The art of under-writing: or how to stop over-writing

By Timothy Daly

In the spirit of the above subject, this will be one of my shortest articles. Let me get straight to the point.

Overwriting is the bane of theatrical dialogue. It does more harm to theatre culture than a dozen politicians. To master the art of underwriting, you first need to understand the diabolical act of overwriting. What is overwriting? It is not just a matter of “too many words”.

Overwriting is the putting into language of feelings, emotions, thoughts, actions and ideas that can be expressed in other ways.

Let’s look at how an audience receives information from a play. It is not simply through dialogue. Let’s look at an example, from the early, bad works of Timothy Daly. Here is the offending piece of writing. (Please bear in mind, I got better.)


  1. JAN: Are you in the mood to go out tonight?
  2. MICHAEL: Go out? Where were you thinking of?
  3. JAN: I’m not sure.
  4. MICHAEL: Well, I’m not sure either.
  5. JAN: So— do you want to go out or not?
  6. MICHAEL: Maybe. Like I said, I’m not sure.
  7. JAN: Well, can you think of somewhere?
  8. MICHAEL: You know, the problem with you is

At this point, the manuscript breaks off…

Let me give two versions of how you might eliminate the overwriting in this


1. JAN: Are you in the mood to go out tonight?

8. MICHAEL: You know, the problem with you is

Why keep so little? Because in dramatic terms, the full excerpt is simply “treading water”. It is like a tennis player simply blocking a ball back, with no intention of playing a winning stroke. Version 2 simply gets to the point. There is a useful rule-of-thumb I learned that often applies: “from high point to high point”. Jan’s first line (1) is a high-point, because it is a specific intention that is acted on Michael. In effect, she is saying, “I want an answer from you.”
Whether she is just looking for a surface answer (“Let’s eat Thai”) or something deeper (“Show me you love me!”) depends on the story and context. Michael’s line (8) raises the exchange to a new level of emotional intensity and sub-textual meaning. So the reasoning behind Version 2 is, “Why wait? Let’s get to the real drama behind the social banter.”


1. JAN: Are you in the mood to go out tonight?

MICHAEL doesn’t answer.

5. JAN: (So), do you want to go out or not?

8. MICHAEL: You know, the problem with you is

This version is useful if you want to increase the tension before Michael lets fly with his line (8). Version 2 creates a colder, more vicious picture of Michael. Version 3 allows the audience to see that there may be a good reason why Michael finds the apparently-simple question quite difficult to answer. The audience, in speculating on this, has already entered Michael’s inner life.

Note also that I’ve bracketed the word “So”. The reason is important. We are writing characters whose rich and complex inner life is one of the main
reasons for seeing the play. An inner life consists principally of a thought-life and a feeling-life. The simplest way to convey the illusion of a thought or feeling-life is simply to have a character “think” a response, instead of answering it. Deleting the word “So” will allow the actor to feel a whole range of responses (Irritation; confusion; impatience) that can then be channelled into the very clean and direct line: “Do you want to go out or not?” That line will now have a great deal of energy and focus.

Don’t misunderstand my approach to over-writing. I’m not advocating an austere realism. There will be times when you want to “tread water”, to have characters go all cagey and circle each other warily. At other times, you will want to create a rhythmic texture that uses such repetitions as I’ve shown here. Or you may want to have a ‘build’ that requires more indirectness and
parrying on the part of the characters. The context will determine how much over-writing you use.


In a rich play, language shares the theatrical space with other aspects—physicality, gesture, action, sound, lighting etc. To allow room for these
other aspects, try the following.

  1. Have a character think a line instead of speaking. Version 2 above is an example of this.
  2. Have a character do an action instead of speaking. Have them “answer” with their bodies instead of their tongues. A character who tries to leave a scene is saying, “I don’t want to answer you” as surely as if she spoke it.
  3. Have a character miss a link in the chain of reasoning, and skip to the next part. British TV is good at this.
    Detective: You killed him, didn’t you.
    Suspect: (Yes, I did.) He was always on at me.Notice how much more interesting it is if the words in bracket are left out. The actor can act the “Yes, I did”, and the audience can do the work of ‘joining the dots’ of the story.
  4. Have a character speak only “the important stuff”. This introduces another important principle, that the best dialogue (in film and theatre) is “the line as culmination of a thought”. This means that a chain of reasoning is set up, but only the crucial part of the line is spoken. See much of your dialogue as the culmination of a powerful and complex thought-life.
  5. Suggest a powerful emotion, and let that emotion do the work.
  6. Make the emotion too strong for words, or at least too strong for full, measured sentences. “I really think we should… ” is more emotionally powerful and suggestive than “I really think we should just calm down and look at the situation as calmly and honestly as possible.” Seeing the actor unable to complete the sentence and trying to calm himself is more interesting.
  7. Front-cut and end-cut. I use this term to describe how the true essence of a line can be found by cutting away from the front and back of the dialogue. Imagine a line like this: “You know, when all’s said and done, I really think that the problem is that I can’t stand being in the same room as you. I really can’t. I’ve felt this for a while, and I’ve finally worked up the courage to say it.” 

    The real essence of this stressed and overworked line is: The problem is, I don’t like you.” He may illustrate this startling observation with something even crueller: “I can’t (even) stand being in the same room as you!”

  8. Overwrite only in order to illustrate character. The character who spoke the above line may be an indecisive waffler who has finally worked up the courage to speak out. That’s fine. But use it sparingly.
  9.  Ask a friend to underline for you what s/he considers only to be the essential, and only put back what you feel is crucial for rhythm, texture, character information or comic effect.
  10. Ask an actor friend to get rid of as much dialogue as possible. They’ll gladly oblige. They’ll also help you get rid of “false notes” in your dialogue. Actors are very good at picking the lines that don’t ring true.

That’s all for now, folks.