What do your friends say about you behind your back? Or in front of it? Hang on. That’s a tricky physical manoeuvre.
What’s that got to do with writing drama? Don’t worry. We’ll get to that soon.
Maybe you’re reading this because you’re a regular. Maybe you’re reading this because you’re searching for writer’s block busters. Or maybe you are still trying to find yourself as a writer.
Great. I want you to put aside half an hour and try the following six steps.
STEP ONE: FIND TEN WORDS
Find ten words. Brainstorm them. Pick them randomly. Just get them down and place them in view.
STEP TWO: CHOOSE ONE AND MAKE A SCENE
Pick one of the those words and have a character – however well- or ill-defined you have drawn them up to now – give their opinion on the subject. The word could be a starting point or suggest a physical object that they handle.
For this exercise, with our dramatic writing focus, I think it’s best trying it as a monologue, but if you want your character to be interacting with others, that’s a fine choice, too.
Keep your writing time to around 10 minutes.
Give yourself permission to cut yourself off mid-scene. To be incomplete.
Next is where we get a little personal.
STEP THREE: GET PERSONAL
I want you to take a piece of paper and write down five things that you imagine other people describe you as.
Write these things down the left hand side of your page.
No need to rush and no need to blush.
If you end up with six or seven, please choose the best five and cut the extra.
Good writing is about the selection of the best details, rather than overstuffing the suitcase.
Look at that list again.
This is more than likely the persona you write, eat and make major life choices from.
STEP FOUR: DEFINE THE ANTI-YOU
Now, for each thing that you are described as, I want you to write on the other side of the page what you would consider is the opposite of that.
For example, “friendly” might be opposed by “guarded and secretive”, “good-humoured” would be opposed perhaps by “over-serious”, “humble” could be opposed by “loud and ambitious”, “proudly penniless” opposed by “obscenely rich”…
Study the list of the five things that you are probably not.
Let’s call this persona of features the Anti-You.
STEP FIVE: BECOME THE ANTI-YOU
For the next 10 minutes, I want you to put on this coat of Anti-You and write the scene you wrote before, from scratch, from the same prompt, trying to let the personality traits of Anti-You influence the way that you write. Be that secretive, loud, over-serious, ambitious, obscenely rich playwright. Write your scene in a way that reflects those Anti-You traits.
STEP SIX: REFLECT
Compare your two pieces. You will probably prefer the Anti-You version. This does not mean that you need to become someone you’re not. It means that when you write from a position of clarity, your writing achieves more.
This is not just an exercise for play- or screenwriting. When I’ve tried this sort of exercise with PhD students wanting to write up their research with a more interesting voice, I’ve listened to pieces of plain critical writing turn into the kind of beasts their authors always wanted to unleash but presumed only others could.
Hopefully, you’ll agree that this is one of the most fun and revealing writing games you can do.
What I hope it reveals to you when you do it is that your persona, your vision, the things that you assume about yourself, do actually affect basic things like word choice even in characters who are meant to be separate creations in voice and personality from you.
Interrogate your vision of yourself in order to take responsibility for the vision of life you present in your work. It’s worth it.
Plus it’s no bad thing to know who you’re not, and to borrow the occasional fantastic line from her.