Why writing drama is harder than writing a novel

Copyright © 2017 Jerry Dunne

At a mere glance, the idea that writing drama is harder than novel writing may seem astonishing when we consider that most plays are a lot shorter than even a short novel, and that, dialogue aside, everything else in the play is given as stage setup or direction, (action, character mood, for example,) and generally delivered in clear, simple, crisp prose; whereas the novel’s narrative encompasses detailed description of scene, action, inner monologue, the physical, psychological and emotional state of character, as well as dialogue. This comparison in favour of the novel for easier writing may seem even more astonishing because we also know that dialogue is usually presented in a simpler form of syntax than any other aspect of the narrative; for example, scene description in the novel will generally include similes, metaphors, adjectives and adverbs (more than will dialogue, anyway) and other rhetorical flowerings that writers use in order to enrich the narrative.

So what gives? Why should writing drama be the harder of the two creative forms? Well, we’re not talking here about the actual labour involved in each form but of the inherent difficulty, or trickiness, in mastering the inner workings of each of them.

Although writing dialogue ought to be a simpler task than writing any other aspect of the narrative (for reasons mentioned above), in fact, dramatic dialogue can be incredibly tricky as its mere existence must run in parallel to either the creation or the development of character. And here we come to a very important point! Possibly the hardest thing to do in drama and fiction both is to create and develop well rounded character. Because dialogue represents the immediacy of character, it will not take long after the play starts before the dialogue begins and therefore the character must also jump into life. This suggests that the dramatist must already know his character just as it is ready to go about its business in the play, which means well before they even open their mouth to speak. Here is where the novelist has a big advantage over the playwright. He can start to build and ‘know’ his character through other parts of the narrative (less immediate ones) for quite a while before his character need utter a single word. So what at first glance looked to be a disadvantage for the novelist now looks to be quite an advantage.

If we think of dialogue as the character’s skeleton on which the flesh has yet to be added, we may come to see even clearer why the medium is trickier to accomplish than that of the novel. The dramatist creates the skeleton out of nothing else but dialogue and a few stage directions, and he creates only the skeleton. On the other hand, the novelist gets to fully flesh out his character, not just with dialogue but also with inner monologue (even a soliloquy is still dialogue and must be dramatic, anyway, so is not strictly comparable to inner monologue), description of senses, mood, physical person, action, as well as back-story (more difficult to pull off in the immediacy of drama). The novelist can take his time and use all his narrative resources in order to raise his character from the vague to the detailed and solid. Many novelists really do need the little details to help them build character. As a matter of fact, even scene and scene atmosphere and mood are rich ingredients that aid the writer to breathe air into the character’s lungs. The dramatist can create mood and atmosphere within the dialogue and suggest it with scene setup and direction but these means are still far more limited than those of the novelist. For the play to succeed fully here, it really becomes the job of others later on to accomplish these tasks. The novelist also has the opportunity to develop character over quite a range of scenes and incidents, which may involve interactions with a multitude of secondary characters. For structural as well as practical purposes this is something rarely allowed the dramatist.

Also, as the dramatist must engage the audience constantly, dialogue in a play must never be allowed to ramble or become too abstract or overly intellectual or in any other way difficult to follow as it may do in a novel. Although in the novel, plot focus and reader engagement are also important, there is much more leeway in reading than in watching and listening. The reader can read slowly or go over what they have just read to make sure they understand the meaning; the audience don’t get a second chance to hear the dialogue. So, here, too, even within the dialogue itself, the dramatist has less manoeuvrability than the novelist in developing character.

Now, once the dramatist has built this skeleton of character out of dialogue alone, he must pass on his creation to the actor who will be the one to flesh it out. In this sense, the playwright is writing more for the actor than the audience. The actor must perform an interpretation from the skeleton, deciding in which precise ways to flesh it out, a little like someone doing a forensic body reconstruction. The dramatist may advise, but ultimately he cannot control the interpretation. Anyway, plays are often produced without any outside input at all from the writer.

It is quite extraordinary how little tools the dramatist has to work with and yet must pass on a well rounded set of skeleton characters as well as a suitable plot with often only the suggestion of tension, atmosphere and mood. What is even more extraordinary is how easily his dialogue and therefore his character may jump into life in the mouth of a good actor. However, a poor actor, or the wrong actor for the role, may, for instance, lack the nuance that the role calls for, and so weaken the play overall. The dramatist can only pray that the director and actors share his vision of the play and deliver on it in the appropriate way.

The novelist, on the other hand, though far more likely to be labouring away on his project for longer, has many more tools to help him in character creation and development and furthermore has complete control throughout the whole creative process.

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