The first play I acted in was a high school production of Our Town. During one performance, “Mrs. Webb” recited the first of two moderately long lines. Both lines started with well. When she reached the second line, she said “Well,” slipped a mental gear, and continued with the previous line, completely unaware. (Four dozen lines in Our Town start with well, many of them close together.)
When I began writing for the stage, I resolved not to create similar traps for actors to fall into. I wrote my first play, Midnight in the Temple of Isis, starting April 12, 2002. When it was finished, I sorted the dialogue alphabetically in Excel and made sure no two lines started with the same word.
Since then, I’ve written 15 more plays. I’ve also taken a few acting classes, not with the intent of becoming an actor, but solely to improve my scripts. When writing, a playwright is immersed in each character’s POV. Here’s what I’ve learned by seeing lines from the actor’s perspective as well:
Ease of Delivery
Actors have enough to do on-stage without hard-to-deliver lines. A very little extra effort on the part of the playwright can make a line a lot easier to say:
Rather obvious: avoid combinations of complex words with many disparate consonants:
PROF. WU We face a Brobdingnagian conglomeration of polysyllabic verbosity, Joe.
Avoid even the use of too many singular initial consonants in a line:
JOE He gave me a big raise and sent me north for training in high density pyrolysis.
That doesn’t flow as well as this more alliterative version, where each consonant has at least one mate:
JOE He raised my hourly rate and sent me to study high density pyrolysis down in Paris.
Avoid outright tongue-twisters, even ones much shorter than this:
JACK Forsooth, Mr. Smithers, fetch swiftly hither thy sister’s zither.
Avoid unnecessary words, especially in screenplays:
DEAN Well, I’m going to try to think of a way to reduce your workload, Gromeck.
Lines must not only be pronounceable, they must also be easily memorized.
Avoid incoherent lines—ones that branch off in several directions, with no logical thread for the actor to follow:
ROGER I knew him when we were at school. His sister drove an old Austin. We used to go on picnics in Shuddersbury, nearby. His sister and I must have eaten a cubic yard of cheese sandwiches.
Compare that version with this one:
ROGER I knew him when we were at school near Shuddersbury. We used to drive there for picnics in that old Austin of his sister’s. She and I must have eaten a cubic yard of cheese sandwiches.
Strive for coherence throughout the script:
It’s obvious from a dramatist’s POV that not only individual lines, but all dialogue and all scenes should form a logical thread of cause and effect, action and reaction, conflicting wants and needs. To the extent that your scenes are coherent dramatically, they will also be easier to memorize and to perform. Each line here evokes a logical response:
JOE Did they find the gun?
FRANK Yep. A .38 snub-nose revolver.
JOE Where was it?
FRANK Bushes, beside the 110. Near the Soto offramp.
JOE Not far from where we picked up the suspect.
FRANK Yeah, but that’s not much to go on, is it?
JOE (shakes head) Any prints?
FRANK Wiped clean.
FRANK The lab is checking now.
Going a step further, create obvious verbal connections between pairs of lines, where practical.
GEORGE Why didn’t you do it the way I told you?
LEONARD You told me to do it careful, an’ I did.
GEORGE You did not! Look at the edges. They’re all rough.
LEONARD Rough, smooth, it don’t matter.
GEORGE It’ll matter if you end up sliding down it on your ass.
Make bridges between sentences within a line by using entire words:
FRED Think what that means. It means I’m on call every day. Day after day, can’t go out, can’t go to the beach, can’t go to a movie.
Or make bridges using the initial letters of ending and beginning words:
GREG They raised my salary. Suddenly, I’ve got money up the wazoo. What am I going to do with all this money? Mostly, I thought I’d spend it. I was broke every week by Thursday.
Create other patterns that serve as memory helpers, especially in monologues:
BIG LOUIE Always remember, Joey: Be aware what’s going on every second. Concentrate on where everybody is. Don’t get distracted by what anybody says. Every time someone enters the room, check ’em out. Friends, you can ignore. Guys you don’t know, watch ’em. Hold your hands waist-high…
These methods aren’t universally applicable. They aren’t fool-proof or a substitute for learning the lines, but they can be helpful both for memorization and as a fall-back if something goes dreadfully wrong. Slowing or pausing to remember a mnemonic may be noticeable on-stage, but that’s better than a long, long silence of a memory-flew-away, no forwarding address, moment.
Pitfalls and Derailing
During a performance, no matter how well you’ve learned your lines, things happen. Cell phones go off. Audience members make noises. Lights fail. Other actors blow their lines. Scene furnishings get set up wrong. Writing bullet-proof lines will help actors stay on track even when something goes wrong.
Avoid starting a character’s line with the same phrase as another of her lines:
BECKY You cheated on me with Pauline, Red O’Shaunessey.
RED I did not. But what about you, Becky? You’ve been flauntin’ yourself at all the boyos in Carstairs Street. I saw you on the Friday, talkin’ to Jack Doyle an’ givin’ him that pistol of your dad’s, the one he promised me.
BECKY That gun is mine.
RED So why did you give it to Jack an’ not me? Why?
BECKY You cheated on me, that’s why, and now it’s over. Goodbye! (exits)
RED Good riddance to ye!
There’s a significant chance that BECKY, if distracted, will skip her first line, above, go directly to the last, and exit, forcing RED to deliver his long, pivotal line with her already off-stage. Or she may say the first line, then a few lines down, repeat it, which could result in an awkward moment while they decide how to handle the non sequitur.
Avoid starting neighboring lines with the same word:
MRS. WEBB Well, Mr. Webb just admires the way Dr. Gibbs knows everything about the Civil War…
MRS. GIBBS It’s a fact…
MRS. WEBB Well, if that secondhand man’s really serious about buyin’ it, Julia, you sell it…
Avoid neighboring lines with similar internal patterns or phrases:
BILFRED Look at it this way, Ralphie. If you quit, you have no income. If you get fired, you have unemployment. Which is better, money or no money?
RALPH I don’t think it’s that simple…
BILFRED Yeah, that’s true. If you stay, you could get an ulcer. Or worse. If you quit, you’ll be healthy and broke. Which is better, health or no health?
RALPH Health, I suppose.
BILFRED’s last line could likely be recited with the ending from his previous line, or vice versa. These endings are also RALPH’s cues, which could cause him to bobble his line.
Breathing and text flow
Actors must have plenty of air to say their lines.
Avoid long lines after intense activity on-stage, unless you want to be funny.
Give actors in costume extra time to breathe, especially in tight or heavy garb.
If necessary, provide breathing time by inserting a line for another character.
Banter is generally fun, but illogical, forced, or repetitious back-and-forth can quickly lose the audience. It’s asking too much of an actor to keep empty banter alive. Based on scenes I’ve watched:
Make sure that any banter is not static or circular.
POLTROONIO Sooth, he comes now.
VARLETTO Who cometh now?
VARLETTO Yes, yes. But who?
POLTROONIO Sooth, I said.
VARLETTO Truly, you did not. Now tell us his name.
POLTROONIO His name?
VARLETTO Yes, he who comes now.
VARLETTO Of course. So what is it?…
Action or new information in each pair of lines might keep the banter moving enough to prolong it, but err on the side of caution. If the action stalls and the playwright’s attempt to keep the banter going becomes too obvious, the audience’s suspended disbelief will fall like a lead foil kite.
Motion and speech
I saw early on that it’s risky for an actor to memorize or practice lines while seated if they are to be recited standing up. Motion apparently can divert the actor’s mind enough to interfere with memory retrieval. Under some circumstances, it can affect audibility, as well. When writing dialogue:
Minimize unnecessary or complex tasks while the actor is saying lines.
Conversely, minimize complex lines while the actor is in motion.
Avoid action that puts props or the actor’s hands right in front of his/her face while speaking.
Avoid motion that puts the actor facing downward or upstage while speaking.
There are exceptions to everything, so these tips may not always apply. But viewing every line and action from an actor’s standpoint is always wise and makes the writer and the actors a better team.