|Do you do an outline first, or character sketches?
Depends. Sometimes, when a play's written on commission (meaning some
theatre company has given you money to write it for them specifically),
you have to do at least a brief outline so they can see what they're getting.
Or you want to do one so you're certain everybody's on side; no
"well we didn't think you'd write about that" later. But I try to
keep these as simple as possible. I want to, to the greatest extent possible,
surprise myself as I write; I've learned that if I can do that, the audience
is liable to be surprised as well, and I've always liked John Lahr's notion
that all an audience really wants is to be surprised (at least that's what
I remember him writing in his book "Astonish Me"). I know, too, that the
story is liable to change anyway as I work on it, as I get to know the
characters and what they want (in the play and in "life") better. At least
I hope it will; I take that as a good sign. As Dr. Frankenstein said, encouraged:
"It's Allliiiiiiiiive!!!!" What I do do often is scribble down a
new scene order as I work on a later draft, because by then it's useful
to keep the whole play in my head as I work on each individual scene. But
these usually amount to nothing more than something like "T & K, add
V," which tells me the scene will begin with Tom and Kevin, and at some
point Veronica will enter; this is usually enough to remind me what the
scene's about, what its action is.
I don't do character sketches. I prefer to discover the characters through
their voices (the way they speak) and what they do. I might, though, begin
by writing a monologue for them. Where people are more comfortable sketching
the characters first (which is sometimes, let's be honest, just another
way to avoid writing the play), I encourage them to try what I call a character
"collage." This is a haphazard list of details -- important and insignificant,
meaningful and random, internal and external, the more specific the better
-- that add up to a composite portrait of the character. Sometimes I'll
give them questions to answer about the character: what do they do for
fun? What's in their purse or pocket? Etc. In this way, people sometimes
catch themselves off-guard and come up with material they wouldn't if they
were working more deliberately and self-consciously on a prose sketch;
it also discourages the tendency to over-psychologize and lard a character
What's wrong with back-story (ie. a character's personal history)? Well,
a lot, if it leads to a script where characters sit around too much talking
about what happened to them twenty-five years ago. Drama has more to do
with what's happening as we watch them now.
Back to the questions
Q: What's the biggest difference between playwriting
How about if I tell you what makes for a good play, in my opinion, and
how I think that differs from screenwriting (my experience as a
screenwriter being more limited).
Plays begin with character and language; the story is generated by the
wants and needs of the characters (particularly the central character),
and they very often pursue those wants with words. That's not to say they
around talking all the time; plays aren't chat. Like other forms
of dramatic writing, they're about characters doing things. But
words can be action; sometimes they're the most powerful tool available
to the characters to get what they want. For example, if you want to seduce
somebody, a velvet tongue doesn't hurt. (Doesn't hurt later, either, but
that's another story.)
But (as Bill Pace says in his Q&A, elsewhere on the E-script site),
words are the least important element in most movies; the story is told,
to the greatest extent possible, through images, and through action in
the conventional sense of the word -- not talk. I remember when Steven
Spielberg accepted an Oscar for "The Color Purple" he said it was time
for words to make a comeback in the movies -- but I didn't really see that
happening in "The Lost World" or even "Schindler's List," did you?
Also, story predominates in film in a way it doesn't -- at least not
any longer -- in theatre. A play can be about what doesn't happen
("Waiting for Godot") or can be mostly character exploration ("Talley's
Folly") in a way that most films can't, or don't want to be. Movies often
start with the story, in the form of a storyboard or a treatment, whereas
a lot of playwrights begin with a character or two and see what happens.
Personally, I'm sorry that film and TV seem to be co-opting the story-telling
function, leaving plays to experiment with form and spectacle -- helicopters
landing onstage, etc. My favourite plays are still the ones that -- like
David Hare's -- combine depth of character with strong stories, and those
are the kind I most often try to write.
Back to the questions
What's the right format for a stage play?
Click here for examples.
Back to the questions
A playwriting teacher once told me to keep stage
directions to a minimum in my plays. Do you agree? What do you do if something
can only be described visually?
Then you describe it visually. Like all "rules," this one, which is
basically sound, is to be used with the understanding that, really, there
are no rules. Certainly I'd encourage you to avoid what I call "helpful
little hints"; those directions that go in parentheses just before the
line of dialogue and try to tell the actor how to say it. You know the
Much better is to find a line of dialogue that contains the emotion
you want. Like:
This is gonna be great!
What the hell are you doing here?
That way you don't need the "helpful little hint," and there'll be just
about no way to play the line other than the one you intend. (I'm hedging
because, frankly, if actors want to play against text, they can, regardless
of what's on the page; but at least you've made your intentions clear.)
Avoid, too, "traffic-directing": indications to cross Stage Left or sit
Up Right, etc., etc. It's true you find those in a lot of acting editions
of plays, the kind published by Samuel French or Dramatists Play Service,
but more often than not they've been stuck in there after the fact, based
on the Stage Manager's blocking notes from the original production; they're
not something the playwright wrote. Why? Because actors, quite rightly,
don't like to be treated like robots, and directors know they're pointless.
Every production will have its own exigencies: size, shape of stage, design
considerations. Those, and your fellow collaborative artists' good sense,
will usually decide exactly where on the stage certain things happen. As
playwright, it seems to me, your job is character, language, story -- not
directing traffic. (Such directions also get in the way when someone's
reading your script -- which you don't want.)
At the same time, it's important to remember that playwriting, like
all forms of dramatic writing, is visual storytelling: most often through
what characters do, but sometimes through specific images and movement
created onstage. Look at the stage directions in the plays of Sam Shepard,
or that moment in "Dancing at Lughnasa" when the women dance. These aren't
ornamentation -- they're an integral part of the dramatic action. So, if
it's necessary to your play, or, at any rate, the best way at that moment
to tell the story, put it down. No playwright should ever have to apologize
for writing visually.
Back to the questions
What's the difference between a scene and an act?
The acts are the big chunks; the scenes are the smaller bits. In a typical
two act play (and most full-length plays are written in two acts nowadays),
the acts will run (to generalize) 45-60 minutes each. Each of those acts
may be comprised of smaller units -- scenes. Or, to look at this in a less
a**-backwards way: scenes are the units that make up the act, and acts
make up the play.
(This is a great question, by the way; when I teach playwriting, I often
get people handing in, say, ten pages of script and calling it an Act.
Then we have this discussion.)
Technically, scenes are defined either by a change of locale or passage
of time; anytime you have one or the other, or both, you have a new scene
(whether it's labelled as such or not). Scenes can be 10 seconds
long, or ten minutes, or whatever. An entire act of a play may, in fact,
be one long scene, if there's no interruption in the action or change in
setting. Heck, a whole play can be written in one scene, as per many of
the Greek tragedies.
A more useful way to define "scene," though, may be as a unit of action.
It advances or deepens the story in some specific way. We're further ahead
by the end of it than we were at its beginning, in the sense that the plot
has progressed, or we understand at least one of the characters better
(or both). As I begin a scene, I don't ask myself what will be said in
this scene, but what will happen in it -- what is its overall action?
Once that action's completed, the scene will be over, regardless of its
length. In this way, you create forward movement -- important in drama
-- and eventually the scenes add up to a play.
Back to the questions
Do you use workshops to develop your plays?
First, we'd better define "workshop" for the sake of those who don't
know what we're talking about (or to make sure we're talking about the
same thing). When I say "workshop," I mean a situation where the playwright
sits down with a director and a group of actors, and maybe a dramaturg
(ie., someone who's working on the development of the play with the writer),
and reads a draft of the play aloud. This is often, though not always,
followed by a discussion of its strengths and weaknesses, and what problems
the director and actors might confront if they were asked to stage the
play right then. Perhaps the draft will be given a rough staging, script-in-hand.
The idea, of course, is that the playwright can then go off and work on
the next draft, aware of these problems, and of areas in the play that
are ripe for development. A workshop can last a few hours, or it can last
a few days or even weeks, in which case the playwright may do rewrites
during its course.
And, yes, I do use workshops. In fact, I find them pretty indispensable.
Workshops have gotten a bit of a bad rap over the years, partly because
they're sometimes done poorly and do anything but help the playwright.
But to stop using them for that reason is like saying we're not going to
do "Hamlet" any more because sometimes it's produced badly. Sometimes,
with an early draft, all I really need is to sit down and talk about the
play with someone who's sympathetic and skilled. Or I may just need to
hear the play read, and that's all; that usually tells me a lot about what's
to be done next. In my experience, when workshops damage a play, it's often
because they've been done too early in the script's development process,
before the playwright's clear on what she's attempting, and has taken it
as far as she's able to using these other means.
But when it is time for a workshop, a good one will almost certainly
identify problems and areas for development that would otherwise crop up
in the first week of rehearsal -- and why wait till then? They're also
an effective training ground for beginning playwrights. But how to define
a "good" one? Well, that's a long discussion (and you might want to check
out Bob White's Q&A, elsewhere on the E-script site; it starts to get
into it). but let's just say that a good workshop will let the playwright
hear clearly what he's got (without trying to gloss over difficulties in
the material), and that if there is discussion thereafter it'll be focussed
on helping him finish what he set out to do -- rather than getting him
to write the play everybody else thinks he should write.