Every drama is a crime drama (a few thoughts on playwriting craft #1)

2016 has been both a wonderful and terrifying year for me. I became a first-time parent. Then came the atmosphere stirred up by the clashing visions over Brexit and the US presidential elections. So, rather than publishing posts, I’ve been crying over many a change of nappy (sometimes with joy, I assure you.)

I have also been a tutor in playwriting throughout the year at City Lit. (You can sign up for the next 11-week term in 2017 here.) It’s an honour to share my take on our craft, and to witness the way small steps become strides for fellow playwrights over the course.

Each session is very workshop-orientated, usually prefaced with a discussion about the week’s set-play-to-read that leads into a technical exercise that the reading helps illuminate or inspire.

My favourite session this year involved a paraphrasing of something said by Ionesco – that all great plays at heart are crime mysteries – and an early 20th century feminist play. Susan Glaspell’s “Trifles” is a fantastic (and short) play that demonstrates some useful principles of playwriting – among them negotiation over physical objects and characters facing a crucial dilemma.

The story involves the aftermath of a death, and the more that two women discover objects around the house the death took place in, the more they are forced to confront a truth about a woman they know, but also a truth about their relationships with their husbands. It’s a great read. Use your search engine to find a pdf.

And afterwards, thinking about your own play, ask this: what is the crime that takes place in your play? Might there be more than one? If you can’t detect a crime, then what is the transgression at your play’s heart? List it/them. Now, looking at these crimes and transgressions, what character/s would find a convincing justification for it taking place?

Sometimes a play starts with a small transgression, something left outside or put in the wrong place, that leads to a grand collapse. But sometimes when writing a play, the urge to insert something “dramatic” leads to an unwise decision – for example, a murder, or more precisely a murder that no character can defend. But characters fighting over what is right and wrong, while both being right in their own eyes – that’s actually dramatic, whether they are arguing over whose turn it is in a card game or whether to kill the king. Being clear about what and who is doing the transgressing will help you write the play you want to create.