Okay, there’s no easy way to improve apart from working at writing drama, but I’ll give you a few practical ideas in this post.
1. Concentrate on writing scenes, not lines or structure
First things first: great plays are made up of scenes, one great scene followed by another. Individual lines need not be wonderful examples of prose. Lines are there for actors to act rather than appreciate.
How does a scene work? A character wants something from another character, tries at least one strategy to get it, and the scene continues until they get it or realise that they cannot ever get it. That is, a scene finishes when something – a relationship, an understanding, a physical object – irrevocably changes.
2. Copy the structure of a favourite play and then put your own characters into it
When you read a play you love closely, making notes on how each scene works and who does what in it, you learn to love it more deeply along with developing your craft.
I’ve done this (long) exercise with Georg Buchner’s Woyzeck and David Mamet’s Sexual Perversity in Chicago. One of the plays that came out of this exercise was shortlisted for the Bruntwood Prize in 2008, which isn’t a bad effort for an exercise.
The way I do this one is make simple notes about each scene, giving each one a title, a list of which characters are in there, striking images or actions and a line about what changes.
And when it comes to writing a play based on that structure, I will of course imagine a completely different environment with characters who could potentially be analogous to the originals but will become their own.
3. Find a way to write scenes for a play by a group
My favourite piece of my own writing was for Decade, a play composed of scenes written by approximately 15 writers. That introduced me to an amazing array of voices and approaches to playwriting (as well as the concept of the provocation used by the then directors at Headlong which I’ll talk about in another post one day.)
I also have a soft spot for the five-author-strong 360 Positions in a One Night Stand (Sydney Festival 2002), which was a beautiful meeting of group and play structure. Basically, each of us wrote two scenes of two characters: first, between two characters invented by the playwright; secondly, between characters that two of the other playwrights had written.
Sounds complex? Okay. Imagine that five scenes throw out 2 new characters. That’s 10 characters in total. Director Chris Mead’s clever idea was to have 10 scenes, so that each playwright had a linking scene to write. A meets B, B meets C, C meets D and so on until the last scene where J meets A and we have an update of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde.
Oh. Did I mention that each coupling was supposed to have some kind of sexual event at its heart?
While I was writing my scenes for 360… I was also coming up with the structure of (solo-written) Falling Petals. I learned from 360 how to use a small cast to create a whirling sense of a larger world, and I borrowed that daisy chain idea to illustrate characters from the decaying town that my main characters wanted to escape.
But the big jump in my development came when I needed to write the second scene, using two other playwrights’ characters. I had to read those other playwrights’ writing closely, get to know their characters, think about why they made the choices they did. It’s like learning to drive all over again.
Having used the 360/La Ronde daisy chain model for other projects, including in playwriting classes, I have seen other writers become better playwrights. Give it a go.
Feel free to pester me for how to go about it with a group of your own.