In last week’s episode of The Habit Podcast, playwright Pete Peterson suggested that every scene of a play should be either a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. That sounds like the kind of oversimplification/generalization that couldn’t possibly stand up to scrutiny; indeed, I might add jockeying for position and forming an alliance to the list of available speech acts in dramatic or fictional dialogue. But I do think this rule of thumb is exceedingly helpful for any writer, for at least three reasons:

  1. To frame every fictional conversation as a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation is to foreground desire. And desire is the engine of storytelling. What do your characters want? There may be other questions at stake in the stories you tell, but that question is ALWAYS in play. It is an unavoidable fact that writers always need to communicate information; sometimes they communicate that information in dialogue. But characterscarry on conversations in order to get what they want. If we use dialogue merely to convey information and neglect the interplay of characters’ desires, that dialogue will almost surely be flat, uninteresting, and less than believable.
  2. This may be another way of saying the same thing, but dialogue is something that characters DO to each other. Fighting, seducing, and negotiating are actions, not merely an exchange of information or opinions. And, by the way, in the process of fighting, seducing, and negotiating, your characters will provide information and express opinions that your reader will find most helpful. The point here is not that characters can only fight, seduce, or negotiate, but that whatever else is happening, one of those three things has to be happening.
  3. In real life, not every conversation is a fight, a seduction, or a negotiation. Sometimes people really are just providing information or expressing an opinion. Or talking baby-talk to a baby or asking for directions or ordering french fries. But not everything in real life is raw material for a story. I’m reminded of Steve Martin’s exasperated reminder to John Candy in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: “Not everything is an anecdote, you know.” We spend a third of our lives sleeping. I don’t care how realistic your fiction purports to be; it would be a mistake to devote a third of your word-count to people sleeping.

Perhaps most importantly, the fight/seduction/negotiation rule reminds us to make every word count in our storytelling. Between strict time limits and actors looking for juicy dialogue to perform, a playwright can hardly get away with dull or superfluous dialogue. But prose writers can get lazy. We can get away with a lot—at least until an editor steps in and saves us from ourselves. The fight/seduction/negotiation rule is one way storytellers can keep their prose lean and the action moving forward, with every character impelled by his or her desires.

Photo by Richard Lee on Unsplash