner diatribes, family dinner-table ramblings, pillow-talk. He is, in part, poet—aware of charged language and how to arrange it, aware of all the indirections of metaphor, the suggestions of figure. And he is, finally, word composer—brother of the poet, at work arranging many of the same ways: sound, rhythm, cadence, point and counterpoint, area.

All you eavesdroppers, poets and composers, then: go forth and write your dialogue.

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