Copyright © 2017
We all want our work to be taken seriously. When submitting work for publication, or to a contest, writers should hope for a sympathetic reader, but prepare for the unsympathetic reader:
Scene: where does this specific scene take place? On a beach, in a cabin, in a hospital or police station?
Time: when does this scene take place? Ten years in the future? Twenty years in the past? Present day?
How to Write a Compelling Play
The good news and the bad news is that nobody can tell you how to write a compelling play.
If you care to read further, I can describe my process.
At the outset, we need to demystify the whole concept of “ideas”.
New writers regard ideas as diamond-encrusted gifts from the gods, 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 over. 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 do not 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.
Personally, I do not keep a writing journal. I used to, and I soon found it filled with flabby, half-baked, useless fragments. There came a point I no longer feared forgetting an idea. If an idea is any good, it’ll come back.
Don’t expect the surviving tomato/idea to be a glowing prodigy of tomatoes. The best ideas are often very simple.
One idea that recurred to me 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 I 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. I tried several other names. Finally, “Meghan” passed the squash test. She worked in Wellness, which was also relatable, but with an ambiguous purpose/function. I wanted to work with audience expectations immediately, to let them make assumptions based on my 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 very timely. A bomb threat could be very compelling. A person who went crazy, stripped off their clothes and did a nude-run, could be funny.
But I 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, I explored it. As it turned out, the idea allowed me to reveal my characters very 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 discussed/argued why they believed what they believed. Tensions escalate as they attempt to convince the other that their idea is the correct one. This triggered ideas for dialogue, creating a natural push-pull dynamic.
There were many dialogue ideas to squash: Obviously, Meghan and Reinhart are in disagreement, but I wanted to avoid all the easy traps of having them simply insult each other or demean the other’s ideas. So, I drew upon personal experience about times I have had disagreements, drew on experience when I witnessed others who had disagreements, even thought of how I’d seen it portrayed well.
This is where craft and experience came into play. No matter how I try, the first thing I put down on paper is clichéd and obvious. This used to bother me. Then I realized, I knew enough to fix it. So, I came to a point where I just concentrated on getting my ideas down on paper as well as I could – “What do I know best?” I ask myself, and I write that part. Doesn’t matter if it’s not in chronological order. I write the scene that comes in clearest. When that scene is done, I think, “Well, how did they get there?” There are some obvious reasons and I work with those.
So, I put down my sloppy, clichéd dialogue and then I go over and over it, zeroing-in on every part that bothers me. 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.
I don’t even ask myself for reasons why bits of dialogue rub me the wrong way. If something doesn’t feel right, I re-examine it and often rewrite it.
The big “fixes” are:
With Meghan and Reinhart in the corporate safe room, I have 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, I 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? I explored this in dialogue.
Then, I introduced a strange, intermittent sound – something rolling through the duct work in the ceiling above their heads. The sound was enough to spook my characters. They both had their own guesses the source of the sound and what it meant to their safety. I explored this in dialogue.
After the mystery sound fades away, and the back-and-forth speculation dies out, I 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, I 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/ideas they never would have said in front of the other.
Eventually, I hit upon an idea – the company had been sold, sometime in the recent past – which sent the story into a new direction, allowing me 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.
Once I had the dialogue happening, and added some action, I needed to pay attention to pacing.
Did I 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 story-reason for them to agree. If your character is frightened, find a story-reason for them to feel assured. And notice I say “story-reason”, and not just “reason”:
Everything you put into a story must do at least ONE of TWO things:
If you have an scene/event occur and it 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 doing one of those two things: Develop character and/or further the story.
So, Meghan and Reinhart engage in disagreement, and then the mystery sound rumbles through, unifying them in their fear. Their speculation regarding the original 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 I set for myself 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 who’s blood is it. This is where craft enters. It’s easy to create mystery, but if your story has too many unanswered/unaddressed mysteries can sink your story.
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 court room 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.
Which leads to the painful moments where a writer is 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. I do this. It makes cutting much easier. Then, later, when I revisit my grand, precious idea in the previous version, it has usually paled.
In Shelter in Place, I didn’t so much create mysteries, but added touchstone details that I revisited in Act II and III. A seemingly inconsequential detail, early on, becomes a major plot point later.
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.