By Sherri D. Sutton
The following article is from the May 2018 edition of Scene and was first published in the December 2006 Scene issue “Writing”.
My thoughts on this article in 2018:
I need to take my own advice. I have found myself stuck over the past few years and feeling as if I have nothing to say. I’m trying not to become what I fear and rereading this article has stirred up quite a lot in me. I believe I wrote this when I had several exciting projects cooking. Now they have become unfinished works that feel like a group of neglected children that I can’t be bothered to raise. I think it is safe to say that the only way forward is to just stop worrying and start writing. Who knows, the next time this article gets reprinted, I might have completed them all… or at least one. Wish me luck.
I struggle with the idea of considering myself a playwright. The judgment… that little annoying, but somehow very powerful voice in my head that says what I write may not be good enough… is at times overwhelming and forces me to stop. Maybe that’s why a few of my “masterpieces” are not complete.
So what makes a great play? That is a completely subjective question. However, here are some ingredients that can be found in numerous plays: well-built characters, interesting plot, tension/conflict, great dialogue, character growth or change and unpredictability. Keep it truthful and insightful with strong themes. Ask yourself: “Is this a story that needs to be told? What is my reason for writing this piece?”
If I could stress any point about playwriting (or for that matter any area of this art we call theatre), it would be to give yourself permission to fail, to learn a new skill, to develop your craft and above all to judge yourself less. When you begin to write, allow yourself to write garbage. You can be too verbose. Repeat yourself. Be preachy and obvious –- CREATE A CRAPPY FIRST DRAFT. It is just part of the process. You do not have to be brilliant when you start because it is in the revisions and the editing that you will learn more about the craft and also create a better second, third, fourth and eventually final script. I love this quote from one of my favourite playwrights, Sam Shepard: “I wrote all the time. Everywhere. When I wasn’t writing, I was thinking about it or continuing to ‘write’ in my head… I wasn’t very good company. At that time, a major critic commented that I wrote ‘disposable plays,’ and in some sense he was probably right. But nothing mattered to me then except to get the stuff down on paper… There was never a sense, in all this, of evolving a style or moving on to a bigger, longer, ‘more important’ form. Each play had a distinct life of its own and seemed totally self-contained within its one-act structure.”
Our world is changing and we need the next generation to help shape the theatre. So many playwrights today understand and utilise different styles and cultures of theatre in their pieces. Paula Volga, a feminist playwright from the States, recently wrote The Long Christmas Ride Home and although the play was about dealing with the dysfunctions of a family from the west, Japanese Bunraku puppetry was also incorporated into the play. It is no longer enough to think that the skills of theatre are singing, dancing and acting. Plays and even musicals are using numerous conventions from other theatrical traditions to help tell the story, heighten themes and engage the audience. Look at the works of Julie Taymor or Broadway’s recent Tony award winning musical Avenue Q (it’s like Sesame Street for adults). The point is this,; if you want to write a play, GO AND SEE PLAYS. Read plays. Research about the playwrights, the time period, understand the different styles, genres, intellectual movements and theorists of theatre. Volunteer to work behind the scenes of a play so that you have a better understanding of how theatre works. It is not film or television,; you have to understand about scene changes, intermissions and how transitions work. Is the play doable? How big is the budget?
How do you know if your play is any good? My advice is to have it read and hopefully performed. After my first or second rough draft, I usually have actors perform a staged reading with a few audience members there. After the reading, I open the discussion up for feedback. I don’t defend, explain or justify what I wrote. I sit there with pen in hand and just take notes. I do not feel obligated to make all the suggested changes. I go with what I feel is valid feedback. At the end of it all, it needs to sit well with you because there will be people who don’t like it, get it or support it… but maybe, just maybe, there will be those that do.
A word (actually a lot of words) on the craft of playwriting
A play is not just a story. A play is told by people speaking to each other: dialogue reveals things you want your audience to know about the plot and characters. A play is about people doing and saying things. A play is about character intentions, actions, relationships and the revelations that come about when those relationships are played out on stage. Write about what interests you and write about what you know. Research, even when you think you know. Have a purpose for writing the play – it should be something you want to say, question or explore.
Dialogue: The written, the non-verbal and subtext
Dialogue is all around you. Some of the best scenes I’ve ever written were from me eavesdropping in on conversations. Your job is to capture how funny, bizarre and interesting conversations can be. Keep a notebook on hand, in the car, by the bed, in your bag, in your locker because you never know when “that “perfect sentence or dialogue” is going to pop into your head or be overheard on the subway. WRITE IT DOWN. Understand that non-verbal action can reveal as much about a character as the spoken word. Chekhov and Pinter are great at implementing pauses that are full of character’s desires. Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker is a character that does not have written dialogue until the very end of the play but the audience is captivated by her.
Subtext is the unspoken substance of the dialogue, the unspoken thoughts and motives of what characters honestly think and feel. Pushing just beneath the surface of the dialogue is what makes plays compelling. Subtext provides richness beyond what is written. Don’t be a control freak, let the actors do their job. If your play is good, it will stand on its own without having to dictate every intention and emotion.
When creating characters you must allow them to be themselves. Always ask yourself: “Would my character really speak or behave that way?”. Don’t get in the way of your characters’ pursuit of their objective/goals. Give your protagonist a flaw, hell, give ‘em several. People don’t want to see perfect people. We want to be able to identify ourselves in others.
Some ways to start putting the above into practice:
– To begin
– Begin with one line.
– Begin with a specific time and/or a specific place.
– Begin with a specific relationship between characters.
– Find a writing partner and collaborate.
– Adapt a story or poem, write about your life, someone’s life, a historical figure or event, social or political idea.
1. Character speech should be distinct and engaging. It is important to hear the voice of the character.
2. Your characters all need interesting actions: plays are about action, not people standing around talking. The point is, – can a character “show it” vs. “talking about it”. Avoid too much exposition.
3. Characters usually grow throughout the course of the play. What have they learned, how have they changed, how has the plot affected them?
4. Your play needs a conflict: What is the problem or the issue?
5. A scene should connect to the one before. New information and/or new characters should be added that will advance the plot.
6. Avoid being predictable. Make the audience think. Challenge them. Audiences are smart.
7. Manage your time. Too many plays have less than powerful endings because playwrights ran out of time.
8. Never use a stage direction when you should have a scene.
These games are designed to help beginning playwrights learn to develop characters, plot and conflict.
Instruct students to think of a fictitious name, family, personal history, work life, cultural heritage, dreams, goals etc. They can change gender, age, race, anything. Ask them to make the character as different from their real life as they can but also make it credible. Details students should include are:
How old are you?
Where do you live?
What is a typical day like for you?
What do you usually wear?
What is your nickname?
What are your favourite foods, sports, music?
Do you have any pets?
What makes you happy?
Who are your best friends?
What are you afraid of?
Have students invent a short monologue about their fictitious character.
In a circle, have each student presents their monologue using “I”. Have them include at least one thing that is really true about them. Have the other students try to guess what’s real and what is fiction. This is a good way to talk about characters as dramatic inventions that have very real and human traits.
Divide students into pairs. Write a first line to a scene on the top of a blank sheet of paper for each pair. Make sure the first line is an “inciting” line – in other words, any line that implies a conflict. Examples of inciting first lines would be:
Did you bring it?
I don’t know you anymore.
Everything out of your mouth is a lie.
This first line is attributed to “A”. “B” then responds on paper, gives the sheet back to “A” and “A” writes a reply and so on. This exercise should be done silently. The resulting dialogue will have spontaneity and reality that planned writing does not have. Encourage students to not think of this as competition with their partner but that they are building and crafting a scene. Don’t let them off the hook by resorting to one-liners, silliness that does not connect with what is being offered or being contrite.
Instead of one line each “A” writes an impassioned letter to “B” asking for something s/he desperately needs. “B” writes a letter back, denying it. “A” responds, “B” answers until “A” has made such a strong case that “B” agrees. This exercise usually produces very good dramatic writing because the stakes are high and the speeches are longer than one or two sentences. It’s also a good way to make the point that on stage, every single word counts.
This is a good warm-up to writing. Have students sit in a circle. One person starts a story and stops it at a crucial point. The next person picks up there and continues for a few sentences, again stopping at a critical point. The story continues all the way around the circle. The more you do this, the better it gets.
To help develop characters it is important to give your character a background, a history, a story. This exercise is one that is typically done by actors but works great for playwrights.
– You are (name of character):
– How old are you: Where do you live: Sexuality: Occupation:
– Socio-economical background: Religion:
– What element / instrument / animal / colour would you describe yourself as:
– How would you describe your family: What do you love to do:
– Who or what bugs you the most:
– What about yourself are you proudest of: How would you like to be remembered: What frightens you:
– What do you want more than anything?
A great book that defines story and structure is Impro by Keith Johnstone. I also recommend books by Joseph Campbell.
Pick up the pen and write. Writer’s block is very real and guess how it is usually cured? By writing. Keep writing until you are passionate again about what you are trying to say. WRITING IS REWRITING.
This article was first published in Scene which we publish three times a year and send to all our members. You can find out more about becoming an ISTA member here.