Monday, October 15, 2012

Unsolicited Advice for Playwrights

What's on the menu today?  Writing.

There are a few things I've learned along the way about writing plays.  So recently when a friend asked me if I had any advice for a newbie I gave him my standard answers as well as some new ones.

First, write that angst-filled autobiographical first play, get it out of your system, and put it in a drawer.  It sucks and nobody wants to have to read it.  Your coming of age story is probably not unique and even if it is, it is still true that nobody wants to read it, let alone produce it.  And let's be frank, who could ever possible play you on stage?

Second, if you really do have to show that autobiographical first play to other people or if you really do want to try to get it produced, do not make yourself the protagonist. If you must tell the story, tell it from somebody else's point of view.  Typically the protagonists in autobiographical coming of age first plays are just a bit too good to be true.  Often it's more than just a bit.  It's what makes those autobiographical first plays so easy to spot and so hard to read.  Also, anytime you catch yourself defending the script with "but that's what really happened!", that's also probably the part where I would say "but that's not good drama". 

Third, do not be discouraged if nobody wants to read it or produce it.  Try to get a staged reading, listen, really listen, and find the scenes which work.  There will probably be some moments that do.  Save them for another play.  Now, finally, put that autobiographical first play with the good parts ripped out into a drawer and really, leave it there.  By all means, keep it.  It's your first baby and it deserves to be kept safe.  Just don't ever let it out of the drawer again.

Lastly, know your exposition.  Anytime characters have a conversation purely for the audience's benefit, it's exposition.  Anytime you find your characters speaking for page after page in the past tense "Remember when . . . ", it's exposition.  Anytime one character tells another something the second character already knows, it's exposition.  It's boring.  Get rid of it.  You say, "But the audience needs that information to understand what's going on in the play."  If the audience needs that much exposition, write a novel.  In plays, the here and the now are what matter, not what happened yesterday or last week or 30 years ago.  Audiences are amazingly good at filling in the holes.  If you find you must have a two page monologue telling the story of how the characters met, put it in the present tense.  (I don't believe you but I love "The forgeries of jealousy" speech in Shakespeare, so, go for it.  Just be that good when you do.)