When the Thrill is Gone – (a few thoughts on playwriting craft #3)

Recently a fellow theatre-maker (yes, you’re allowed to use that term if you’re not comfortable with calling yourself a playwright) got in touch with me because they’d hit a wall with the play they had started.

As with a mad love affair, the initial spark had consumed them. The first ideas were so exciting that they sat down and wrote. And wrote. And wrote. And just when they thought they couldn’t write anymore, they did.

And then Monday dawned.

I don’t know if this was the real story or not, but what they actually let me know was that the excitement that had put them in the writing seat to begin with seemed to have dissipated.

We all can get this. Kate Tempest talks about it in her conversation with Phoebe Waller-Bridge here.

You’ve gone through the agony of taking an idea that is perfect – it’s soaring, it comes from this other place – then you’ve had to summon it down and process it through your shit brain. It’s coming out of your shit hands and you’ve ruined it completely.

When initial sparks appear to us and we decide to run off with them, they’re inevitably perfect because they’re tiny, small and pieces of little danger cupped in your hands.

Then you try to write more. And more. And more. And then you’re not sure what to do anymore.

You might feel overwhelmed. What was contained within your grasp now floats around your table, shoved in notebooks, poking its extremities out, nudging the million-and-one other things in your satchel.

What I said to my friend was that they were feeling something very normal in the writing process. What you could do is to find a way to rediscover the spark that inspired you to write these pages (but not enough to finish what you’d consider a play). When you’re feeling overwhelmed, the answer is not to produce more work but to find something specific.

Do something like the Incredible Shrinking Story exercise out of Will Dunne’s Dramatic Writer’s Companion. Or you could try my following adaptation of it.

Set a timer for 15 minutes. Write as quickly as you can and write down all that you know about your project.

When the timer goes, stop and read what you’ve got.

Now, in sentences of no more than 10 words each, summarise your project in 10 sentences.

Then 9.

Then 8.

Then 7… and so on.

This effort of reducing is harder to do than it to read about. You have to leave some references to material out. You may decide in your shrinking summaries to lose a sense of place and focus on character. Great. You may do it the other way around. Fab. 6… 5… 4… 3… 2…

Keep going. Until you get down to the one sentence.

There’s more.

Then find a way to make that sentence as small as possible. Noun Verb Noun ought to do it. It may just be a verb.

And now choose the one word.

I recently got my mojo back for a play I’m developing when I did this and realised the final choice I wanted to make for the last word was, Friendship. (I’d been researching emigration and legal tax havens… but, of course, the work is about the two characters at its centre and what they need from one another.)

Do this, and you’ll force yourself to choose what is the engine behind this work. You’ll reconnect with it. And you might just find that you’ve fallen in love with your idea again.

Just as a lover is not all of their clothes, ideas, opinions and possessions, but a singular alive being who excites you, so too is there something singular about the heart of your play.

Find it. Fall in love. Again.