-- Michael Weller
This section has been revised and expanded in the new paperback and e-book editions of Playwriting Seminars.
The way playwrights put words on paper (their “voice”) is a critical part of the content of their plays regardless of the stories being told. Voice is what makes a literary manager or artistic director of a regional theatre read past page three of a new script. After page three, characters and story determine if they keep reading.
Best Practice: A play without a “voice” won’t work in the theatre.
Plot can be all that’s necessary to make a screenplay work, but that’s not the case in the theatre. One of the distinctions between playwriting and screenwriting is that screenplays are read by the pros for story. While voice helps in writing for film, it’s not essential. In film, story rules. In theatre, voice rules.
Voice is your personal signature as a playwright and as this develops it will become individual to you. Experienced theatre professionals can often identify the author of a new script by a produced playwright simply by hearing the “voice” on a page of dialogue, and if they’re famous, with just a few lines of dialogue.
Playwrights build a physical construction on stage with spoken words. We can move around in it, as the performers do, but it's an invisible construction. That makes it easy to think it's just words, any words that do the job. It's not. Any old words that just do the job are a bore in the theatre. What playwrights do is make us hear things we've never quite heard in that way before and what we hear is their special voice.
What playwrights write is the language as it's spoken, not as it's written. The syntax of spoken language is only vaguely related to the niceties of English composition. Spoken language is governed by the structure of thoughts, not conventional sentence structure. To be good at playwriting, retrain your ears to hear how people actually speak. No two people speak the language in exactly the same way and that’s one of the keys to creating memorable characters.
Voice is built on a base of how people speak in ordinary conversation with all the quirks that involves.
1. Listen for how people actually speak. How they express thoughts in spoken language. It’s different from the kinds of linear and logical discourse favored in written language.
2. Listen for the way people really use words. What words are typically dropped from spoken language and which are combined as contractions and how certain sounds within words when “properly” enunciated are typically dropped in speaking.
3. Listen for how punctuation is thrown around in speech. Spoken language often makes a hash of sentence structure and the niceties of nouns, verbs, and all the other paraphernalia of written language.
4. Listen for the odd rhythms of spoken language. People have their own unique cadences and rhythms as they speak and these are often separate from the meanings of the words they say.
If you’re a natural borne chatterer, make a sign to put over your desk: LISTEN MORE talk less
And equally important, start keeping a journal of what you hear. After a morning of eavesdropping on other peoples’ conversations, try capturing what they said in your journal. Concentrate on recording the oddities of the way they said things. Don’t record conversations with some electronic device. First, you may end up with a punch in the nose (and may be breaking the law as well). And second, you’re not really interested in exactly what these people say and how. What you’re after is your own modification of what you’ve heard and the best way to get that is by writing down what you hear, not by listening to a recording.
A good way to start this kind of listening is by eavesdropping on your friends, relations, and strangers on the street, in restaurants, or stores. Be shameless, but don't be obvious.
This sort of thing is not an endearing trait in the normal world unless your day job is with the FBI so whatever you overhear absolutely needs to be kept to yourself. This exercise is not a source for becoming the life of the party. People have a right to what they assume is privacy so you’re only doing this as a step toward developing your playwriting voice.
William Saroyan learned to write dialogue by keeping his ear to the upstairs heating vent while his parents entertained – and wrote down what he heard. But most playwrights don't duplicate on paper what they've heard on the street unless what they've heard is especially wonderful. By doing the work of listening and then writing dialogue, you'll gradually create your own special voice. The way this happens over time borders on pure magic and the best way to speed up the process is to keep subtext out of the mouths of characters by not allowing them to say everything they’re thinking.
Remember: Mystery is good. (For a technique that can help develop your voice, see Chapter 41 on Writing Exercises in the new edition, Playwriting Seminars 2.0).
As your ear becomes trained to hear spoken language instead of written language, your natural story-telling abilities will also develop. That skill is probably hidden in our DNA, going back to when humans first began telling stories and drawing them on cave walls 30,000 years ago.