Some years ago I was asked what I, as a writer, actually did all day. I was in the process of revising a script, so I answered truthfully: I spent the whole day talking to my imaginary friends.
Writing can be noisy work. Performance writers are creating dynamic, pace, tension and flow. All that, plus characters, plot, aesthetic, and the world of the play is created through dialogue. Owing to this, I can’t stress enough the importance of knowing how your words move when spoken aloud – how they feel and emerge from a living mouth – what your work sounds like when uttered in a room.
It is often only in a read-through of a script we become aware of any tongue-twisters or difficult sentences we may have inadvertently created; it is there we note if a line sounds stilted, histrionic, or chimes false. Sudden unexpected little rhyming couplets emerge and accidental puns or double entendres. It is alarming how often what we thought we knew so well can surprise us – even ambush us. Reading the dialogue aloud when you write it is one way of avoiding this.
I find I can identify sections that are ‘flabby’ or need attention simply by half-murmuring the lines when I read the play. I can also find the sentences that jar because there are too many syllables in them, or not enough – and all this impacts on the greater whole.
Plays are written to be spoken. It makes sense that we should check the rhythm and flow by saying those words aloud. It helps us to check whether the dynamic between characters moves in the speed and pace we want at that moment. I often compare writing to composing music – it’s good to check each section follows the patterns and has the energy appropriate to the atmosphere we are trying to create at any point.
I’ve worked with writers who are bewildered as to why a scene which they know should work doesn’t. They’ve honed it, included all the necessary components of plot, rising tension, good characterisation – and yet it still doesn’t have the desired impact or emotional effect. We have then edited a few lines – perhaps changed the length or rhythm of several – and suddenly, to their astonishment, the moment works.
A speedy staccato back-and-forth may undermine and destroy a tender moment, or one with tension and gravitas – but that dynamic leading up to a slower, more evenly spaced section can help heighten the moment by contrast.
Movement of text has an impact on the audience and how it receives the information. Try and ensure you use the appropriate dynamic, flow, vocabulary and interaction. Reading the text aloud will help this.