Sunday, July 3, 2011

Dipping My Foot in the Playwright's World

Or how about just dipping my big toe in?
About a year ago, I was given the opportunity to go swimming in someone else's pool. Now, I didn't go with mischievous intentions (like leaving a cloud of colored water behind because I didn't want to be bothered by getting out and using the restroom, or throwing a Snicker's bar in so I could have the pool all to myself). No, I went willing to take the plunge and enjoy my stay as much as possible. And who knew, if all went well maybe I'd be invited back, or heck, maybe I'd get my own pool and enjoy every minute I spent in it. The name of this pool was "Playwright" and I entered the fluid world of writing my First. Play. Ever.

I'll be honest, I'm not the best at short stories because I think on a broader scale when it comes to my writing. I love great little subplots where each one takes its own path through the maze, but amazingly enough comes out the same side with every other subplot, right where it needs to be. I'd never written a play either. I thought perhaps I would crash and burn because at first glance a play seems similar to a short story. The writing had to be tight, we had only so many characters we could work with, the pacing had to stay even, and we had only a certain number of pages to get the whole thing out there in a timely manner. Needless to say, I believe my co-author and I wrote a pretty good play. If you're thinking of wading into the playwright's waters, then I want to share the highs and lows of what to expect. 

I'd say that first, be sure of whether or not you want a co-author along for the ride. I had a lovely co-author who writes children's stories but, much like me, she had never written a play either. There was a lot of starting and stopping in the beginning because our ideas and our writing styles clashed (I had a much darker take on things that she didn't much care for at times). We had to figure out what would work best if we ever expected our play to see the light of day. In the end, we worked it out where we took two scenes per act (so I would have two and she would have two) and individually we exclusively wrote our two scenes. I should back up a bit and say that we had already brainstormed and had an outline for the direction of the play, so the task became doling out who would write what scenes. We managed to pull it off and the final product turned out much better than if we had continued to battle our way through with each of us writing over the other and then arguing about what worked best. The main thing we had to be careful with was that the characters' voices had to remain consistent no matter who wrote the character for a particular scene.

Next, I'd suggest getting a good guide on how to write a play. Plays are a different monster than novels, the main reason being there is no prose, therefore, no living in the characters' heads. My co-author and I chose The Playwright's Guidebook by Stuart Spencer. Why this book, you may ask? No reason other than out of the hundreds of guidebooks (very similar to all the how-to books on writing novels out there on the market) this one had good reviews and it was affordable ($11.56 on Amazon). The main chapters are divided into first an intro, entitled "How We Tell Stories," which gives some great background info on how the world of plays came about in the first place, and also into three useful parts based on structure, the creative process, and dealing with problems. Each chapter ends with exercises to use in your own writing and these exercises challenge the writer when it comes to things like how to build a scene, how can the story have forward momentum, and how to make the dialogue and action work for your story.

Dialogue is key! Especially in the first few pages. You must grab your audience right out of the gate. If you remember nothing else, remember this. Your dialogue in any given play you choose to write must move the action along, while at the same time revealing who your characters are. As I mentioned before, no prose, therefore no leaving it up to the audience to try and figure out what's going on inside everyone's heads. As a novelist, I must admit that working with pure dialogue was a hard nut to crack. I'm used to working with lengthy descriptions or getting lost in a character's thoughts. The lengthy descriptions aren't necessary because the audience can see what's going on up on the stage. And those thoughts? Toss them out the window when writing a play. 

Lastly, editing is crucial. My co-author and I spent many nights at Starbucks sipping tea and hashing out scenes. When we went to put the whole thing together, it took a lot of effort to make sure everything was on the right track. Be patient with your co-author. Even in the end, ideas will clash, but that's where compromise comes into play. When working with another writer remember that their ideas count just as much as your own. Taking the time to edit out all the inconsistencies and making sure you have a smooth product is worth the blood, sweat, and tears. And enjoy the experience! I did, and who knows? Maybe I'll go for another dip in that pool!

5 Things to Remember When Writing Your First Play

  1. If you write with a co-author, work side-by-side with him/her, not against or over him/her.
  2. Have a good guidebook helping you along the way. Do the exercises!
  3. The opening scene is what will draw in your audience. 
  4. Have conflict with high stakes and high hopes.
  5. Your plot will always be related to your theme. Write something you care about, not what you believe is selling.

For the aspiring playwright:
Here is a sample exercise from The Playwright's Guidebook (Page 47). Give it a try and see if you've got what it takes!
Write a short five-to ten-page scene in which there are only two characters and the first character wants a book from the the second character. All the details of the scene are up to you. In other words, you have been given the action for the scene, but nothing else. 
What did you come up with? Care to share?


  1. 'My co-author and I spent many nights at Starbucks sipping tea and hashing out scenes.'

    That sounds like a nice time, Mary Mary. I'm sure much that what was good came out of the collaboration.

  2. Interesting subject, Sister Mary. I took screenwriting, theater and wrote short stories in college and like you say, they're all very different from novels, where you have to juggle many elements at once. I tried writing a TV script once for a telenovela contest and it seems like the scenes flowed more rapidly than in my novels (when I wrote them), since I only had to worry about dialogue (not that they were very good, ha!) Nice exercise. I may try it tomorrow in the plane.

  3. Good for you Sister Mary, Mary! Very courageous and creative of you to try new forms of literature. I used to think scriptwriting was like writing plays. I was wrong. Even the format is different. There was this wonderful XIX century Spanish writer Benito Perez Galdos who came up with the idea of writing “dialogued novels”. I am talking 400 pages of dialogue with cues. I have tried that, and that would be the closest to writing a play.
    A great 4th of July to the Sisterhood and faithful followers!
    And let´s all pray for Sister Lorena to have an easy flight tomorrow.

  4. How interesting! Thanks for sharing your experience, Mary Mary. I took a screenwriting class a few years ago and found it incredibly difficult: I produced my worst writing ever. I'm glad your own experience was so much better. Do you think you'll do it again?

  5. Suze -- I did have a great time working with my co-author. She was great to collaborate with and we really did enjoy ourselves.

    Lorena -- Although novels, screenplays, plays, etc. have similar elements they share, they really are different in many ways. Writing mostly dialogue is tricky to get used to, but you're right, once I got the hang of it the scenes flowed much more easily than they do when I'm first writing one in my novel. You don't have to deal with all the prose and extraneous scene info in a play because all of that comes out with how the play gets directed.

    Violante -- I've never heard of a "dialogued novel" before and, quite honestly, I don't know if I'd enjoy writing that, let alone reading it. It would definitely be a twist to the writing experience. Might be a good exercise when it comes to creating scenes in one's own novel. Happy 4th to everyone!!

    Stephanie -- I'm very interested in writing a screenplay. I think I would enjoy the challenge, but I'll keep in mind how difficult it can be to write. And yes! I definitely want to write another play!


Disclaimer: The views expressed on this blog are the sole responsibility of each sister and do not reflect the opinions of the entire sisterhood.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.