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.

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