Back in my uni days, I once said to an English lecturer that I had a great idea for a story but that I just hadn’t finished it yet.
“Stop right there,” she said. “If you’re going to be a writer, remember this. An idea for a story only exists when it is finished. Everything else is a starting point.”
Let’s take, for today’s starting point, the concept of beginning with characters.
Driving about on the weekend in one of the few moments our son falls asleep while in the back of the car, I took a question from K, my wife, about how I go about developing characters when starting a play.
Being an annoying husband I started going on about how characters are revealed by what they do, so there’s this weird constipating paradox of feeling like you need to know who they are before they do something, but that they really have to do something for you to know how they are.
K: You’re being annoying.
B: So, let’s try something. Give me a situation that you think would be an interesting play.
K: I want to see a play about a family of asylum seekers.
B: Okay, and then what happens?
B: A play is about characters doing stuff. Who’s doing what and what’s getting in the way?
K: Well, they have to settle in Australia. Or a country they’ve arrived in.
B: Can you be specific?
K: I don’t know.
B: So they’ve arrived in a country to claim their refugee status. Then what? Who’s got the biggest problem in the family?
K: Oh. It’s about a girl in the family. Whose English is better than her parents – they’ve made sure she’s learned English much better than they can speak and understand it. And she never wanted to leave home, but her parents want the best for her and know that English will help get her, if not them, safety. So, she has to do most of the talking for the family in their struggle to settle.
B: Ah. Now we’re getting somewhere. What does she actually want?
K: She wants to go back to where her friends are.
B: Even though it is probably dangerous for all of them?
K: Yes, but she doesn’t understand this.
B: And she has to translate most things for her parents to help them get accepted or assessed as refugees in the new country?
K: Yes. But she doesn’t want to do the talking. She just wants to go back to the way things were.
B: So might she be messing up the translations or telling lies that endanger their claim?
B: Okay. Now that’s a starting point for a play.
K: You’re annoying
This is the kind of process you might go through when you’re first hit with an “idea” for a story. You might start with the ‘type’ of person and the frustration of a desire that this type might experience. Figure out what could personify that frustration – so that you could stage it with an actor.
Everything else from there on is going to be about the way things change. How that character responds to the frustration of their desire, how their emotions change and what that does to their behaviour. How their behaviour changes and whether the goal itself transforms in the face of opposition.
The play, the idea, itself is the how, not the what, because we experience theatre in time. It’s not like having an idea for a painting or a photograph, because the audience for visual arts gets to control the time they look at the work (more or less – I know how difficult it is not to be pushed aside by others’ camera phones at a blockbuster exhibition).
So, next time somebody says to you that they have a great idea for a play, ask them what it is. And then what it becomes.
And, you, grasshopper, may become just as annoying as I.
If talking through your idea (or starting point) for a play is something you would like some help with, I’m for hire! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can discuss details.