Want playtime to be dramatic? Check out your seven deadly sins…. Revealing Characters through Dialogue, led by Helena Sheridan – 10 March 2021

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Wednesday night came round again, with its now familiar routine of logging on to Zoom with my fellow AWC members. This week our Club Night was a drama workshop, focusing on how to effectively reveal your characters through their use of dialogue. Tuesday had seen the 2021 BAFTA Film Award Nominations being revealed, so maybe some of that expertise would filter through to our session…?

Nigel’s introduction made it clear that Helena had an extensive drama pedigree. A long-term member and former president of AWC, she was also a member of LiterEight, had written scripts for BBC radio and theatre, and won the SAW Drama competition on five separate occasions. In her previous AWC drama workshops, back in those heady days when members could all sit in the same room together, Helena would get those attending to write and act out a short, scripted piece during the evening. Obviously, Zoom would scupper any theatrical opportunities for us on this occasion! Fortunately, we would still be treated to Helena and Nigel doing their best “Staged” impression, sharing scripts across separate Zoom windows on our screens. (To be fair, given the comments made by Nigel about being subject to various props, and the need to get revenge on Helena, maybe we had dodged a dramatic bullet or, at least, Nigel had…..!)

Kicking off her workshop, Helena posed the following question to the group: “What makes a good play or short story?” Various suggestions were made about having interesting and convincing characters, or an exciting plot. Yes, Helena acknowledged, these were important, but how do we make them happen?

Cue Conflict.

Now, before you start wondering how to introduce “fisticuffs” into your play about twins training for the local school district sports day, or kicking off a bar brawl two thirds into your romantic comedy, Conflict in a dramatic sense covers a range of options, from subtle put downs at the dinner table to settling an argument with pistols at dawn! To get the right kind of conflict in your script, you need to know your characters – what motivates them, what language they would use. Helena confirmed she would always consider her characters’ back stories – their “baggage”, so to speak – as this would drive their behaviour in her scripts. You don’t need to include the “baggage” in your story, but drafting it out can help determine your characters’ hopes, ambitions, desires and failures.

Helena got us to consider Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective, Sherlock Holmes. His character is meticulous, arrogant, observant, highly intelligent. Combine that with his dry wit, know-all attitude, and catchphrase of “The Game’s Afoot”, and it’s fair to say Conan Doyle created a fully-rounded character in Holmes. Readers old and new are drawn to Sherlock, perhaps jealous, wanting him to fail, or competing with him to recognise the clues in the story before he does.

So, where’s the best place to start for conflict – the Seven Deadly Sins, of course! Sloth, Gluttony, Lust, Greed, Pride, Envy and Wrath – introduce any of these into your characters, and conflict should find its way into your story. There’s plenty of options; affairs, jealous siblings, lazy or overly ambitious work colleagues, to name a few. Love them or hate them, if the audience gets emotional over your characters, you’ve done a good job. (Off the record – dramatists are apparently very nosy, and will often listen in on other folk’s conversations for ideas for their scripts and stories – naturally names are changed to protect the innocent….and guilty….)

We followed on from Sherlock with another couple of scenarios to demonstrate how conflict can be ambiguous, and its up to you where you take it in your script or story. Consider two work colleagues, Jack and Bill, discussing a job opportunity – Jack tells Bill he doesn’t think Bill should go for the job. What drives that statement – Jack’s concern over Bill not having the necessary skills, Jack not wanting Bill to be his boss, or even Jack secretly wanting the job for himself? What if Bill tells Jack he’s right, Bill doesn’t think he has the skills – is Bill being too cautious or is he bluffing. If one gets the job, will the other want revenge? Its up to you how you take the story forward – as shown here, there are plenty of avenues to go down. Just make sure you keep some conflict in to make the situation interesting. Unlike a certain Australian wine that gets advertised frequently on the TV these days, no one at AWC likes a drama that gets wrapped up too easily!

Finally, a little before we stopped for tea (and biscuits if you were lucky), Nigel and Helena treated us to a double performance of marital strife! In both scripts the husband, Martin, was leaving his wife, Laura, after his having numerous affairs. The contrast between the two scripts was striking though; in the first version, the dialogue focused heavily on bringing us the facts of their marriage, which challenged any of the emotional depth you would hope to get from such a situation, and did not feel true to life. The second version used the script to imply the facts, but the dialogue was heartfelt and realistic, and certainly engaged the audience, i.e. us, far more!

Now it was our turn. Helena gave us four scenarios and challenged us to write a short piece of dialogue or narrative. We would then read them out in the second half of the session. The options were:

  1. Disclosure of a family secret,
  2. A life-threatening situation between two rivals,
  3. The Wrong Number (call received by one of your characters),
  4. Artist paints portrait of subject who is not happy with the result.

Alas, I confess, my creative juices were not flowing for this particular exercise! All I ended up with was four or five attempted starts, all scribbled out in frustration in my notebook! I blame a long day working from home, followed by intense concentration on noting down key things from the workshop for this blog, completely forgetting that I could double check anything and everything from the recording….

Anyway, the rest of the group were far more successful than myself. The disclosure of a family secret was a popular choice, and between them, the AWC members could easily script a soap opera or family drama. Adopted children, step-children, secret siblings, illicit trysts with a spouse’s relative, engagements with a distinctive football rivalry theme – imaginations were on full flow for this writing task. The artist option also grabbed the attention of a few, with revenge and anger high on the list of emotional outcomes, plus a touch of comedy to lift the spirits – triple nostrils and enormous feet, anyone? One or two also braved the other options, giving us marital conflict following a wife taking a call from a “wrong number”, and (a new?) hope that two feuding Star Wars fanatics could “use the force” to stop their plane crashing. Following each of the readings, Helena gave constructive feedback to the individuals, unique advice that all could take on board for their future writing.

Thus we came to the end of our evening, with well-earned bows all round. I’m already looking forward to the next one; hopefully I’ll be in the same room as my fellow script writers by then. Helena, many thanks, and please remember to bring the mannequin and snorkel next time, if only for Nigel’s sake!

Maggie Morton

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