On Playwriting: Where do you begin?

“Write a shitty first draft.” Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird

This is my mantra. When the shitty first draft really gets me down, I go re-read Lamott’s book.

Too many would-be writers give up because the first draft is shitty. Of course it is. Don’t worry about it. Later, you’ll edit. Later, you’ll ask a fellow writer to read it. Keep your butt in that chair and write.

But where should you start? And where do writers find their ideas?

I read many playwrights’ blogs and Facebook groups. On a couple of them, I first heard the question “Are you a Pantser or a Plotter?”

Pantsers just start writing and see what happens. They have some kind of character or image in mind, but haven’t graphed anything out. Plotters outline their plot before they begin writing. Neither one is better than the other. It depends on the writer—and on the topic, story, and/or the idea. Some stories demand to be outlined; others refuse to be so confined.

I’m mostly a Pantser. As I scribble, I learn enough about my characters to write their biographies. Then I keep scribbling. But once I have the first draft done, I often have to clean up the plot—which means I beome a Plotter. I write an outline, or I put each scene on a separate 3 x 5 card, or I draw a picture of the structure.

Actually, I kind of write in all directions. I get ideas while trying to go to sleep, or while making dinner, and I go stick them in to the draft. One writer’s group insisted that I write the whole thing before doing any re-writing. I’m not built like that. You might be. I write, I edit, I write, I get to page 184, curse, and re-write page 92. The trick is to just keep writing.

The reason I’m a Pantser is that I believe writers have to make their own clay. Sculptors get a block of something and cut away everything that isn’t an elephant (or a vision of heaven, or whatever) Writers, however, have to make the clay before they can start shaping it. So I just scribble, creating clay. Eventually, I figure out if I have an elephant or an aardvark.

You do need to be a Plotter if you’re writing a comedy, farce, or thriller. The misunderstandings and confusions of comedy usually need to be graphed out sooner rather than later. If you’re writing a thriller, your graph is essential—it’s like plotting a mystery novel. But not many playwrights write thrillers; those tend to belong to novels and movies.

All that said, most writers begin with some kind of notion, even before they Pants or Plot.
• I have begun with an image: Three women around a hibachi. An old lady trying to wear high heels.
• I have begun with an irritation: Corporate jargon. A family problem. Someone who done me wrong.
• I have begun with a question: Who was Barbara McClintock? Why do we hoard so much stuff?
• I have begun with a character: my clown, Sophy.
• I have even begun with a name: Cora B. Walrath. It was the name of a boat.

Sometimes I look at a completed play and have no idea where it came from.

And sometimes characters or stories tug at my sleeve until I write about them. Yeah, that sounds repulsively precious.

Tell that to Cora B. Walrath, of the play Cora’s Mountain. Or Sam Bidari. She lives in my novel The Dry Country. But she came from my play Chimera. After I finished the play, Sam kept telling me more about her story until it turned into the novel.

Whether you are a pantser, plotter, or some combination, pay attention to the world outside, and the world inside you. Scribble down the name, or the image; the question or the irritation. Stories are everywhere.

On Playwriting: Aristotle, Structure, and Too Damn Many Secrets

I began writing plays because I was an actor for a playwrights group. After working on several of their plays, I sang “I Can Do That” (from A Chorus Line), and started writing my own plays.

I especially wanted write plays because the group was all men, and they all devoutly believed what I rudely call the male orgasm approach to playwriting. That’s the three act, rising-action-climax-falling-action approach.

If your play didn’t do this, it was de facto Bad.

I didn’t agree.

This climax approach started with Aristotle, in the fourth century BCE. But it isn’t his fault. He was describing a specific kind of play popular in his time: Greek tragedy. Centuries later, a bunch of 15th century Italian scholars re-discovered Aristotle’s works, made them into a set of rules, and called them Neoclassicism. The French loved it and made it their own. Eventually, however, it died of a surfeit of regulations.

But over the years, other theatrical theorists wrote playwriting books based on this rising-action-etc. approach to plays. For simplicity, I will call it the well-made-play, or WTM.

For some time, that was how you wrote a play. Some classic plays have been written this way, by greats like Henrik Ibsen, George Bernard Shaw, and Arthur Miller. If you’d like to know the whole story, here’s a very short course in the history of the structure .

After years of writing, I agree that knowing how to write in this mode is essential. All stories need a beginning, middle, and end. All plays need surprises, to keep the audience engaged. After all, when sitting in a theatre, you can’t put the movie on pause and go make a sandwich. So the writer has to keep the audience awake and interested.

But insisting that the WMP is the only way to write, or critique, a script, ends up creating a lot of tedious trash. Unfortunately, American audiences seem to love it. Especially if Secrets Are Revealed during that fabled Climax.

Don’t get me wrong; there’s some terrific stuff written with revealed secrets: August Osage County, Proof, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf, to name just a few. But if you use the WMP, you have to do it brilliantly. Lauren Gunderson has an online class that takes the WMP to a new, and incredibly useful, level. She shows us how to use the WMP well.

But not everyone does use it well. For me, all these revealed secrets are getting tiresome. Googling “theatre scripts where secrets are revealed” found the following. Apologies if one of these is your play; I didn’t read them to see if you did it brilliantly. But pushing the Secret in the logline indicates otherwise.

–All ends happily when ‘The Shagwood Secret’ is revealed.
–Really really complicated and totally unique secrets are revealed over white wine.
–Dark secrets hidden in the grey mists of time are reluctantly revealed in this excellent black comedy.
–The secrets of the house have been revealed overnight as the family slept.
–A one-night stand that reveals a woman’s secret.
–A one act drama for youth theatre with a single (bedroom) setting, in which secrets are divulged
And, too often:
–Years after the death of their mother, sisters RETURN to clean out the childhood home their widowed father left behind. When their estranged younger sister CLAIMS her share of the estate, the three women find themselves unearthing…deep secrets and harsh realities of their past lives and decisions.”

I blame screenwriting for this overabundance of secrets. If you want to make money in movies, (instead of riding the endless Indie film rollercoaster) you need the Big Reveal—that is, revealing a Big Secret.

You can also have a lot of things to blow up. But that’s harder to do in live theater.

Read more about screenwriting structure here

But I write plays, not movies. There are many other ways to skin the structure cat. Next time, I’ll look at some writers who don’t worry about revealing secrets, or about the climax.

On Playwriting: Five Column Analysis

Using columns is a great way to understand a script. After I experienced this technique, I got so I could easily take a script apart, whether reading it or seeing it. The more shows I experienced, the better I got at taking them apart in my head.

Thanks to the late Rex McGraw, at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for teaching me this.

Here’s how:

A. Take an act from a full-length play, or use a one-act play.

B. Type up the script. That gets every word from your fingers to your head. Yes, it’s boring. Trust me, you gotta do it. Otherwise, you’ll skip over things that you don’t understand.

C. Make a page with columns on it. Here are five areas to cover.

1. What happened before the play began? Before each scene? How do you know that?
2. Each character’s objectives. From moment to moment, what does each person want? A cup of tea? To kill their enemy? To charm someone?
3. Each character’s obstacles: I want to charm you. You ignore me. I decide to impress you instead. That’s my next objective.
4. Environment: words that tell the designers what to do. Words like: “The day is almost over.” “I’m cold.” or “Would you like some tea?”
5. Questions: Words, events, and references that you need to look up. If a character says “He absquatulated to Tahiti,” what the heck does that word mean? And why Tahiti?

Type or hand write your answers and responses. Studies show that handwriting is the best way to learn. Typing is second.

Once you’ve looked this over, find the “through line of action.” If all the characters’ objectives are beads, the through line of action is the string for those beads.

Then ask yourself the main question: why did the playwright break the silence of the universe? What’s the point of this story?

Fair warning: staring at the script and just “thinking” your answers won’t work at all. Unless you’ve been analyzing plays for twenty years.

Even then, if I’m directing a show, or commenting on it for another playwright, I carefully take it apart. With notes. Because I’m the note taker.

On Playwriting

Over many years of acting, directing, getting graduate degrees, teaching, and writing, I’ve come up with some notions about playwriting.

Here begins a series about the vagaries of writing scripts.

If you are a newbie playwright, this is not precisely a How To Write blog. It will, however, provide more detail than in the usual How To Write screeds. (But here’s a good one. Although I disagree with some of its ideas about structure. More on that later.)

If you’re coming to playwriting without theatre experience, get some. Go to the theatre. Volunteer in theatres. Take an acting class. And read plays.

Read plays even if you have been doing theatre all your life. Keep reading them. They show you what’s hot. They give you good ideas about your own plays.

Reading a play isn’t easy. It’s not like reading a novel, or a short story. It’s more like reading music. No one ever says “I read a great new sonata today!” But you can learn how to read a play.

Start learning to read plays by going see a show. Then read the script, and think about how the words got translated to the stage. Eventually, you’ll learn how to see and hear the play in your head, even if you haven’t seen it in production. Playwrights and directors know how to see things that aren’t there. Then they make them appear to an audience.

Script analysis is a great way of learning how a play works, so you can read them more easily, and learn to write them. That’s the next post.