On Playwriting

Hey, look! It’s an actual post! At a normal time! How exciting is this?

I was going to go to the gym, but I had an impromptu meeting, and with not enough time to go before dance class tonight, I decided to give myself some peace of mind and come here for a bit. Tomorrow is my 28th birthday, and my parents are coming in, so it’s going to get busy, but this post is not about any of those things.

Today’s topic: playwriting.

I wrote my first actual, performable play at age 18, during my senior year of high school. In my school, seniors could choose elective-style courses for English, history, and science, and in my senior year, a new teacher offered a playwriting and drama course. I must have been daydreaming in class, because I heard something about “…writing a ten minute play…” and “…due Friday.” It was Wednesday, and when I got home that night, I had an idea for a short play, which I titled Confidential. I typed it up, printed it out, and absentmindedly handed it in to my teacher on Friday.

Monday comes, and the teacher asks to see me after class. He tells me that I missed the homework assignment (whoops) but he read Confidential, the play I wrote, over the weekend, and that it was “once of the finest pieces of student writing he’d ever read.” He also said that that was our final project for the year, so technically, I was done with the class and I got an A. I think this was in December or something. I got two people from the class to perform it, and then for the rest of the year, I got to either skip class or help other people with their writing during class.

I returned to writing plays around sophomore year of college, and though I wrote quite a few and some even won competitions, I “retired” AKA stopped writing plays for fun sometime around the year between Israel and grad school. I have been meaning to start up again, but I have been too busy with my reading and teaching loads, and blogging, to write any prose or plays.

One thing I have done, though, is teach others how. Sort of.

I firmly believe that there is no real way to teach playwriting. It’s trickier than poetry or prose, and not everyone can write a play, but it can be rewarding. I have taken several playwriting courses at the college level. Some were effective, others were not, but each class utilized a different approach. But by this point in my life, I feel like I have a better sense of what to do, and what not to do.

DO: Experience theatre. Before you write a play, read a few plays and see a few plays. Take notice of the dialogue, the staging, and the plot. If you are at a show, try watching some of it with your eyes closed and note the differences in the experience; what do you sense? What do you perceive? Where are the emotions, what is left unsaid, where are there pauses and why? Warning, though: the eyes-closed approach does not work when reading plays.

DON’T: Get a book from the library or bookstore on “how to write plays.” These books are mostly crap. Everyone learns and writes differently, and what works for that person who wrote that book may have worked for them, but it was not written for you. If you like learning by reading, read plays or books on theory, not instructional books. If you do, at least read more than one so you can cross-reference. I don’t swear by any book, but The Playwright’s Guidebook is a good starting point for a beginner, and Playwriting in Process could help the slightly more advanced playwrights, but don’t hold any book on playwriting as gospel.

DO: Start with an idea. An image. A problem. A historical event. Even just a line. And remember that inspiration comes from everywhere. I was inspired to write Confidential after thumbing through a baby name book (for some reason, I was obsessed with baby name books as a kid) and finding out that the name Cameron was Scottish for “crooked nose.” “Huh,” I said to myself, “well that’s interesting.” And later that night, that became the first line I wrote on the page. Seriously, I started out with this:

CAMERON: It’s Scottish for “crooked nose.”

So all of a sudden, I had a character, Cameron. Luckily, since Cameron is a unisex name, I could have either a male or female Cameron. I chose to make her female, and then I inserted a question which would lead to that answer, which ended up being someone complimenting her on having a beautiful and exotic name. Then, I needed some back story; who is asking her this question, and what’s going on around them? The first thing that came to mind was “job interview.” So now I had two characters – a boss and interviewee – and a situation. To expand even further, I wanted to know just why he was asking her this question. And then it just came to me, “because his ex-wife’s last name was Cameron.” And it kept rolling, until I had 10-11 pages of dialogue, and a whole story built around it. All because of a crooked nose.

DON’T: Make the story/subject matter too big, or make too much backstory. You can’t write about everything, especially if it’s just a ten-minute play, and if you try to pack too much stuff in there, it just comes out like a cake with too many ingredients: a hideous mess. One of the worst plays I’ve ever read involved medieval England, botany, biology, zoology, astronomy, the priesthood, religious heresy, puppetry, suicide, revenge, and sexuality – and that was just the first act! Needless to say, the play took 3 hours to read and it made absolutely no sense, there was no story there. There were some poignant moments, and some moments of comedy, but it was just a mish-mosh of words and situations and way too many characters. Too much backstory is also an issue; I knew a playwright who wrote an entire page of backstory for each character before the text of the play, including everything from the character’s birthdate to their eye color to their profession to their views on feeding animals in the wild. Leave some things for the audience to figure out, and room for the characters to grow via the actors. And less is more, especially when it comes to casting. Unless you need to write a play for a specific amount of people, or an entire community, 1-3 characters are enough. 4-6 are plenty, and any more than 8, proceed with caution, unless you intend for the parts to be doubled. In that case, knock yourself out.

DO: Use good playwriting format. Be consistent with your spelling, especially character names. Separate and distinguish stage directions. Make it easy on the eyes.

DON’T: Write something just because someone told you to, write it the way you want to write it, or tell the person to write their own damn play. When making assignments for a playwriting class, make it specific as to the goal of the assignment (a monologue, a dialogue, a three person scene where it’s 2 against 1, a one-word-per-line scene), but any more than that and you’ll get frustrated writers writing things they do not care about.

DO: Look for the character’s voices. Look for beginning, middle, end, pacing, character development, plot, conflict. Don’t write sounding like you; get in the character’s head and write how they would talk. If it sounds too much like something you would say but your character wouldn’t, rewrite that line. Use language as action, and action as language. Make the story yours, but be open to criticism and rewrites if you’re looking for feedback or if you want it to get to production. No one likes working with the playwright whose words are individual drops of literary gold. Chances are, the more they think that’s the case, the more it’s not.

DON’T: Get discouraged; if/when you’re stuck, do something else. But if you’re on a roll, continue. Sometimes, if you’re having trouble deciding what comes next, maybe take a step back and ask yourself what would happen if you just ended this scene (at least for the moment) and moved on to the next one.

DO: Have fun doing it, because that’s the most important part! If you don’t like what you write, or you don’t like the direction it is taking, change it! Keep an open mind! And know when you’re finished, and celebrate with some chocolate chip cookies, or a sugar-free, gluten-free, dairy-free alternative.


9 thoughts on “On Playwriting

  1. Pingback: Best of That’s So Jacob from Year 3 | That’s So Jacob

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