August 11th, 2009

Writing Exercise: Tom Stoppard’s Questions Game

Sunday evening I rewatched the film version of Tom Stoppard‘s brilliant play Rosencrantz and Guidenstern Are Dead. Since the author directed the film, it is just as wondrous as the play.

If you’ve never read or viewed this one, it’s the left-out lives of Hamlet‘s two retainers, who die off-stage and without tears or explanation towards the end of that play. It’s also about the act of writing and the definition of character, the concept of performance, and a variety of physical principals and simple machines, which are explored by one of the characters in a series of subtle and hilarious protracted gags.

This is one of the funniest movies you’re likely to see, but to get all the jokes, it helps to see it multiple times (I think this was my forth, and I saw a lot that was new!) One scene I did remember distinctly and with joy from childhood viewing was the great Questions game, that the protagonists play on Hamlet’s indoor tennis court.

The game is what it sounds like, to keep a (semi-)logical fast-paced conversation going using only questions. The characters have rules against not only statements but repetition, non-sequiteurs, rhetoric, synonyms and hesitation. This keeps the conversation fast, intense, somewhat surreal, and very tight–people are trying to win, after all.

Stoppard’s style of dialogue in general like that; the Questions game comes up almost as a kind of parody of R&G’s usual quick, confused/confusing banter. This style also reminds me of Sanford Meisner‘s repetition exercise for actors–another way of creating fast, tight dialogue.

As a lover of fine dialogue of both real and artificial forms, needless to say, a) I love this stuff and b) it’s very hard to do well, or even at all. As I said, I watched this movie as a kid, with my bro, and the first time we encountered a tennis court, we did try to play it–so frustrating! Even when you leave out some of the secondary rules about hesitation, non-sequiteurs, etc.

So, obviously, this is a great writing exercise. Obviously, you won’t end up with anything quite *realistic* in the usual sense, and if realistic is what your project is, you’ll have to redraft to use the exercise. But in addition to pace and rhythm, the all-questions-no-answers style brings a great deal of tension to dialogue–nothing says recalcitrant witness like answering a question with a question.

Ok, the exercise is: write a scene with two (or more, if you really want to push yourself) characters, in which all dialogue is in the form of question. Use the other rules at your discretion, or not at all. I’ll post mine when I’ve written it. If you write one, I’d love to see it if you send me a link, post it as a comment, or send it some other way.

I’m glad I came up with this after my actual teaching term finished–I think it’s gonna be really hard.

I’m a wrecking ball in a summer dress


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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