Playwriting IS Rewriting.

The past few days I’ve been out of commission suffering from stomach flu. Due to this unexpected change in my health I’ve not been writing scenes and blogging about them. However, in that time when I wasn’t feeling well, I didn’t entirely quit writing. Instead of composing new scenes from writing prompts when I wasn’t feeling well I spent my most recent writing sessions finishing rewrites on a new play which I began writing last month.

In this blog, I set out to write about playwriting from the point of view of creating new scenes from writing prompts, but now that I’ve spent a few days away from that sort of writing to instead work on my new play rewrites I think it’s time to spend some time here on this blog discussing rewriting.

My very first playwriting teacher, back in my high school days, told us in class that playwriting is rewriting. To my classmates and I this was initially a somewhat alarming statement to hear from her. When we wrote our first plays many of us fell in love with them exactly as they were. They were first drafts.

I learned from that class that what she said about rewriting is true. While I do still enjoy the process of writing first drafts of plays, I have to admit that I actually enjoy the rewriting process more. When you write the first draft of a new play you are exploring who those characters are, what they want, and what stands in the way of them reaching their goals.

A first draft is a first meeting with your characters. That is when you learn about who they are and what they are like. Working through rewrites isn’t exciting in the same way that meeting new characters and discovering a new story to tell on the stage, but it does have its own adventures to be explored and enjoyed.

What I find exciting and fun about the rewriting process is that when I am in rewrites I can delve deeper into exploring the world of my play, and I can closely examine it and find ways to take a story I already know and prune away the  extraneous parts that do not help tell the story, or if I don’t need to take away anything, I can add in new parts that will strengthen the story, and that will also more clearly represent who the characters are for the audience who will eventually watch the play. In rewrites I get to know my characters better than when I met them while writing the first draft.

I find that it’s helpful to wait a bit of time before I begin rewriting. Letting a new play sit for a while, without even reading it, is part of my rewriting process. When I spend some time away from a new play I can look at it again with fresh eyes when I finally sit down to rewrite. Oftentimes taking that time away from the play enables some of the changes which need to be implemented to jump out at me when I finally go back and reread a new play. In the time I take away from a new play after completing the first draft my subconscious is busy working on the play.

Rewriting can be addictive. So, these days I have to set deadlines for myself to complete rewrites and then to send the completed play out into the world so I won’t feel tempted to tinker with it in rewrites forever. New plays could be rewritten endlessly, but at some point you have to get out of the way and let your plays proceed to the next step in the process and allow other theatre artists to add their input on your new plays.

So, enjoy writing your first drafts. And do your best to get your play into its best shape in rewrites, but eventually, let your new play go. When you do you the production process awaits and that is just as exciting a the writing process, usually far more so!

Create Conflict!

My new scene for today is the result of looking through a list of playwriting exercises found here:

The exercise I selected to write my scene today is in the section of playwriting exercises labeled: Exercise Three: Practice the Craft. My scene developed from number three in that list: I have to talk to you right now.
My scene that grew from the writing exercise above was a quick study in what happens when one character wants another character to do something that the other character doesn’t want to do. The scene reminded me that conflict in plays doesn’t need to be complicated to be engaging. It just needs to keep things happening. My scene I wrote today has a simple conflict, but it kept the scene lively and also kept it moving.
In the past when I have attempted to outline the plot of plays, and pre-plan the writing of plays, I often found that I would lose sight of my conflict in all that outlining and pre-planning. I am sure outlining and pre-planning doesn’t affect all playwrights in this way, but that is how it tended to turn out for me. So, these days, I’m back happily writing plays in my pleasing organic way. I find that when I don’t know what’s going to happen in a play I am far more likely to keep the plays’ conflict in the forefront of my mind as I watch the play developing onstage in the theatre in my mind’s eye.
Whether you write plays after crafting an outline or if you write plays organically the way I do, be sure to always remember when you write plays that conflict is what will keep the audience interested and engaged. In real life most of us want to avoid conflicts as much as we can in our lives. In plays however we need to cultivate engaging conflicts, because that is what the audiences come to see. They want to watch a conflict unfold, and eventually be resolves in some satisfying way.
Conflict in plays requires one character to want something, and another character to want either the same thing, or something different. The main character in a play must want something and what they want needs to be a challenge to get. Seeing the conflict of the character going for their goal is what our audiences go to the theater to witness.
Watching people get along well and interact nicely isn’t very interesting. Seeing people work toward a harmonious resolution to the conflicts between them though, that makes for an entertaining and even often enlightening evening of theatre, whether or not the characters in our plays get what they want!

Let Your Characters Run Amok!

Yesterday I was unavailable to write a scene and a make a blog post, but I’m back again today. I know this blog is a good one for me to be writing because I missed it when i was away!

Since I took a day away from scene-writing from writing prompts, that gave me time to look for some new writing prompt material from which to jump-start my new scenes. The prompt I’m using today is not a pair of dialogue prompts, though many of the other scenes I have written have begun in just that way. Today, instead, I selected a prompt from a list I found on this blog:

The prompt I chose is the number four in that list: Two people in a room find a box.

After completing writing my new scene, and having read over it a couple of times, I have the concept of forward action in my mind. When we write plays the goal is to keep the audience interested, and keep them emotionally invested in the story as it unfolds. It also helps to keep them guessing what’s going to happen. Plays need stay one step ahead of the audience. We want our audiences to feel comfortable with the plays they’re watching. We want them to feel like they can understand and relate to the world they’re observing in the play, but we don’t want them to be able to sit back and figure out what’s going to happen before it does happen.

In my new scene this evening, since I prefer to write plays organically, I didn’t know what would happen when I sat down to create my new scene about the two people finding a box in a room. There are multitudes of different directions my characters could have gone with that box. The choices they made were, I hope, good ones that an observing audience would not have guessed. I myself was a bit surprised when the scene reached it’s conclusion. I won’t give away my ending, but I will tell you that the ending of my new scene had far less to do with the box that was found than it had to do with the relationship between the two characters who found it.

That’s what theatre should always come back to, in the end. The relationships characters have with each other are what make theatre. As we explore those relationships though, do give your audience a run for their ticket money. Let them get confused and surprised by your characters. Let them get a little bit frustrated with them even. Characters who make healthy choices, who are level-headed, and plan the events of their lives well are not very interesting for an audience to watch. So, in your first drafts especially, let your characters run amok a bit. Let them get whatever chaos they need to out of their systems. You can always edit them back into good manners and sensibility in subsequent drafts.


Want to Write Plays? Read and Attend Plays!

This tenth day of April I returned to Pinterest to find a pair of dialogue writing prompts to begin a new scene. The two dialogue writing prompts I selected today are:

“It may not be much, but it’s yours.”

“Wow. That is a shitty way of showing that you care.”

Again today, the scene which resulted from the writing prompts I selected to begin with ended up continuing the same story I began with characters in another scene a few days ago. Three days this week now I’ve ended up writing scenes that connect to each other. I didn’t anticipate these writing prompts I’m selecting to write new scenes from to end up doing this. It’s interesting to me that the creative process can work this way.

There are many books available which suggest the methods and techniques for writing plays. Many of them have writing exercises in them to help aspiring playwrights develop the stories they want to tell on the stage, and to aid in the cultivation of playwriting skill. I have read a few such books myself over the years and after reading those books I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s really up to each playwright to discover for themselves what works best for them as the most effective and productive methods for writing new plays.

I am most interested in writing plays organically because I enjoy discovering new stories I didn’t know I had to tell. When I outline and plan out plays I get caught up in editing before I begin writing at all. Writing organically my inner-editor doesn’t get to have any say until entire first drafts of each play are complete. I enjoy the creation of first drafts of plays because I usually don’t have any idea what story I’m about to tell, and it’s a real joy to discover each new play.

However, I don’t recommend this method of writing new plays for playwrights who are not thoroughly familiar with the basics of the dramatic structure of plays. I think organic playwriting likely only works well for playwrights who know backwards and forwards how a play is put together. Once you do know and understand all the elements of a play, and you have internalized them, then I think organic playwriting can work really well. If you don’t already having a working knowledge of how plays work though I believe that outlining and planning probably are excellent tools.

I suggest studying playwriting if you really want to work as a playwright, but mainly I suggest going to theatre to experience plays, and also read lots of them. If you want to learn how to write in any particular genre of fiction the advice always goes to read all you can in that genre to see what other authors are doing already. The same goes for playwrights. If you want to write plays, read plays, and go watch them too. In my opinion, that’s the most fun part of being a playwright. You’ve always got a great excuse to go to the theatre and enjoy plays, new and old, and you can read all the plays you like!

Write plays your way!

Tonight I went back to Google to find a pair of writing prompts for my scene work. I ended up with these two:

“Is this one of those times when you’re lying to me to protect my delicate emotions?”

“No. I said we’re safer.  Not safe.”

The new scene that resulted from these two prompts took a fork in the path that none of the other scenes I’ve written this month have taken. The scene I wrote tonight appears to be the next scene that could happen in a play that might began with the scene I wrote last night! In this daily scene writing work I’ve been doing all month I did not anticipate any of the scenes I created from these writing prompts to link up together this way. What a fun discovery!

I don’t know if I’ll end up writing a larger play this way, but it does make me wonder a bit about the nature of the different ways that plays can be crafted. Years ago, when I first began studying playwriting my teacher encouraged us to write plays organically and to find our plays within situations we threw characters together into. I have been enjoying organic playwriting each day in April as I’ve written the new scenes I tell you things about in these blog posts.

I thoroughly enjoyed those playwriting courses with my first teacher.  I don’t recall ever being asked to draft a plot outline for a play while I was under the instruction of my first playwriting teacher. I only remember feeling very free to let my imagination produce any play it wanted to and I would sit and diligently take dictation from the characters who frolicked across the stage in my mind.

My second playwriting teacher had an altogether different approach to playwriting for students to follow. That teacher expected us to draft a point by point plot outline for our plays and then write the play only after our outlines were deemed adequate in their plotting of the structural components of plays. I enjoyed writing plays organically. I had no interest in writing a play in which I already knew everything that happened. So, for that teacher, I ended up writing a rather autobiographical play that was based on real events in my life. At the time those were the only events I could with any certainty recall enough details to put them into a plot outline for a new play.

Over the years I tried to force the characters in my head to only act in my mind’s theatre when I was paying attention and poised to write everything down.  I tired to outline my plays and to decide ahead of time all the important key moments in plays would write. I didn’t know how difficult it was for other playwrights to create plays that way. It nearly killed my enjoyment of writing plays altogether.

These days I don’t outline. I write organically, and I’ve not written this much, or this regularly, in two decades! Perhaps other playwrights find the outlining process to be helpful, but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in all my years of playwriting that there are many different ways to achieve the final product of watching a new play come to life before your eyes on stage. If you want to write plays, do so, and write them in the manner which best works for you!

Remember Your Collaborators!

We’re all eight days into April now, and I’m back to taking my dialogue writing prompts for these new daily scenes from my trusty writing prompt book. In case anyone reading this blog is curious, the book I’m using to select my writing prompts is a small paperback Writer’s Digest book called:

The Writer’s Book of Matches
1,001 Prompts to Ignite your Fiction
By the Staff of Freshly Boiled Peanuts – A literary Journal

So, if any of you are wanting to write scenes, or short stories, along with me, now you know where my prompts are coming from when I am not finding them on the Internet.

The two dialogue writing prompts I selected from the book above for my scene work today are these:

“I had three kids. Two boys and a girl.”

“So, who’s the idiot stuck in the elevator?”

Today’s scene got me thinking about the settings of the plays we write for the theatre. Plays are virtually unlimited in what stories can be told on a stage but it does make it easier to tell a story on a stage, in the practical aspects of producing live theatre, to set our plays in locations that can be represented onstage without bankrupting the budgets of the theatres who produce our plays. While you can represent many different locations using simple sets with the aid of creative design of lights and sound, it is still easier on theatre audiences to not have to familiarize themselves with too many different locations during an evening out watching a play.

In the past, many plays consisted of a single set, sometimes quite realistically portrayed, that was the single location for the entire play. Other plays worked well with a second set for the duration of the second act of a play. This arrangement worked well due to the audience stepping out into the lobby for fifteen minutes or more at intermission, thus giving the running crew time to change out the two sets. Many of the plays which were written to suit these single, or dual set designs, were written prior to the advent of television and film. Audiences then were not expecting to see many locations in an evening of entertainment. Film and television changed all that.

Since the dawn of film and television, the feel of some new theatrical plays has begun to take a turn for the cinematic. Playwrights who grew up watching television and films, instead of plays and perhaps opera or ballet, as their primary sources of being told stories, began writing plays with more locations in them. Oftentimes, theatres producing those new plays found they were needing far less realistic sets, perhaps due to the necessity to change sets more frequently during a production.

I learned in my years of studying the craft of playwriting that when you are a new playwright it is recommended to keep the locations in your plays simple. When you’re a new playwright you’re likely to bet setting your sights on small professional theatre companies,  and also community theatres, who both usually have to work within the constraints of modest budgets, to produce your first plays. If you want your plays to be selected for production then writing in locations that a modest budget can afford to create will make your play more likely to be selected for production over plays set in locales that are very complex or many in number.

Writing plays isn’t merely the act of writing conversations for characters to have on stage though the talents of the actors portraying them onstage. There are many aspects of technical theatre that playwrights would do well to consider when writing their plays too. Theatre is a collaborative art and I think it’s always a good idea to keep the rest of the collaborative team, and what they will bring to the production, at least in the back of your mind when you begin creating the world of your play.

Empathy for that unlikeable character?!?

Today I searched Google once again to find a pair of dialogue writing prompts with which to begin today’s new scene. When I didn’t find two separate dialogue writing prompts that I liked well enough to pair with each other to begin a scene, I selected a single writing prompt that had two lines in it for one character to say and I split those two lines so I could have my two new characters say those lines to each other. After the split, my scene began like this:

“That is a terrible, horrible, incredibly foolish idea.”

“Let’s do it and see what happens.”

After writing the scene I found myself thinking about the necessity for audiences to feel empathy for all the characters they meet in plays, even the characters who they might not like very much. When we playwrights craft new plays we need to create characters who our audiences can identify with. The audience needs to be able to identify with the plights of our characters, and they also need to develop empathy for our characters. We need audiences to do these things so they will be willing to make an emotional investment in what happens to the characters during the play.

It’s not altogether necessary for the audience to actually like all the characters they meet onstage in the plays they watch. Plays aren’t always about pleasant, well-adjusted, or reasonable people. Pleasant, well-adjusted, and reasonable people seldom make very engaging subjects for plays. Even so, the audiences who watch plays need to be able to conceive of the point of view that even the most unpleasant characters give examples of through their actions.

So, when we create characters whose behaviors are less than exemplary, we need to make sure that the characters demonstrate through both their dialogue, and their actions, that they fully believe in what they are doing, and that in the world of the play these actions the characters take are necessary for them, and for the successful outcome of the plot they are involved in. When characters do things that the audience, or even the playwright themselves, would never dream of doing in a million years, the manner in which these possibly bewildering events are presented needs to be believable in the conviction of the characters who are carrying them out.

In an earlier blog post I mentioned the need for the playwright to be able to put themselves fully into the shoes of their characters. That is always true. The playwright also needs to have empathy for the characters. They need to have empathy for the good characters, and for the bad ones too. So long as we have empathy for all our characters then the audience too, hopefully will develop empathy for our characters.

Go ahead. Let your characters do the things you would never do. Let them do those things with all the zest, lack of forethought, and absence of common sense that pleasant, well adjusted, reasonable people never go without. What’s the point of writing plays if you cannot experience some things through your characters that you will thankfully never experience in real life?