Cecilia Capers - More Than Novel Ideas

Writer - Attorney


How Actors and Theatre Technique Can Enhance a Novelist's Writing Part One: Dialogue

Posted by ceciliacapers on September 22, 2013 at 9:45 PM



By Cecilia T. Capers (September 22, 2013)


Uta Hagen. Stella Adler. Meyerhold, Stanislavsky, and Bertolt Brecht. These are the names of theatrical pioneers. Not exactly names on books you would expect to find in a novelist’s library. I’ve had them in my personal collection for years. I first read Brecht in my 11th grade. I started my studies in the art of writing at a young age because I fell in love with theatre. I liked the idea that I could become a novelist someday but I really loved the idea of writing characters that could be interpreted by an actor on a stage. Actors are magical to me. They take what a creative or inspired mind constructs on paper and gives it skin, bone, and connective tissue. When I decided to parlay my background into becoming a novelist, my love for actors and theatre crossed over to my new craft. Novelist can learn a lot from actors and acting technique to guide them as they write.



Theatre will always be my first love. I went to my first Broadway musical on my 5th birthday and I was hooked. I wrote several one act plays and skits in high school. Fortunately, I grew up in the suburbs and attended a high school that fostered a good academic environment. By the end of my sophomore year in college, I had a full-length play under my belt. Almost two years of writing and working with my theatre professor paid off tremendously when the theatre program produced “The Life and Death of the Existential Black Man.” Watching actors bring my words to life was quite cool. Listening to actors deliver the dialogue I wrote was more important.



In theatre you don’t have a lot of literal space to create an imitation of life. A set is designed but the words and presence of an actor are more important to move the story forward and emote a response from the audience. Playwriting gives a writer a certain level of training to define each character by the words they speak. It is different than writing a screenplay. Unlike writing a book or short story, a playwright cannot hide behind dense prose to differentiate one character from another. Character A and Character B can speak the King’s English but their individual personalities must shine through in the words they speak. Great dialogue gives any literary work a higher level of verisimilitude. If dialogue is written well, an actor as well as a novelist can create a back story to help them construct the character’s motivation. I believe it is constructive for novelists to watch plays or read them to enhance their dialogue and/or character development.



Actors and theatrical techniques also taught me the musicality of writing words. To me, like hearing a power g chord played on a guitar (trust me, if you listen to rock & roll or any form of popular music, you hear it all the time) certain word ring! To me, certain words have a bounce. As a writer, I want my readers to hear the rhythm of words in their head. When dialogue is written in a rigid way, even the best actors cannot salvage a script. Stilted dialogue in a script or novel will not make a person envision real-life situations. It will not make a reader connect with characters. Some fiction authors are very adept at tapping into the musicality of character dialogue. I applaud authors who have that skill. When in doubt, novelists should read their dialogue aloud without the exposition. If it sounds like a real conversation rolling off your tongue, then you’ve done what actors do on a table read of a script.


I don’t advocate veering from the path of being a novelist to become a script loving playwright but you might broaden your mind to tap into some acting and theatrical techniques. You never know what a little extra insight can do for your craft.



Categories: Writing, Writing Technique, Creative Process

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