Pointers, Advice, Guidelines, Tips, and Tricks
By Matt St. Amand and Michael K. Potter
This missive of advice is intended, specifically, for playwrights submitting their work to the Annual Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest. Because of this, some of the advice found herein may not be generally applicable to those writing for other audiences and contexts. Still, most of it is general advice about playwriting and storytelling – even general advice about writing in the broadest sense. Note, however, that we don’t consider ourselves to be infallible authorities on this – or anything, really.
Now: where to begin?
First, let’s get this out of the way: Unless you’re some sort of exquisitely rare superhuman (you aren’t) you need to READ, a lot, in order to write well. Specifically, you need to read plays in order to write good plays. For one thing, reading is to the mind as eating is to the body. Without a steady flow of ideas, without the accumulation of experiences in which you’ve interpreted and analyzed and puzzled over text, without frequent acquaintance with the synthesis of connecting stories to your own memories and beliefs, your mind will starve. Okay, maybe that’s an overstatement. Perhaps it’s just the part of your mind that you need to write that starves. But you get the point.
Secondly, when we read a script penned by someone who doesn’t read plays, it shows. The writer doesn’t know the conventions of the medium, and often seems to be presenting us with a novel rather than a play. Playwriting is an art unto itself, and even if you’re a bestselling novelist, it doesn’t mean you can write a play. What works in one medium may not work in another.
So: you need to read plays. Buy some. Borrow some from the library. Find some online. Read as many plays as possible – preferably good ones.
Now let’s re-start with THE BIG PICTURE. A script is good when its strengths are obvious, so the reader doesn’t have to search for its merits. You don’t want your readers to ask themselves questions like, “Am I enjoying what I'm reading?” or “Am I struggling to get through it?”
What are those merits? Don’t ask us – the particular merits of your writing are, well, particular to you. But one thing all good writers share is ORIGINALITY – ideas and an authorial voice all their own. We’re often surprised by how much writing seems to be created by people who are imitating the sort of writing they enjoy reading (the common downside to the necessity of reading). There’s nothing wrong with a bit of imitation – after all, the entire fantasy genre wouldn’t exist if authors didn’t want to imitate Tolkien—but the hazard is that the result will be a photocopy of a photocopy, lacking definition and vividness. We’d rather read the script others would want to imitate.
So, how do you write a compelling play? The good news and the bad news is that nobody can tell you exactly how to write a compelling play. We can offer advice regarding essentials, share experiences about what’s worked for others, and tell you what to avoid. But writing a play is bigger than all of that. If you care to read further, we can describe at least one person’s process.
At the outset, we need to demystify the whole concept of “ideas”. New writers regard ideas as diamond-encrusted gifts from the gods, believe that they are rare and few and precious. In reality, ideas should be regarded as perishable, plentiful and expendable, like tomatoes.
When an idea materializes, don’t regard it as a miracle. Regard it as a tomato. Examine it looking for flaws and imperfections. Squeeze the tomato to see if it’s mushy. Smell it to see if it’s about to go bad. Examine its size – is it puny? Is it a bulging mutant?
Do not put ideas on pedestals; put them on the ground and step on them.
If we do that, we’ll squash them! a voice cries out.
We want to squash and discard ideas by the dozen, by the score, by the gross, by the great gross.
Why? But why? the voice cries out.
To find those ideas that don’t just squish under our foot. They are out there, but the only way of finding them is by digging through all the mediocre ideas and discarding them all. Don’t expect the surviving tomato/idea to be a glowing prodigy of tomatoes. The best ideas are often very simple.
Some people keep writing journals. Michael does; his notebooks and doc files go back to the mid-1990s. Others, like Matt, do not. He used to, and soon found it filled with flabby, half-baked, useless fragments. There came a point he no longer feared forgetting an idea. If an idea is any good, it’ll come back to him. Your memory may work differently. There is no one-size-fits-all approach.
One idea that recurred to Matt was simple: two people in a room. The image was so pedestrian anyone else might have thought, “Certainly, that’ll squash under foot worse than the rest!” It did not, however – because Matt sensed (a) the people were trapped; (b) they were not friends, but also not enemies; they were skeptical of each other, but would also help each other – to a degree.
Who were these people? A man and a woman. The man was Reinhart, a name with a bit of bite, unusual so that it was slightly memorable. He worked in Logistics and Risk Management – a very corporate-sounding department, but with little indication about its actual purpose/function. The woman was Rainbow, a softer, more pleasant, unusual name. But every idea is a tomato. After giving the name “Rainbow” the squash test, it didn’t pass. Too hippy-esque. Matt tried several other names. Finally, “Meghan” passed the squash test. She worked in Wellness, which was also relatable, but with an ambiguous purpose/function. Matt wanted to work with audience expectations immediately, to let them make assumptions based on his characters’ names, their departments, all easily revealed in an ordinary introduction to one another.
Why were Meghan and Reinhart in the room? Were they incarcerated? Kidnapped? No.
There was an emergency and they were in a “safe room” in their building.
What kind of emergency? A gunman in the building would be timely. A bomb threat could be compelling. A person who went crazy, stripped off their clothes and did a nude-run could be funny.
But Matt kept stepping on the ideas and they kept squashing.
Then came the idea: Meghan and Reinhart don’t know what the emergency is.
That idea didn’t squash.
At first, it seemed less exciting than the others – but it didn’t squash. So, Matt explored it. As it turned out, the idea allowed him to reveal his characters quickly, as they spoke of their own ideas about why a “shelter in place” had been called. Meghan is a worrier, fatalistic, certain that some disaster has occurred. Reinhart is cynical and dismissive, believing the emergency is merely a drill, a waste of time. This immediately created conflict as they argued about why they believed what they believed. Tensions escalated as each attempted to convince the other that their idea is the correct one. This triggered ideas for dialogue, creating a natural push-pull dynamic.
So, now let’s get into some details about playwriting and storytelling.
With vanishingly few exceptions, the success of your play as a story, as a memorable experience, as a source of intrigue and enjoyment, will depend on its characters. Characters are the heart of your story, the means by which you communicate your themes and plot, the source of investment for your audience’s emotions, and the driving force of everything that happens. So you want to think them through carefully and really work to ensure you get them right.
Most of time, you’ll want to ensure your characters come across as real, distinct human beings with their own personalities, desires, ideas, motivations, voices, dreams, fears, beliefs, values, secrets, talents, foibles, and histories. That’s a tall order, but think about every person you know: all of these qualities can be found in them. Even if you’re a cynical misanthrope who believes everyone is fundamentally the same, that belief won’t help you write a good story with compelling characters. For the purposes of storytelling, treat each character you’re writing as unique – and know what makes them unique. If you don’t know, your audience won’t know, either. And we’re going to add, though it should go without saying, that all of this should be done without relying on racial, ethnic, or gender stereotypes.
In Mamet’s Oleanna, John’s character is established immediately during a phone call the audience can’t really follow. Carol’s character is revealed more slowly, in smaller pieces of information, first in the fact that she lingers outside John’s door, listening to the call, then as she and John converse. By the end of the first scene, the audience has a firm understanding of who these people are – which allows Mamet to turn everything upside down as these characters change and reveal previously-hidden sides to themselves during the rest of the play. John and Carol speak differently, with different vocabularies and rhythms. They understand the world differently. They make different choices. Each of them feels like a real human being. If they didn’t seem believable and unique, the story wouldn’t work at all.
Much of the art of playwriting lies in how character is revealed, in the playwright’s use of dialogue and action to reveal elements of character. The rest of this sections concerned with how to accomplish this.
Compelling characters are themselves, not extensions of you. Not only is it problematic to write characters who are Keanu-esque ciphers devoid of personality, it’s just as problematic for them to be Sorkin-esque mouthpieces for your sermons. Obviously, your own beliefs and values will influence your writing, but when they do you want to ensure their influence on your characters is organic, so that insofar as they represent you, it comes across as part of who they are.
Sometimes the best way to accomplish this is through misdirection. Philosophical plays are notoriously difficult to write, because it’s easy for them to devolve into dull sermonizing and exposition. In No Exit, Sartre side-steps this problem by leading the audience to expect Cradeau/Garcin to be his mouthpiece. Cradeau sometimes seems to be giving near-stereotypical monologues that lesser playwrights would use for their sermons. But attention reveals this is misdirection: Cradeau is an ironic figure who represents a simplistic, childish version of Sartre’s philosophy. Inez – the ostensible villain of the play – is the one relaying ideas closer to Sartre’s actual point of view, which lies in the space between the three principal characters and is never fully explained. Sartre trusts his audience to figure things out for themselves, as they puzzle over his story.
It’s difficult to separate all of the elements of a good play into separate categories with hard borders, so this next point also applies to plot, but: what’s at stake for your characters? What do they care about that is threatened, or needs to be achieved, or prevented? Why does this story matter for them and to them? Whatever the answer is, those stakes should be made clear in the story – preferably as early as possible so your reader isn’t distracted by wondering whether the story is trivial. If the stakes are meant to be important, are they really – from the perspective of the character and/or audience? If they are not, is this done intentionally? Are they interesting, compelling, logical things for someone to care about? If not, that can work too if done with clear purpose – as in some comedies where characters risk their lives for small stakes, or compete for ridiculously high stakes.
Stakes matter not only because they move the story along, but also because they help your audience understand why each character is part of the story at all. Each character who isn’t peripheral should matter to the plot and/or theme, and the plot and/or theme should matter to each character because they have something at stake. Otherwise, why are they in this story at all?
In Shepard’s True West, even the superficially peripheral character of Mom – who shows up for only one scene and says very little – matters to the story, both because she has something at stake and because she matters to the plot and to the two principal characters, Austin and Lee. The men are living in her house, which they’ve all but destroyed by the time she returns home. She wanders about in a daze, and when she speaks she seems utterly detached from what’s happening around her, unable to deal with reality. She and her home represent capitulation to the superficiality, conformity, and materialism of the New West. She represents what Austin thought he wanted, and what Lee briefly flirted with wanting. Her presence causes the long-simmering resentment the brothers feel toward each other to finally erupt into violence.
At least some of your characters should change as a result of the story – that’s part of what it means for the story to matter to them, after all. This is known as character development, and it’s best not to predetermine what its outcome will be before you begin writing. Let it grow organically as you develop your script, as a result of who those characters are and how they’re affected by what happens to and around them, rather then using them to teach your readers a predetermined lesson. Sermons are rarely enjoyable. Unless the mystery is the point, the audience should also have enough information to infer why characters make the decisions they do as they develop, as well, given the character’s personality and circumstances.
Consider, for example, the development of Sister Aloysius in Shanley’s Doubt. From the moment we meet her she is an immovable force, determined and self-righteous, utterly convinced that her every conviction represents objective truth. But there are occasional cracks in her façade, particularly after the confrontation with Mrs. Muller. In the last scene she breaks down, and we discover that she isn’t as confident as she’s been pretending – perhaps she never was. Her development is both a reaction to the encounters she’s had with other characters and a consequence of her own decisions. She has acted and been acted upon – and everything that she’s experienced during the story has affected her.
Unless you’re writing a one-person play, the relationships between your characters are just as important as the details of each character in isolation. Relationships between characters should be, in most cases, dynamic and believable given the personalities, histories, desires, etc. of the characters involved. You also need to think about what the audience should know about these relationships, and when. Some details may be necessary to reveal early; others may be best saved for a surprise later on. The specifics of character relationships – their compatibilities, rivalries, disagreements, secrets, and looming conflicts – provide energy to move your story along.
Some important character relationships may even be offstage. In Schaffer’s Equus, we gradually learn about the strained, bloodless relationship between Dysart and his wife, Margaret. Margaret is never seen, but as we learn about their life together, we learn about so much more. Their marriage is a vehicle for Schaffer to indirectly help us learn more about why Dysart is, why he’s in the vulnerable state in which we find him as the play opens, his dreams and disappointments, and his relationship to both Hesther and Alan.
Finally, don’t forget that plays are meant to be performed: Writ characters that actors will want to embody onstage!
PLOT and STRUCTURE
Let’s return to Matt’s play, Shelter in Place. Once he had the dialogue progressing, and added some action, he needed to pay attention to pacing.
Did he just pile up all the action in ten pages in the middle of the play, bookending it all with roundabout dialogue? No way. There is a natural ebb and flow to events. Characters gain confidence; characters lose confidence. Characters agree; characters disagree. Characters are confused by events; characters figure out a plan of action. Like a swinging pendulum.
How do you know what to do next? Well, what are you doing right now? If your characters are disagreeing, find a logical story-reason for them to agree. If your character is frightened, find a logical story-reason for them to feel assured. And notice we say “story-reason”, and not just “reason”. Why?
Everything you put into a story must do at least ONE of TWO things:
1. Develop character.
2. Further the story.
If a scene or event does neither of these things, it must be cut. Real estate in a story is not free space. Every idea has to pay its rent by developing character and/or furthering the story.
So, Meghan and Reinhart engage in disagreement, and then a mystery sound rumbles through, unifying them in fear. Their speculation regarding the origin of the sound soon separates them, again. This disagreement leads to more dialogue about whether to stay or leave the safe room.
There are no hard and fast rules in writing, but one Matt set for himself is: the first half of the play steers the audience toward certain questions. The second half of the play answers most of those questions.
Meaning, if you have a character enter, covered in blood, at some point you will have to reveal why and/or whose blood it is. This is where craft enters. It’s easy to create mystery, but too many unanswered/unaddressed mysteries can sink your story. Some writers can pull off stories that are practically nothing but unanswered questions and unsolved mysteries – David Lynch, for example – but odds are you and we are not among their ranks.
Does this mean all questions must be answered by the end of the play? No. But the role of the writer is similar to that of the courtroom lawyer: never ask a question to which you do not already know the answer. Do no create mysteries or questions in your story simply to prod it along. There should be a reason for every detail. Sometimes the answer may belong to a different element of the play, meaning, for instance: sometimes the answer to a plot mystery is found in theme. That sort of thing. In film, this is what Lynch and von Trier tend to do – the answers are there, just not in the place you expect to find them.
You don’t need to use any of the standard models or formulae for storytelling, though it doesn’t hurt to think about them, either – especially when you find yourself stuck. Elements of dramatic action (discovery, revelation, decision) and/or models of plot structure such as Freytag’s Pyramid (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, denouement) or the Aristotelian three-act model (Protasis, Epitasis, Catastrophe) all have their uses, and provide some practical ways to think about story structure. They’re widely used for reasons both positive and negative. What’s Important, when you use them, is that you do so thoughtfully rather than robotically. As long as you ensure that story logic trumps the logic of the model or theory you’re using – that x follows y because the logic of the story, rather than the logic of the model,, demands it – you should be fine. Use them creatively.
At minimum, it’s a good idea to use a simplistic version of the Aristotelian three-act structure: Act one sets up the setting, characters, and major conflicts; act two is the locus of most conflict as the protagonist(s) try to achieve their goals; and act three wraps things up with a climax and possibly a denouement. The transition from act one into act two is critically important, as it sets up the dramatic meat of the story with some sort of inciting incident. The inciting incident should be motivational enough to the protagonist(s) to move the play forward, and the audience needs to feel its urgency.
Now, let’s talk setting. It’s usually best if your play has at least one of these. It’s better still if that setting is clear, that it has a sense of time and place that is integral to the play’s identity. Setting, in other words, should help shape plot, character, dialogue, and even theme. Think of the role setting plays in Shepard’s True West: a remote suburb at the edge of the desert, on the border of Old West meets New West, between wilderness and civilization, in the 1970s. Every detail of that setting influences how the play looks, how characters speak, who characters are, what happens and why. The setting is a powerful and essential element of the play. And the audience is provided with enough information through various means to knows what it needs to know about when and where the play takes place, because those details intensify their experience.
In True West, one way the audience knows that characters are changing is in how they speak about and respond to the setting. However it’s communicated, your characters (at least the principals) should develop over the course of the story or the reasonable inference is that your story doesn’t matter. You could think of character development as a consequence of plot, or you could think of plot advancing through character development, but it’s probably best to think of the matter in both ways.
Generally speaking, characters develop as a result of confronting obstacles and either surmounting or being beaten by them, in the pursuit of goals. You create mounting tension by increasing the level of challenge and/or complexity of the obstacles characters face and, as in life, revealing that each solution creates at least one new problem. The key to character development, we’re proposing, is conflict – which we also happen to see as the key to engaging stories. Conflict moves plot along, develops character, holds the audience’s attention, and helps the audience invest in what’s unfolding in front of them.
Indeed, conflict (A wants x, but faces external or internal resistance) is an essential element of storytelling for many reasons, but they can be summed up easily: without conflict there is no story. Conflict creates comedy, drama, character development, opportunities for dialogue – everything. But for conflict to matter, there must be reasons behind it that are rooted in, and communicate, character and theme. Conflict should matter to the characters in your story, and to the story itself; and it should drive the action from the first scene to the last.
As your plot moves along, and obstacles are encountered and character revealed and developed, the audience should come to perceive a set of possible outcomes. This set may change its members occasionally, but a good rule of thumb is that the set of possible climaxes to your story should shrink in your audience’s mind as the story moves along, because those climaxes should all be logical endpoints to the particular story beats being experienced by particular characters making particular decisions.
By the end of scene two in Son’s Stop Kiss, we know to expect two things: Callie and Sara will become friends and maybe lovers, and their relationship will lead to tragedy. There are many,many ways those two expectations could be met. The set of possible climaxes contains at least a dozen options. But with each scene, new possibilities are added to that set and even more possibilities are removed as we learn more about what happened before and after the incident, as Callie and Sara make particular choices rather than others, as we interpret the dialogue of even supporting characters – what they say, but just as importantly, what they don’t say. Then, in the last scene, Son throws a curveball that makes perfect sense given what’s come before, though it isn’t quite what we expected. It’s satisfying because it’s both logical and surprising.
The climax of your story warrants careful attention: a good climax is remembered even if other details of the story are forgotten. A good climax feels inevitable, yet surprising. It reveals, or casts new light on earlier scenes and decisions. It leaves an audience thinking and feeling. Think again of Shepard’s True West: its climax is inevitable, given what’s happened in the story and the journeys the brothers have taken, yet its sudden violence has been hinted at and backed away from so often that when it comes, it’s still a shock. And it ends without resolution or denouement. The audience leaves the theatre wondering what might have happened next. Consider, again, Son’s Stop Kiss: every scene prior to the climax has either dealt with the beautiful build-up to, or dreadful consequences of, a particular moment of romantic catharsis met with brutal hatred. The play ends with that moment of beauty, but not the brutality that follows, and the audience is left welling up with conflicted emotion because they love these characters and it’s a sweet release of romantic tension, but the audience also knows what happens next.
What the endings of True West and Stop Kiss have in common is this: the audience understands why the play ends at that point, in that way. The playwrights have done their jobs extraordinarily well, laying the foundation for those particular climaxes (which, in these cases, are also the endings of the plays). The narrative logic and ontological rules of the play (the rules that govern how things work in the worlds of those stories) are internally consistent, and each play is cohesive (ploy, character, dialogue, genre, and theme all work in unison), so the intentionality of the playwrights’ choices shines through. The playwrights earned the audience’s trust.
That trust comes from a sense that there is purpose and meaning to what is unfolding. Every scene and every event in the story should be causally and/or thematically linked. There should be intentionality behind everything that happens so that each scene matters and serves a purpose at its location in the temporal sequence of the play. The beginning makes sense as a beginning; the end makes sense as an end, and so forth. Everything needs to be present in your play for a reason. Everything should serve a purpose. Even props and set dressing – if you mention any of these things in your script – should serve some sort of purpose, be it conveying symbolic or thematic meaning, communicating character details, or setting up plot points.
All writers face painful moments where they are faced with cutting details they personally love, but which really serve no purpose in the story. Cut them. Cut them all. If you have to, do a “Save As” with your document, keep a copy with those precious details, and then save another version in which they are deleted. Matt does this. It makes cutting much easier. Then, later, when he revisits his grand, precious idea in the previous version, it has usually paled. Michael prefers to place material he cuts in a special “Detritus” file, so he can return to them later when he needs ideas, scenes, or moments in other projects. Sometimes a deleted scene becomes a new story of its own.
In Shelter in Place, Matt didn’t so much create mysteries, but added touchstone details that he revisited in Acts II and III. A seemingly inconsequential detail, early on, becomes a major plot point later.
In True West and Stop Kiss, the climax doesn’t involve resolution., Indeed, we prefer climaxes that don’t wrap things up in a neat and tidy bow. Others prefer resolution. It doesn’t really matter whether you choose resolution or not, as long as it’s well-written and true to everything that has come before. Still, if the climax leads to resolution, it shouldn’t be so clear or total that there’s nothing left for the audience to ponder and discuss on their drive home.
When Matt was writing Shelter in Place, he found himself with a lot of dialogue ideas to squash: Obviously, Meghan and Reinhart are in disagreement, but he wanted to avoid all the easy traps of having them simply insult each other or demean the other’s ideas. So, he drew upon personal experience: times he had disagreements, experience when he witnessed others who had disagreements. He even thought of how he'd seen it portrayed well in other plays.
This is where craft and experience came into play. No matter how Matt tried, the first thing he put down on paper was clichéd and obvious. This used to bother him. Then he realized he knew enough to fix it. So, he came to a point where he just concentrated on getting his ideas down on paper as well as he could – “What do I know best?” he asked himself, and he wrote that part. Didn’t matter if it’s not in chronological order. He wrote the scene that comes in clearest. When a scene is done, he thinks, “Well, how did they get there?” There are some obvious reasons and he works with those.
So, he writes down his sloppy, clichéd dialogue and then he goes over and over it, zeroing-in on every part that bothers him. Characters who are glib or too clever are insufferable. Characters who are conveniently stupid and need obvious plot-points explained to them can demolish a story.
Matt doesn’t even ask himself for reasons why bits of dialogue rub him the wrong way. If something doesn’t feel right, hr re-examine it and often rewrite it.
The big “fixes” are:
(a) Eliminating obvious dialogue, stuff that makes characters sound like they’re talking in a commercial or an Aaron Sorkin show. People are notoriously passive-aggressive and indirect. Don’t give them all great lines. Use Freudian slips, but don’t overuse them. People often misspeak, but actually say something closer to what they really mean. The other person can jump on this errant detail and make accusations.
(b) Swearing. In Matt’s daily life, he swears continuously. If he wants certain parts of language to have greater impact in his writing, he uses them sparingly. At this point in history, virtually no one is shocked by someone saying “fuck”. Some characters swear a lot. Fine. So long as that is true to their character. When Matt reads piles of profanity in a piece of work, it comes off as being used by a person who has just learned a few of the forbidden words. No writer wants that. Intentionality and clear purpose are your friends.
(c) Speeches. Most people don’t say any more than they have to (or think they have to). They grunt replies. They utter one-word answers to questions. Listen-in on conversations next time you’re in a restaurant, at the mall, anywhere there are people nearby talking. Most people don’t make speeches. People often have a hard time saying what they want to say. So should your characters. But there’s a trick – don’t make your character so indirect and inarticulate that it appears you cannot write dialogue. Also, verbatim dialogue you overhear may not work well in a story. This is where craft comes into play.
(d) Exposition (verbal text). This is dialogue that only serves to inform the audience – a character makes a phone call and says to the person on the other end: “Don, this is your brother, Frank.” Nobody speaks like that. In a novel, the writer has more freedom and tools available to convey information to the audience. The playwright has stage directions and dialogue. Exposition is a beacon of bad craft. Writers should be subtle, yet strategically obvious. The great pitfall is having one character explain something to another character that he/she should already know – it’s only being said because the audience needs to know. One way to avoid exposition is to trust your audience. Nothing should be explained by any character more than is necessary for audiences to grasp the point. People know stuff. They’re not mind-readers, but people know stuff. A good rule of thumb: Always prioritize action and dialogue over monologue and exposition.
With Meghan and Reinhart in the corporate safe room, Matt had their initial efforts at trying to convince the other about what is happening and/or if they should stay or leave the safe room. But having two people just standing and talking gets boring. Something needs to happen.
So, he looked to external forces for action prompts. Meghan and Reinhart both have cell phones. Could they get news of the emergency over those? No. No cell phone reception. Is that because of where they were located in the building, or was there a more sinister reason? Matt explored this in dialogue.
Then, he introduced a strange, intermittent sound – something rolling through the duct work in the ceiling above their heads. The sound was enough to spook his characters. They both had their own guesses the source of the sound and what it meant to their safety. He explored this in dialogue.
After the mystery sound fades away, and the back-and-forth speculation dies out, Matt came to a natural break in the action. Meghan and Reinhart, decide they are trapped, and having decided to stay (for the time being) they need to kill time. How do two strangers do this? They talk about themselves. They ask about the other.
As a further change of direction, Matt created reasons for each character to temporarily leave the safe room, with the promise of returning. This afforded the remaining character a soliloquy where they revealed thoughts and ideas they never would have said in front of the other.
Eventually, Matt hit upon an idea – the company had been sold, sometime in the recent past – which sent the story into a new direction, allowing him to create a few different dynamics between Meghan and Reinhart. Meghan, the worrier, soon shows confidence. Reinhart, the arrogant yuppie has a few strategic moments of doubt. No person is monotone. People are complex. They experience a range of emotions. Your characters can feel anything – it’s the writer’s job to pave a realistic route from one emotion to another.
Dialogue belongs to particular characters, particular people, and no two people speak exactly the same way. Different characters should speak differently, with their own rhythms, vocabularies, sentence structures, personalities and tones. Dialogue should sound as though it must be spoken by THAT character in THAT situation, based on what the audience knows of their personality and the plot. Keep in mind, too, that people change how they speak based on the person they’re conversing with.
When Michael was co-writing The Worst Thing I Ever Did, he and his collaborators had the good fortune to be writing a three-person play in which each of them would play a character. So, while the plot was worked out collaboratively, each writer took primary responsibility for writing the dialogue for their character, to ensure the characters’ voices were as distinct as possible. Other writers could make suggestions and edits, but the responsibility and final say rested with the person assigned to that character. As a result, each character in the play has a unique voice.
In most plays, dialogue should be used to convey thoughts, feelings, setting, and conflict – with exposition kept to a minimum, conveying only necessary information, as naturalistically and indirectly as possible. Yet, the style of dialogue you use should fit the genre and/or purposes of the play – and even the scene. Consider Schaffer’s Equus: when Dysart is alone, he slips into a refined style of speech and delivers monologues to himself, in his head – and sometimes to his friend Hesther. But when he’s with Alan, his style of speech becomes more naturalistic, and he speaks for shorter periods of time. In those moments he’s in conversation, and his purpose is to elicit information from his patient.
THEME and GENRE
Does your play have anything to say? Does it have a point? All the best plays do. That point is theme. Sometimes it isn’t a particular point, really, but more of an exploration – questions it’s raising, answers it’s toying with. Your play should have a theme, but it’s often a mistake to predetermine that theme. Instead, it’s best to allow it to emerge, inductively, from the story you develop. We often don’t see the themes of our work until we’re into the third or fourth draft, when as if by magic they appear before us. Once visible theme can be developed. You can start to look for its traces in scenes and characters, and build on it more consciously.
Theme should emerge from a well-crafted story with well-defined characters, rather than plot and character being used as didactic tools to make thematic points. That way lies a sermon, not a story – and few people want to pay to see a sermon enacted in front of their eyes. Theme should be indirect, inferred from what’s happening in the story. It should rarely be stated directly by a character, unless that’s done as misdirection or to give part of a larger thematic whole. Sometimes it’s provided in the title. Shanley’s Doubt, for example, states its theme right there in the title – and he wants you to keep that in mind as you read or watch his play. If you don’t – and many audiences do not—you’ll misunderstand what the play is saying. The title is meant to help us avoid the human tendency to rush to judgment or pick a side.
Universal, timeless, themes are best. A theme that is particular to the year it is written, or to a particular audience, will die quickly even if it’s lucky enough to be produced at all. That way lies faddishness rather than art. Consider Son’s Stop Kiss again: it would have been easy for the playwright to make her theme something like “LGBTQ people deserve basic rights and protections because they’re human beings like anyone else”.Indeed, that’s both true and a clear message one can take from the story. But she’s a better writer than that. The themes of Stop Kiss are the unpredictability of love, human tenacity in the face of adversity, and how we can create our own lives rather than accept the lives others try to force upon us.
Several months into co-writing Another Fucking Christmas Play, Michael realized its themes were Nietzschean – the necessity of embracing one’s fate no matter how painful, the location of true power in self-determination and self-control, and the difficult task of facing up to reality rather than hiding in fantasy. None of these themes is explicitly stated (except at the end of a bonus track on the Original Cast Recording), but they’re all present, in some form, throughout the play. They’re revealed by the choices characters make and what happens as a result, by what helps “un-stick” characters from their ruts so they can make progress. At least one of these themes is present in every scene of the play. But they’re indirect, hidden behind filthy jokes and bizarre songs. And they are themes as relevant now as they were in 19th-century Germany. They will always be relevant, because they’re universal themes about what it means to be a human being who wants to live the best life possible.
If your play fits into a genre, it should demonstrate awareness of the conventions and tropes of that genre and do something interesting, creative, even subversive with them. At minimum you should know what genre your play falls into. Is it a comedy with dramatic moments? A drama with humorous moments? Is it sci-fi, Gothic, or fantasy? Whatever its genre, know what that means for what and how you’re expected to write – and if you’re going to flout the genre’s conventions, you’ll need to so do in a way that communicates a facility with those conventions, so your audience understands the purpose and intentionality behind your choices.
To return to Another Fucking Christmas Play, Michael and his co-writers set out to write a Christmas musical on the surface that was a send-up of the genre underneath. So they compiled a table of every trope and cliché in the genre, then developed the plot and characters by trying to combine and include as many of those as possible, with a twist. The next step was to figure out what was irksome or false about those tropes and clichés and, one by one, subvert them.
CRAFT and MECHANICS
Many people find matters of craft and mechanics boring, even trivial. Maybe so. But guess what? They could mean the difference between writing for yourself and writing for audiences that want to read your plays and see them performed, because craft and mechanics get your foot in the door.
We all want our work to be taken seriously. When submitting work for publication or performance, or submission to a contest, writers should hope for a sympathetic reader, but prepare for the unsympathetic reader:
Spelling counts. Grammar counts. Punctuation counts. Diction counts. Typos, such as “quiet” for “quite”, are difficult to catch when spell-check glides right over them. Even the most sympathetic reader pauses to mull the meaning of a word when the wrong one appears in a sentence. For unsympathetic readers, the first appearance of a typo may be justification enough to put your work aside and move on to the next manuscript in the pile. Proofread your work carefully. Have a trusted reader proofread your work as well. Maybe more than one.
FULL DISCLOSURE: Typos creep into our work, as they do everyone’s, but we always do our utmost to ensure there are as few as possible.
Formatting is important. For one thing, formatting affects readability – and you want your work to be readable, don’t you? Ideas come first, certainly. Get them down on the page any way you can, but be sure you do not submit your work that way. Formatting is an easy way to show you know your craft and you respect your audience. For the sympathetic reader, a poorly or erratically-formatted play is difficult to read. The unsympathetic reader loves bad formatting because it’s a clear indication the writer has not learned their craft, or taken the time to present their work in the best light, and may cast your manuscript aside without even reading it. It’s a harsh reality, but it happens all too often.
Guidelines matter as well. If a publisher or contest has guidelines, it is a good practice to follow them. If a contest specifies “No entries longer than 5,000 words”, it would be unwise to submit a work that is 12,000 words in length. Similarly, if entering a manuscript in a novel-writing competition, it would be unwise to submit a 15-page short story. Rules are not the enemy of creativity -- they are indicators of whether or not that venue is right for your work. The sympathetic reader may look the other way if guidelines are disregarded. The unsympathetic reader has just found another reason to put your work aside. Don’t give them that easy out.
Play Manuscripts have their own formatting conventions. At a bare minimum, the following should each be given their own dedicated page:
Ultimately, if you’re writing to be read, you begin your story for yourself, but you complete it for your audience. The craft demands that, at some point in the writing process, your focus shifts from your own enjoyment to the needs of your audience. The two are not mutually exclusive, but they are also not conjoined. Craft is knowing the difference.
Originality helps your play stand out, giving it a unique identity that brands it as your work. And originality comes in many forms, including the topics you choose to write about. Few people enjoy "canned" drama, where someone writes about a hot button issue and simply lets the built-in drama do all of the work. Writing is not about hitching wagons to a moving objects, it's about creating your own momentum.
Scripts that demonstrate creativity and risk-taking in their ideas, interpretations, and choices are inherently more interesting. A script that risks making unpopular or even odious statements to tell their story (beyond merely being sensationalist) catch the eye and compel attention.
We want to read work from writers who have a handle on what they’re creating. We ask, as we would a dog walker -- are they guiding the story (not leading or forcing it), or are they pulled off their feet following the story? We want a story that gallops, but we also want the writer to be in command. If the writer is just a passenger, where is there room for the audience? The audience is supposed to be the passenger. Attention to detail matters. As we mentioned earlier, you should always show rather than tell, when possible. Exposition can kill an otherwise good story. But when you tell, do so with concrete, vivid, well-observed human details.
Central to conveying a sense of control is voice. Your script should demonstrate a unique authorial voice: it sounds like this you and no one else. It should have a point of view and a mood and a character of its own. This comes with practice – especially the sort of practice that comes from re-drafting. First drafts are easy to spot. They’re rarely impressive. They really aren’t supposed to be, as their function is to record your initial efforts. Quality and voice will grow as you complete the difficult work of editing and rewriting.
Every story takes place within a larger world. The world of your play is fictional, even if based on real events. However close to reality or fantastical you want it to be, communicating a sense if the larger world beyond the play is important. It adds scope. It grounds the proceedings. It expands the audience’s sense of what is possible for your characters, giving them both pasts and futures.
Finally, remember that this is a play you're writing – it’s intended to be performed, live, with actual actors, and most likely on a minimal budget. Take a hard look at it with these considerations in mind. Can this be performed? What would it cost? What sort of stage would it need? Are the scene transitions possible for real human beings to pull off? What sort of set will be required, and how often will that set need to change? Is there enough time for actors to change costumes?
You wouldn’t submit a Clive Barker-type body horror novel to Harlequin, because that isn’t what Harlequin publishes. It would be folly. These guidelines were written specifically for the Windsor-Essex Playwriting Contest – so they should be taken as a clear indication of what we’re looking for. But there’s more to that. The winning entry, each year, will be produced by Post Productions, so it needs to be the sort of play that Post Productions would produce. It needs to fit the Post Productions brand: intense; emotionally, intellectually, and/or socially provocative; intimately staged; perceptible as witnessing real people leading real lives. And it needs to be capable of being staged at The Shadowbox Theatre within the confines of a reasonable budget.
The best way to get a good handle on the Post Productions brand is to see as many of the plays they produce as you can, and really think about why they were chosen. What do they have in common? What does each of them offer? Why was it chosen?