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I sometimes write books.

I sometimes write plays.

At the moment, I’m writing both.

Well, actually, at the present I’m writing a book and editing a play.

The two really feel different to me, even though fundamentally it’s still writing. With a book, you’re editing for the plot, the voice, the character development, the various arcs and making sure the major plot points fall where they need to. You’re doing this in the guise of the omniscient narrator. As a mechanic of words, you’re worried about sentence structure, paragraph flow, voice and tone. Is the balance of narration and dialogue okay? Did I properly write that quotation? Did I ramble on too much in that last paragraph?

In writing a novel, to me, the mechanics of the story – sentence structure, plot pivots, etc. – feel blended with the storytelling itself. The dialogue and characters breathe only within those mechanisms; the fish can’t leave the bowl or their gills will burst. It’s like reading a document in Word with all the normally hidden characters and editing prompts showing.

But, for me, playwrighting is different. As the writer, the mechanical stuff is still there, maybe even more so. Scripts have a definite format for where lines of dialogue go, where the director’s notes are placed, setting up action prompts, cues, etc. All of this is dictated by set rules. But when I write a play, this mechanical stuff stays in the background of my mind – the special characters are turned off. All I really consciously see is that character standing on the stage. Alone and still in his underwear at first, then clothed as only he should be and moving around with purpose.

In a book, you’re always supposed to “show”, not “tell”, meaning convey the story through dialogue and action, not through spewing out exposition in your narration. But still, both can, do and should co-exist. Plays are different. There is no “tell”. There is only “show.” Yes, I’m channeling Yoda – “There is no try. There is only do.” It’s good advice, Jedi or not.

In a  play, there is typically no narrator up there on stage filling in the gaps. (Okay, actually, I have written a play that way, but only for comedic effect, not as a legit storytelling crutch.) If you character’s dialogue doesn’t move the story, the story doesn’t move. Yes, costumes and sets and, obviously, good acting, help. But if the words aren’t on the page, it all crumbles to dust.

In a book, you can’t really cover bad dialogue, but dialogue is just one of many moving parts. Where dialogue lags, (artful) narration steps in. On stage, that’s not an option.  So, writing and editing dialogue in a play feels more visceral to me. I really do see that poor woman up on stage so desperately wanting to express herself and needing the words to do it.

So I better go give her some.


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