Ask yourself, “Although this is a scathingly brilliant idea, why am I telling the story at this moment?”
Imagine what a rich play if every bit of dialogue either forwards the plot or establishes something of a character.
Use different voices. Make sure they don’t all sound the same. Eg: One uses proper English, the other, slang. Accents. Speech impediments…think of the Bishop in Princess Bride.
Are you finishing all your sentences? Real conversation doesn’t work that way, often there is a…well, you know, and then after...not to mention the interruptions.
EXPOSITION. Don’t tell it if you can show it.
Don’t be limited by linear vision.
Don’t be limited by sets/costumes/effects…they aren’t your concern. I have one play where in the stage directions it says, he trips and falls off the roof of the building, falls several stories before being suspended in air. How they do that, is their concern.
Do your characters have a stake in the play or are they decoration, or worse, a means for the other character to soap box. It’s good when there is something they want. Something they need. Someone they want. Something they are hiding, etc.
Every play needs conflict. It can be inner conflict, but it needs to be there.
START LATE, GET OUT EARLY. Don’t start with once upon a time, start at an interesting place. The audience doesn’t mind not really knowing what’s going on for a while. Don’t end with, and they lived happily ever after. It’s not necessary to wrap everything up in ribbon by the end. The goal is to make the audience believe the play was going on before they got there, and will continue after they leave.
A play should be plot driven or character driven or both.
Remember subtext and somehow let the audience know what the character really means. Get creative.
A good rule of thumb…weird people in normal situations…normal people in weird situations. Normal people in normal situations is boring, weird people in weird situations can get a bit over the top.
Sometimes the power comes from not saying...not doing. Like the power of a man trying not to cry, for me, is more powerful than him crying.
Learn the rules -------------------------------then break them very wisely.
Last edited on Sat Jun 17th, 2006 09:06 am by Paddy
Thanks for this, Paddy. I've printed it out and also saved it. Every word is pertinent and helpful. I particularly appreciate being reminded that we don't have to tie everything up in a nice little package with a happy ending. Very Chekhovian of you.
"Are you finishing all your sentences? Real conversation doesn’t work that way, often there is a…well, you know, and then after...not to mention the interruptions."
"Real" conversation is not theatre. What "seems" to be real conversation is what is necessary in theatre. Real conversation does not necessarily head anywher nor does it have a point. No one wants to go and listen to real conversation. I get enough real conversation in real life. Playwriting is all theatrical conversation. Too often I have attended newer plays where they try to be so real they are more boring than bad bar conversation. The language is heightened in theatre, exactly because the words have been selected.
Often people use David Mamet as being so "real." But he is not real. When I have seen productions he has been actively involved in, there is such a theatricality to the cadences and tempos you know you are watching theatre, and you accept you are watching theatre; not real life at all. I have not seen this in all productions, mostly just ones he has had a say in.
Each playwright has his/her own style. And Just because a sentence is finished with a period, does not mean one has not been interrupted! That is where the beauty of great performances and imaginative directors (and often dead playwright's!) come in. Jonathan Miller staged a production of "Long Day's Journey Into Night" on Broadway that had the Tyrone family constantly talking over each other (what else do drunks and morphine addicts do?) and that was certainly not written in the script! Needless to say the performance did not last the usual customary four hours!
I love to use " ..." when necessary, but I think we are being "..." to death in a lot of writing.
This one point you post is especially important:
"Don’t be limited by sets/costumes/effects…they aren’t your concern. I have one play where in the stage directions it says, he trips and falls off the roof of the building, falls several stories before being suspended in air. How they do that, is their concern."
I saw a one act play two years ago at New Jersey Rep where the only character was on a high wire. There wasn't a moment where we did not believe she was 75 feet in the air, and she was three feet off the ground. Terrific script. Terrific acting. Terrific directing. Terrific theatre.
Of course then Shakespeare says it all, "Think when we talk of horses that you see them printing their proud hooves into the receiving earth."
I was searching for something else and found this forum. Lucky me!
And I joined, Paddy, because I saw your post. Excellent advice. I need to read it a bit more thoroughly but I did find myself nodding (yes) at practically every point given in the list.
I wanted to respond to the comment about realistic dialogue; half sentences, ..., being interupted.
I write in "relistic" dialogue. I listen when I hear "realistic" dialogue. It fascinates me to hear a conversation about something urgent in the booth behind me at the diner, or at the telephone booth on a street corner. And if the conversation is taking place between two dynamic characters that feel strongly about their positions there will be repetitions, interuptions and "..." all through the conversation. It's the urgent realism of it that makes me stop and want to know what's happening.
And so when I write I employ those tactics or that style.
Now, that said, In real life, when these situations occur, there is rarely resolution in that moment. It just goes on and on. And on the stage thats a sin. So I believe that every confrontation need to build tension and resolve, even if just for the moment.
good points I just have a thought or two to add...
like the (...) One thing that I learned early and noticed in a lot of plays that have been submitted to me, is that people don't constantly speak in short sentences. Some, short, some long. A lot of the dialogue lately seems to be this cutesy, sex and the city, type, ha ha stuff. I love the dot dot dot, but it has to be pregnant with thought. Too many short sentences in a row really, often gets really annoying. I'm not saying to soap box, but think about how you atalk to your friends, sometimes one lets the other speak a little while. Just something to play with...
Secondly, the technical requirements. I like what you said, about not worrying. I have read a playwrighting book or two that said that you should think about that and really take it into consideration. My opinion is this... think about who is going to produce it and if you care. Some things scare off companies from picking up your work, likewise, if you are writing for a specific competition or short play festival, you may want to consider your budget, or although you may have a good play, they may go with another good play that is easier to produce.
I think it's rather rash to suggest ignore technicalities. IMHO a playwright should have sufficient knowledge of theatre to take account of practicalities. Plays by amateurs often include elaborate effects which are going to cost a company a lot of money production-wise. The result: they never get produced.
It's no accident that many successful plays come from actors/actresses who know what can reasonably be accomplished by a theatre on a modest budget.
Of course, clever staging can overcome many technical difficulties and never under estimate the audiences power to create scenes from a few simple effects.
But if you're just starting out it's surely better to make your play is easily producable. It's just plain commonsense.
Hm. So you can tapdance. My gosh, you have done just about everything in theatre, for years. I am really amazed at the diversity of your experience. You must really know what you are talking about, so I will listen to you for sure.
I enjoyed "Playwriting Stuff". The first tip that you give is important to me. I had to ask myself this question when I was revising a play just last week. When I answered the question, I knew how to revise the play to strengthen the protagonist.
I will try to use this list as a checklist when I do the revisions of my plays. Thanks, and thanks for hosting this site. I just love it.
Shake the play up. Take it out of the box. Shuffle the scenes and see what happens. Linear- like a straight line. All in order. Non-linear, is telling a story in unconventional ways, and yet it's still comprehensible.
I teach improv and so many of these things apply to that, as well.
I'm going to tell my students about the "normal people in weird situations/weird people in normal situations" thing when I see them next. I've been trying to articulate this saying that no one goes to the theatre to see what they can see in real life, but you said it perfectly!
I love this Playwriting stuff thread Paddy has posted. Very helpful to me when I was chopping away at my one effort of writing a play. Also Paddy was great when i first joined stageplays. She gave great advise when I was sitting here twiggling my thumbs. Way to go Paddy
I wanted to comment on not being linear. It wasn't until I gave up the idea of being linear that any of my plays were picked up. It was when I realized that non-realism and non-linear can often aid a script and keep you out of the trap of being to predictable that I really found my style.
I just found this thread. Fantastic list! Thanks for posting it. I am thinking I will print it out too. Would be great to have on hand with me at the bookstore where I go to write most days. I think my favorite point in the list is "Start Late, Get Out Early." That is one thing I always do in writing my plays. I want the audience to feel like they've just seen something important happen at the opening of the play, something that they are glad they didn't miss. I don't like to confuse my audiences completely, but letting them into a story that started before they got there is definitely the way to go. Getting them into the story at just the right point is sometimes tricky though. And as for endings, I do like leaving a play on a note where the audience leaves wondering: Well? What happened next? Brilliant list! Thanks again for sharing.
Thank you all for reminding me of what I seek to do. I have never been one to write linear in any sense of the word. However I do find myself stuck too often trying to figure out where I am going.
Currently I need to finish another one act and my typical "procrastinate and let it fester in my mind" method is not working. To me the best part of the process is the thought that is behind the moment of truth, and I have not found it on this show. I know everything and nothing at the same time. Os where does this leave me? Well in reality it leaves me in the same place as before but with the following thoughts in my head (and yes I am using your words)
"Why am I telling the story at this moment"
"Normal people in normal situations is boring"
"Start late, Get out early"
Thank you again for re-tooking my look at this piece, now maybe I can stop festering and write.
Here's a wonderful excersise we did in our playwright's group. Take a character from your play, and in their voice, write a letter, to you, the playwright, complaining what is wrong with the play and why their voice is not being heard.