Playwriting, Life and the High-wire Act: week zero

I’m trying to type this post while keeping an eye on my baby daughter. She’s in a swing seat, sometimes chewing on her hand or finding new ways to fling about her arm.

And I was going to publish this post… yesterday.

Yes, life (sometimes new life) gets in the way of writing (or writing about writing.) Writing-wise, I am working on the draft of one monologue that goes into an R&D session at the end of April, co-writing another play, developing three different television drama proposals and trying the rest of the time to find better ways to balance the family budget.

It’s tough. It’s exciting, yes, but also tough.

But a long time ago I started seeing tougher times as the moment to step up and try doing something different.

When I stopped smoking, for example, I realised it was better to give up on the day that you’re feeling the most stressed, otherwise you fall into the old relapse narrative.

And so what I’m going to do over the next thirteen weeks – during which there is a LOT of stuff going on in my work and family life – I’m going to follow my own recipe for writing the draft of a play.

Which means I’ll be posting updates of the kind of work I’m doing, and detailing some of the challenges of doing that work – time, content, story, kids.

What I’d love to hear is that you might have started to work on your own play, too.

I’m calling this week, week zero. What I did yesterday was spend 30 minutes typing out ideas for the basis of the work. When I search for ideas for plays I try to think about relationships that I feel are still unresolved, arguments that are unfinished yet still define part of who I am. Thinking this way you can start thinking about the people involved (including yourself) and the kinds of details and issues at stake. If you start listing events that happened as “there was the time that….” and get a bit of a run on, then there’s a chance there is enough to focus on for scenes that suggest a bigger story.

So. 30 minutes of this thinking-as-you-type yesterday gave enough details about a student falling out with a piano teacher to make me think that there are two characters there who think they want the same things, but have wildly different ideas and levels of control.

In the rest of the week, I am going to make a list of the events (“there was the time that…”) that I can recall and then make lists of sensory details. That’s right – columns of sight, sound (including words/phrases), feeling/touch, smell and taste. At this stage of things I’m not clear on a story, only a few heightened moments between the two characters, so the idea is to go foraging, collect, reject and select.

Writing actual scenes will come last. For me, this is what building a play means and I’m slightly scared to be sharing the process with you.

And now, either my daughter or I need a nappy change.

Photo by Elena Prieto Landaluce on Unsplash

How to Make a Character Quickly? Look for Love

A few thoughts on craft #21

There are many ways to come up with characters, but I’m about to share with you my favourite way.

What is the basis of a dramatic character? Most writers will say that the character is wanting and failing to get something, and then does something about it.

So, one shortcut for getting inspiration for an amazing character is to look through the love-wanted classifieds or websites. Continue reading “How to Make a Character Quickly? Look for Love”

“When” is just as important as “what” – it’s part of the “what” (a few thoughts #20)

My daughter began to smile this week.

She’s only been alive for a month, so this is a cause for celebration rather than a tale of facial muscles overcoming years of adversity.

When things happen is just as important as what happens.

In fact, you could say that the when of things is part of the what of things in creating stories and making a drama. Continue reading ““When” is just as important as “what” – it’s part of the “what” (a few thoughts #20)”

How to Finish Your Play if You Take a Holiday

Photo by andrew welch on Unsplash

You’re writing a play. You’re half-finished. But you have a crazy job with a boss who calls you up at all times of day. And you’ve set aside a week of leave. Unpaid. Paid. You forgot to check. But you don’t care.

Because there’s your play. You have notes for all of your characters. You have a half-completed manuscript. You’ve lined up all your playwriting ducks. You sense a finish line. Your dreams focus upon horizons and flight.

You just have to finish off a couple of things at your ‘real’ job before you get back to your script. Continue reading “How to Finish Your Play if You Take a Holiday”

Merry Christmas – or was it better than that? (a few thoughts #19) 

I hope that whatever festivity you celebrate at this time of year, you enjoyed it.

If you didn’t, however, don’t worry too much, for you’ve probably gathered material for a play or screenplay.

One thing that is sometimes unclear when we ask “when” a play happens, is that we’re probably asking about the occasion.

The occasion of a scene can be a great dramatic writing tool, because the characters who participate will have both shared and personal expectations of how the event should proceed.

If everything, including what doesn’t work well, goes to everybody’s plan, then it’s not really that dramatic.

But if this is the first year that Darren’s mock turkey doesn’t make Nanna gag, then the reactions will be interesting to witness.  Continue reading “Merry Christmas – or was it better than that? (a few thoughts #19) “

Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s crap (a few thoughts #16)

Bumped into a playwright friend recently and asked how she was doing.

She said she was three-quarters of the way through her play’s draft, and she was lost and didn’t know if it was crap or not.

I’m the sort of friend and fellow playwright who nodded enthusiastically and said, “That’s great!”

Now, why would I do something like that? Am I some sort of bullying psychopath? Continue reading “Just because you feel it doesn’t mean it’s crap (a few thoughts #16)”

Who Do You Think You Aren’t? (a few thoughts #15)

One camel staring at another camel, who is in existential distress

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. Continue reading “Who Do You Think You Aren’t? (a few thoughts #15)”

A 13-week recipe for writing a play (a few thoughts #14)

In the world of novel writing, NaNoWriMo is buzzing along, with thousands of people aiming to write a 50000 word draft of a novel in the month of November. It’s a yearly event and I look forward every year to hearing of people attempting to start AND finish their work.

Theatre abounds with stories of the play written in a weekend, or in a fit of anger or inspiration over a caffeine-laden night.

While I’ve written some plays very quickly in the past, there’s only one play that I’ve written in two days – Who are you, Mr James? which turned into Post Felicity and won me my breakthrough awards and productions. As I’ve explained elsewhere, that two days and nights of writing was a culmination of around five years of thinking and failed starts.

When you’re writing a play alone, independently of a deadline and/or commission, what’s a feasible timeline? Continue reading “A 13-week recipe for writing a play (a few thoughts #14)”

Tiles are only half the story (a few thoughts #13)

As a playwright, screenwriter or novelist, are you more a sculptor or a tiler?

My maternal grandfather, Harry, worked as a master tiler. Tiling obsessed him. Even after he retired, he kept a collection from his working life of favourite tiles, in a separate shed.

Walking with Harry was to experience the world through a builder’s eye. Enter a shopping mall and he would stop at the entrance, look at the layout, inspect the grouting then marvel at the scale or difficulty of the floor.

He was the sort of man whose determined interests kept automatic doors from closing.

He drove past buildings in his home city of Geelong and pointed them out. “Did the floor of that one… did a bathroom there… that one, never really happy with the wall there.” These would be jobs completed up to fifty or sixty years previously. He felt horrible about having charged a customer full price when he felt that he’d made an error, probably one of the few tradespeople to argue against customers who wanted to pay the full rate. Often, the errors he worried about weren’t even noticeable if at all visible. But he knew… he knew…

When I was about 20, I tried to tell him that I wanted to be a playwright.

This worried me, because Harry sometimes fumed at the television when a scene finished in one location and then cut to another. He accepted cuts for the news, but in drama it confounded him. I worried that maybe drama confounded him, full-stop. So I wasn’t sure how he’d respond to my writing urge.

I did my best. Something about giving words to actors, directors and technicians so they could put on a show, or display something of the world as I saw it.

“Oh, right,” he said. He took me outside and lit a cigarette. (He’d smoked since he was 11.) “Right. So, playwriting is a lot like tiling.”

“How’s that, grandpa?”

“You have to make sure you build something solid so that other people can walk all over it.”

Many years later, I tried to remember what Harry did as a tiler, and learned to tile a kitchen floor. I had a sort of sense memory from watching him do things when I was really tiny, plus I had the internet.

But I wanted to prove I could do it, and in a weird way I suppose I wanted to see if tiling really was anything like playwriting.

When I first imagined tiling a floor, I thought, tile, trowel, adhesive, grouting – done.

But those actions, the application of tile to adhesive to floor, etc., while crucial take up the least amount of time.

There’s the planning, the choice of tiles – the formatting, if you like.

There’s also the setting up of the space before you place a tile.

And then once you mix the adhesive, you only have about half an hour to use it before it goes. Goes… not sure what the proper word for that is, but it’s even trickier to deal with than leaving out a tub of ice-cream.

Which means that, once you have done the work of putting down the things that people actually see and stand and walk upon, you spend about five times as long cleaning up tools and space, worried about errors large or small or unseen.

The words that a playwright lays down in the moment only take as long as they do to type. Obviously. And truly.

Before those moments, though, for me at least, come hours and weeks of thought and reconsideration. I tend to write my dialogue and stage directions fairly quickly – er, yeah, as quickly as it is to write or to type them – but that’s the apex of the work. The more thoroughly I prepare the less scared and more confident I am.

Afterwards, the cutting and finishing and fixing is only messy if I neglected something in the preparation.

Grandpa Harry never got to see a play of mine produced. He certainly never got to see the floor I tiled. And he was right. A play has to withstand human forces while supporting a parade of humanity to march on.

Sometimes, when I enter a theatre to see a show, I think of him, and look for the joins and reason in the work that builds itself through time and our presence as an audience. I’ll marvel at the scale and difficulty, I’ll feel guilty for mistakes I feel I’ve made in the past and try to remember that a master tiler is never jealous of other tilers’ jobs.

Photo by Robert Nelson on Unsplash

When Characters Sound Too Alike (a few thoughts #12)

One of the most common concerns among playwrights with a play between drafts is that some of their characters sound too alike.

There’s a kind of rule among some theatre literary managers that if you cover up the characters’ names on a page of dialogue, you should still be able to tell which character is which.

I’m not sure that’s a useful thing to tell a playwright working through the mechanics of their play. Clear differences in speech ought to be a side-effect of the work, rather than an aim of the work.

Why? Well, personally, when I try to concentrate on differences between characters’ speech patterns I unconsciously exaggerate. Lisps, weird dialects, finishing every utterance with ‘eh?’ signalling a bunch of stereotyped thinking rather than clear delineation.

So what to concentrate upon to avoid this problem?

There are many things you can do – here are three – and the last of these is the quickest fix and probably the most effective. Continue reading “When Characters Sound Too Alike (a few thoughts #12)”