There are many ways to learn to write prose well. Creative writing courses, workshops and manuscript clinics can be helpful, though, one of the best and most accessible ways is to read the work of great authors often. However, I’m realising that prose writers, like me, benefit from experiencing all types of storytelling not just novels and short stories.
I watch many films in all genres, enjoy poetry and opera, but one of my favourite forms of storytelling is musical theatre. Last weekend, my partner treated me to The Lion King at the Lyceum Theatre in London. It was a magical experience with incredible attention to detail and it taught me several things that could inspire all prose writers…
- Dialogue: Unless it’s a mime show, dialogue is crucial in theatre. The Lion King has an entertaining narrator, but it’s the dialogue between characters that brings the story alive and moves it forward. It’s tough to get dialogue right. Simply mimicking everyday speech isn’t the solution. Though it sounds natural, it’s full of stumbling, stuttering, side points and surplus words. The trick is to capture the essence of natural speech while making it concise, compelling and infused with meaning. Experiencing theatre shows can give you a feel for dialogue’s rhythm, sound and impact. Learn from the good and the bad.
- Show, show, show: Though the Lion King’s narrator connects many scenes, and some characters have short monologues, in the main, the playwright’s primary tool is ‘showing’. Studying the work of great playwrights, therefore, is a great way for prose writers to get inspiration and new ideas for showing more and telling less.
- Use stage directions: If a show’s characters simply stood around like wooden carvings, they would soon start to look odd. People gesture, move around and take action even when speaking. As you write, imagine your characters on a stage and consider what they would be doing while they are speaking and thinking, who should be out front, who should be back stage and how they are interacting with their setting. Keep them in the moment. Freezes in action are needed occasionally for effect. Many of us stop when faced with shock or dismay, for example. Save your pauses for these moments.
- Keep things flowing: When you read a book, do you come across moments when things have slowed up so much that you put it down or are tempted to? The Lion King never lets the story stop. There is always something propelling it forward and creating intrigue for the audience whether it’s action, dialogue, narration or an entertaining scene transition. As the actors took their final bow, I realised my snacks were largely uneaten because the only time I’d pulled my eyes away from the stage was during the interval. Think about how you can keep a feeling of motion in your prose and what hooks you can use to pull readers into the next scene. Keep them curious.
- Know your audience: When getting a first draft down, if can be a hindrance more than a help, to think too much about your audience. However, as you enter the revision stage, you’ll need to think about making your story resonate with them. So, it’s useful to spend time at the theatre where you can experience audience reactions live. This is especially true if you write comedy, or you’re trying to master humour. Watch what makes audiences restless, what makes them yawn, what makes them cry or laugh themselves to tears. Then consider, if your prose was performed on stage, how would your audience react to each scene? Polish the parts you think they’d find compelling and revise the sections that might make them check their watches. Then, when you’re ready, test your story on beta readers, prose writers’ equivalent of a test audience, and refine.
- Create magic: A great theatre show, like the Lion King, has a sense of magic. The puppetry is especially enchanting. There is magic in the storytelling too and the characters’ personalities feel so real the writer seems invisible. This is the magic trick every storyteller should perform unless, maybe, the writer is the story. How could you add more awe into your story, disguise yourself and make readers lose themselves in your pages
If you’re a prose writer, like me, why not treat yourself to some theatre shows and see what they can teach you about your writing? I’ll certainly be going to more as I progress the editing of my novel to keep me inspired and connected with audiences. Can’t wait!