some rules of thumb

Just saw a work-in-progress by a friend/colleague, just sent my notes along, and realized that there were a few ‘universal truths’ to be shared with everyone.

In the interest of time (mine), I won’t remake this as a column, but rather leave it in epistolary form.

You’re a terrific storyteller, but the lack of time you spend on writing really shows.

You need to go through the piece AS each character discretely to learn whether their characters are fully fleshed out or sketchy, whether their character traits are consistent (we humans are all aggregately inconsistent-seeming but each trait is absolutely consistent – and maybe this is the reason we love stories, because characters DO transform while we, in our normal lives, seldom do).

Then you must go through each relationship on its own to see where what is learned, where what changes or stays the same (which can provide impetus to one or another character), then the same process with the intertwining of characters, wants, stories.

Writing a play is hugely time-consuming, much more so  than fiction since in fiction, you are supposed to paint the world and characters with words, and in a play, the characters must embody and behave all of that.  Via dialogue.

I recently had a conversation with an MFA playwright who told me he’d just taken a screenwriting class and was blown away by having to make 8 passes on a screenplay before he could call a first draft finished.

To which I replied, that’s how you write a play, too.

My postscript to you, the blog-reader:

Writing for the theater isn’t some lesser, sloppy literary form.  It is rigorous high-wire act in which all of the exposition and world-painting contained in literary arts must be folded into characters’ behavior and, more-so, into the dialogue that informs that behavior rather than into their saying anything descriptive.  Playwrighting is a refined and evolved form, again I’ll compare it to a blueprint.  The playwright doesn’t know what materials the producer or director will assemble to build the edifice the playwright has sketched, so the playwright is responsible for crafting something both bone-lean and unmistakeable.

Which is also why it’s so hard to read a play.  One must bring all of one’s imaginative powers to the fore to be able to “see” what might be happening on the stage, but must not use that imagination to fill in the gaps or transpose or transmute what’s on the page into something other than it is.  “Readable” plays are generally crap on the stage, having too many elements of explanation and description.  Although it employs words, PLAYWRIGHTING IS NOT A LITERARY ART just as scoring one’s music composition is not a literary art.  They are graphical bases for collaboration with many other artists.


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