Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Learning from the Classics: Shakespeare and Dialogue

There's this fellow, he wrote some stuff that was pretty popular. Bill Shakespeare. Man, what he could do with a pen some blokes couldn't do with a half a pint and five hundred pounds in their pockets.

Ok, enough of my own hackneyed cockney conniption, the truth is that William Shakespeare, as you well know, is the go to example for most literary concepts. Comedy, Tragedy, Character Development, how to write compelling sequels, how to convince men to wear dresses. He did it all.

Today I want to look at something he did particularly well, and that was (Drum Roll) Writing Dialogue. (Crowd applauds, those of weaker dispositions faint)

Here's an example from that one play, with the boy and the girl who like each other but their families don't. Yeah, that one. It comes from Scene 1, around line 170 or so.

Ben. Good morrow, cousin.
Rom. Is the day so young?
Ben. But new struck nine.
Rom. Ay me! sad hours seem long. Was that my father that went hence so fast?
Ben. It was. What sadness lengthens Romeo's hours?
Rom. Not having that which, having, makes them short.
Ben. In love?
Rom. Out —
Ben. Of love?
Rom. Out of her favour, where I am in love.

Now, there are several more famous chunks of dialogue from Romeo and Juliet, but this is one of my personal favorites, because it does so much in such a little space. It conveys a major plot device (The love unrequited that has doomed Romeo) it establishes the voice of character (Romeo is a bit sappy, but in a good way. He's a total scene kid.) and it does all of that while maintaining a poetic elegance rarely found in most other literature. There's word play, rhythm, and banter. It's a great piece of work.

What lesson can we learn about writing dialogue from this example? Well, in my mind, the biggest thing is, when we are writing dialogue, we have to remember we aren't writing colloquial conversations. Even when we are portraying ordinary folk talking in their ordinary dialect, about ordinary things, our writing must still be extraordinary.

What Shakespeare did so well here is that each line, while conversational, also was a poetic partner to the line it followed. The word choice, the placement, even the length of line served to emphasize and expand a concept or phrase from the previous line, and set up a perfect response in the line that followed. It's memorable, it's simple, it's terse and to the point, yet expansive and artistic.

In other words, it's Shakespeare.

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