Writing

Let's talk about dialogue and Love, Love, Love

People always go on about how important inspiration is in writing. But it’s worth remembering this strange calling’s not all head-in-the-air dreaming. There’s also the important question of technique.

A couple of weeks ago I was in New York and while I was there went to see Love, Love, Love, a play by the British writer Mike Bartlett currently running at the off-Broadway Laura Pels Theatre. It’s a tragicomedy about a British couple’s lives across three and a bit decades, and how the selfishness of the Sixties generation has ruined the futures of their children. Put that way it sounds glum but trust me — it isn’t. I haven’t laughed so much in a theatre in ages though it’s also a work that, in post-Brexit Britain, seems more acutely observed than ever.

Here’s Richard Armitage, Kenneth, the father in the play, talking about the production.

Bartlett is a master of dialogue and, since I seem to be hovering between the roles of novelist and dramatist these days, I’m desperate to learn more about how that works in performance. So I bought the script and was lucky enough to have Richard explain to me how the script conventions function after I sat spellbound through a Saturday matinee.

What struck me most to begin with about Bartlett’s dialogue is how natural it sounds. This is a very compact production. A cast of five and just three sets. The dialogue is basically discussion between family members, some of it argument, some the kind of pointed banalities we all utter at home. Bartlett hits the tone of this exactly. People speak over one another. They look as if they’re about to say something but then hold back. The parents, Kenneth and Sandra, are hilariously horrendous and, like all parents I guess, pretend to listen to their offspring but don’t.

All of this relies on some formidable acting. It’s a huge credit to the cast — all American apart from Richard, not that you’d notice — that they speed their way through this very fast and wordy play as if this were all real life.

Drama and writing share something in common; at their best they’re invisible. Acting is successful when you don’t notice the theatricality. Writing, at least my kind of writing, is designed to fade into the background until the reader is engrossed in nothing but the three great pillars of storytelling: the world in which the tale is set, the people who populate that world, and the events that take them on their journey. Painting’s much the same too I guess. A few specialist areas aside, no one looks at a painting to see the paint.

An important element in Bartlett’s achievement with Love, Love, Love lies in the dialogue. Not just the words he chooses but how he wants them delivered. So let’s get technical here. At the beginning the script you’ll see these directions.

(/) means the next speech begins at that point.

(-) means the next line interrupts.

(…) at the end of a speech means it trails off. On its own it indicates a pressure, expectation or desire to speak.

A line with no full stop indicates that the next speech follows on immediately.

A speech with no written dialogue indicates a character deliberately remaining silent.

Two of these conventions — the ellipsis and the dash — you’ll find used in exactly the same way in novels. For example.

Bakker said, ‘I really wish…’

Vos waited. ‘You really wish what?’

Or…

Bakker said, ‘I really wish—’

‘No you don’t,’ Vos cut in. ‘We don’t have time.’

If you’re writing a novel now just remember — dash means interruption, ellipsis someone trailing off into silence.

The rest of these directions are new to me and really only apply to visual drama. Let’s take them one by one (this is my made-up dialogue, by the way, no one else’s).

SON: If it’s OK I’d really like to go and play football /with Donny tonight.

DAD: Have you done your homework?

The effect here: Dad’s making his point about homework by interrupting his son as he speaks. You could also use it to indicate someone who simply isn’t listening to what the first actor is saying.

The second direction — no full stop so that the next speech follows on immediately — can have the same effect, or make the second speaker sound abrupt, perhaps rude or impatient. The third, a character deliberately staying silent, is, I guess, a variation on Pinter who used to write in the script ‘Pause’ or ‘Silence’ depending on the length of the gap he wanted.

Oh and you’ll also find this in the script…

Kenneth…

This is someone wanting to say something, being on the verge of uttering the words, but staying silent. The kind of thing we do from time to time.

In Love, Love, Love these techniques are used sparingly but to devastating effect. All the more so because you simply don’t notice. Dialogue here isn’t speech it’s talking. After a while you feel you’re not watching drama at all. You’re eavesdropping on the embarrassing conversations of a dysfunctional family cruising along just above the sharp rocks of disaster.

It’s a masterful work and a difficult one to perform I imagine, not that you’d guess that from sitting in the audience. I can’t begin to calculate how much skill, effort and sweat goes into mastering all this vocal choreography. Traditionally we think of stage dialogue as call and response: one character says something, another says something back. This is all that and much more.

I’m not surprised people keep going back to work out what they missed first time round. If I was still in New York I’d be forking out for another ticket myself. It’s a master class in writing and acting. But don’t take my word for it. Just read the glowing reviews.