Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting, Quick Tips and Tricks

The 3 Golden Rules of Playwriting

Whenever you get lost or stuck writing a play, there are three fundamental rules that will most always get you back on track. I like to call them the Three Golden Rules of Playwriting. Let’s go over them, shall we?

1 – Keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler.

The first rule reminds us to keep things clear and efficient without sacrificing any storytelling needs. Strive to get things as basic as possible in your story without leaving the audience in the dark. Audiences are smart; they need only the whiff or indication of something happening to pick up on it, so no need to over-explain anything. Always be thinking of ways you can reduce, streamline, and economize your storytelling. Favor potency over volume.

2 – The play is about one thing.

In the same vein, keep your story centered around one thing, one main action, theme, or idea. Some call this the “super objective”, or the one thing the entire play tends toward. The main action of your plot should be easy to communicate in a short, succinct sentence or two, and it should be basic enough that anyone can understand its dynamics right away (e.g. Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince who attempts to avenge his father’s murder).

3 – Rewriting is the real work.

When Muhammad Ali was training, he wouldn’t even start counting sit-ups until they began to hurt, since that was the real work. No pain, no gain. The same holds true for playwriting. First drafts are relatively painless, since they are composed safely away from the scrutiny of peers. The real work (and pain) begins in the rewriting, when you expose it to the world, get feedback, and fine-tune the piece to be more focused, lean, and mean.

So there are my Three Golden Rules for Playwriting. Maybe they will help and maybe you already knew them, but they are always good to keep in your back pocket, especially when you are trying to get unstuck. Until next time, happy writing!

 

 

 

 

 

Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting, Quick Tips and Tricks

5 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

What if I told you that there’s really no such thing as “writer’s block”? Well there isn’t. It’s a term dreamed up by people who aren’t writers. The truth is any act of creative writing is just extremely difficult, and rarely flows without interruption.

Writing is an act of serious alchemy, like spinning wool into gold. Creating something from nothing with zero instructions is always an impossible task. No matter how much you’ve written before, no matter what pedigrees or education you possess, new projects always start from square one. Every playwright, from Shakespeare to Sarah Ruhl, has struggled with the unknown.

Plays in particular are highly orchestrated magic tricks that take preparation, planning, and lots of stopping and starting. Hitting a wall in a creative process is inevitable, just like embarking down an unknown trail can sometimes lead to impassable terrain. Calling it “writer’s block”, as if it is some affliction out of our control, is a way of avoiding the work.

So you can lament about your writer’s block, or you can shift your perspective a bit to overcome it. Here are some quick tips that have worked for me:

  1. Stop seeking perfection – We can develop good technique, we can increase the speed and alacrity at which we write, but we will never get “good” at writing plays in general. The best we can do is become “good” at writing this play. When you get stuck, remember the point is not to get it right, but to get it written. You can always rewrite later.
  2. Write out of sequence – It can be tempting to write your play in a linear fashion from beginning to end. However it can force you into writing scenes you do not yet know how to write, and create nasty logjams. Focus instead on writing the scenes you are excited to write, the scenes you know, even if they are out of sequence. It makes it easier to fill-in-the-blanks with those scenes you haven’t figured out yet.
  3. Read a book – Do you have a favorite play or fiction book handy? If you find yourself stuck, stop writing and start reading immediately. It’s extremely easy to get stuck in your own head while writing, and simply taking a break to read what others have written can help get you back into the present moment, increase your empathy for your characters, and shake you out of a rut.
  4. Draw diagrams – If the magic isn’t flowing through the keyboard, take a step back to your fundamentals and draw some free-form story diagrams. These don’t have to be case-crackers, but they will help you visualize the story from a different perspective, hopefully shaking some things loose in your head.
  5. Take a break – Chekhov said that “if you stare at the wall; it comes out of the wall.” This is a very Russian way of saying that if it’s not flowing it just isn’t flowing. But it will, because the whole story is inside you somewhere. So take a break, go outside, do human things, and try to put some space between it. Having faith that the answers will come eventually and putting it out of mind for a bit relaxes your brain and actually lets ideas flow easier.

Writer’s “block” is no affliction, only a natural part of the creative process. Resistance is futile, so embrace it. Hitting a wall in a story is just nature’s way of telling you it needs more thought, so don’t be afraid to give yourself a breather. Remember that when you put the actual words to the page, you are merely typing. Writing is a cognitive skill that involves lots of furrowed brows, several false starts, and copious wall-staring. But the hard work is the only work worth doing. Give yourself some time, use these tips, and you will be pleasantly surprised.

 

 

 

 

Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting

On Writing Outdoors and the Muse

There is something quite satisfying about writing outdoors. If you haven’t tried writing an entire piece outside in nature, you should at least once.

Being outdoors with the sounds, smells, and visuals of nature taps into something known as the biophilia effect. It’s a fancy book-learned word we made up to describe our indescribable bond with the planet. Simply being outside for extended periods of time relieves stress, increases our empathy, and puts us more in harmony with natural rhythms.

Playwriting is about capturing moments of real life experience, in other words, the present. More so than any dramatic form, you cannot dwell in the past or speculate on the future. To hold a live audience’s attention with live actors, there needs to be something happening in every moment. There is little time to lament or pontificate.

It is not a conscious process. Playwrights don’t think in lines in the same way scientists don’t think in equations. Like scientists, we dream up hypothetical circumstances and watch them play out to our delight or detriment, and merely record the results. The actual writing of the words comes last, and is the least interesting part.

That naturalistic creative process is made more difficult the more we are cut off from our natural surroundings. The more in touch we can become with reality, the more likely we are to dream up “real” circumstances, at least in my humble opinion. Writing in nature isn’t a cure-all, but definitely helps you get in touch with the Muse quicker.

Getting a story idea out and on paper requires a delicate and tenuous negotiation with the Muse. You may plan as much as you like, but something will always end up not working and you will be forced to grope in the darkness for an answer.

But the Muse doesn’t answer to people who are too stuck in their own head, or conversely too loose with their thoughts. She demands presence and balance, without skimping on humanity or mirth.

There is a golden wavelength between rigid analysis and child-like aloofness that the writer must be tuned in on before the Muse will reveal her treasures. Stanley Kowalski referred to it as “hitting the click”. Being outside gets you out of your own head more, and clears up some head space to hit the click. When you and the Muse are clicking, the ideas flow.

This doesn’t mean you should flee to a cabin in the woods for your next project David Mamet-style. But try taking yourself to an outdoor cafe, a local park, or somewhere in fresh air to do your work and see if you feel different about it. When you get blocked, take a moment to look at your surroundings and use all your senses. The Muse is always speaking to us — we just need to look up and listen more often.

 

Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting

Playwriting and the Scientific Method

“After a certain high level of technical skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetics, plasticity, and form. The greatest scientists are always artists as well.”

— Albert Einstein

Albert Einstein claimed that his famous theory of relativity came to him intuitively, and that music was his driving force. His parents started him on violin lessons at the age of six, and he credits his “musical perception” for helping him solve it, along with several other grand mysteries of the universe.

He was always an advocate of the arts, insisting that what artists do is not too different at all from what he and his colleagues did. In fact, many of his contemporaries had similar artistic hobbies:

  • Max Born (1882-1970), the German physicist who won the Nobel for his work on quantum mechanics, was also an avid musician. You might know his granddaughter, the multi-talented Olivia Newton-John.
  • Richard Feynman (1918-1988), an American physicist and Nobel winner who pioneered our understanding of thermodynamics, was a painter in his spare time, showing and selling his work under the pseudonym “Ofey”.
  • Max Planck (1858-1947), another German Nobel winner named Max, made groundbreaking discoveries about the behavior of energy. He was also an accomplished pianist and played with Einstein frequently.

And the list goes on. Our culture tends to separate science and art, but there is a reason the two are typically found within the same department at universities. As Einstein says in the top quote, they are different in name, but nearly identical in aesthetics, plasticity, and form.

Scientists use their imagination to create theories about the temporal world. Artists are the other side of that coin, using the same creative process to produce theories of the spiritual variety. The scientist hopes to understand what makes the universe tick, where the artist hopes to understand what makes the human heart tick. The physicist does not think only in equations, just as the writer does not think only in words. They are both in the business of creating ideas.

So now that we know this, how can it be applied practically? This is where the scientific method, the standard method for all scientific thought, comes in. Hopefully we all remember it from high school. It goes something like this:

  1. Ask a question
  2. Do background research
  3. Construct a hypothesis
  4. Test with an experiment
  5. Analyze data and draw conclusions
  6. Communicate results

It’s not just for folks in white lab coats. Any kind of art, no matter how abstract, requires a fundamental method to see it through to completion, and thankfully science has given us a solid foundation. To better illustrate what I mean, let’s adapt the scientific method to the craft of playwriting:

  1. Ask a question about the human condition
  2. Do background research and character studies
  3. Construct a first draft
  4. Test with an audience
  5. Analyze feedback and draw conclusions
  6. Rewrite and share results

The play development process is freakishly similar to the development of a scientific theory! As well it should be. It was designed to ensure strict objectivity, which is exactly what the playwright needs to avoid sanitizing the truth or injecting personal prejudices. A play is just as much a representation of truth as an equation, albeit in a far more entertaining format.

Just as a E=mc^2 can be universally understood and proven true over and over again regardless of time, so must a play aspire to be. So the next time you’re blocked or discouraged from writing, remember to put on your scientist cap and think like one. When you do it becomes easier to accept that finishing a play will take lots of experimentation, deliberate rigor, and many, many failures. It’s a feature, not a bug.