Scripting Three or More Speakers

Photo by James Kelly

Playacting produces a paradox upon the stage. On one hand, there is nothing magical about the craft of acting. On the other, a theatrical production can conjure up a magical experience for its audience. In essence, the character on stage is an illusion created by the words and given circumstances supplied by the playwright and the physical actions of the actor. While the actor typically gets the most applause, it’s the playwright who initially supplies the depth and breadth of the role that brings the spectators to their feet. My fellow playwrights, the secret to scripting scenes that compel an audience to come to a standing ovation lies in thinking like an actor, imagining how each exchange of dialogue builds to a transformative experience for the characters you’ve created.

If you spend any time around an acting classroom, you’ll hear someone ponder, “What’s my character’s motivation?” The reality is that every scene requires an actor to recognize what is driving their role in the show and whom they can turn to on stage in order to achieve it. An actor is perpetually filling in the blanks to the statement, “I want­­­­­ ­_____ from ­­_____.” The latter portion to the sentence is simply directed at whichever character they are talking to at the time. However, the beginning of the sentence is where things get interesting. The desired response cannot be a task one seeks from their fellow actor, such as, “I want a foot rub from my partner.” Rather, the request has to be something that is both intangible and invaluable to the character at that moment— “I want empathy,” or “I want compassion,” or “I want sympathy,” etc. While the director may add blocking, such as the alluded to foot rub, the action is merely the physical manifestation of what the characters are seeking from one another.

When scripting scenes with three or more speakers, you must remember that each character may or may not have different motivations for every person they are speaking to in the scene. A short scene that advances the plot of a play becomes much richer when the writer imagines the differing motivations behind each actor’s lines. While one character may address another looking for reassurance, the second may be seeking praise, and they may both direct comments towards a third who desires forgiveness. At the same time, the third speaker may simply want contrition from the first two. For example:

One: Cuz, are you sure I should be creeping on my ex’s social media?

Two: Heck, yeah! It was my idea, remember?

One: I know. I know. But I just keep thinking that this is the kind of thing that got me unfriended in the first place.

Two: Probably. But can you think of a better way to get the scoop?

Three: I can’t. I just wish you fools weren’t using my account to spy. If this goes sideways, I’m going to be the one who gets blocked.

One: Okay. No turning back now. Here I go!

This short scene not only advances the story through what will likely be revealing or consequential actions, it also unveils the characters’ relationships with one another at that moment in time. In effect, as a playwright, you are offering the actors a chance to imagine what each is seeking from the exchange and giving them the words that bring them to life.

Once you decide character’s motivations towards their peers, you can script them to speak in ways that capture the subtlety that enriches the scene. A character who wants compliments speaks differently than one who wants to go unnoticed, just as one who wants affection vocalizes things differently than one who wants to be seen as chaste. The reality is that the more voices on stage, the more potential motivations you have at play. Of course, it’s fun to script a scene where differing motivations lead to multiple misunderstandings, thereby giving the actors rich lines to embody and engaging scenes for an audience to witness.

As a playwright, you must remember every theatrical beat begins with the strokes on your keyboard. Yet, before you start typing, you must think about what motivates your characters. Actors will appreciate the time you spent imagining the relationships on stage, and the audience will enjoy the dynamic interactions you put before them. After all, your words are the genesis of a magical paradox.

Ryan Winn teaches in the Liberal Studies Department at College of Menominee Nation.

Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.

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