Today’s guest post comes from Carla Grauls (http://cybergrauls.wordpress.com/), whose play Occupied will be performed as part of Labfest at Theatre 503 on 10, 12, 14 July http://theatre503.com/whats-on/labfest-2012-occupied/. I think that this advice is sound for writers of screenplays, novels and short stories too, not just for theatre writers.
In the past few months I have been developing my play Occupied with Theatre 503 in London. During this time I have had the opportunity to work with a director and actors in workshops and rehearsals and I have learnt a lot about how to write my play for a live audience. I thought I’d share some of my learning as I developed my play.
Get people to do a reading of your script
They don’t need to be actors but getting it read out loud will suddenly highlight any awkward wording or dialogue. If people are stumbling over your words you know what you’ve written is not really working.
People don’t really say what they mean in real life, they talk around things, they conceal, they lie. They’ll say one thing but mean something else. Subtext is key for a play. You might start writing in character’s intentions just for yourself and then write what they would actually say. Anything that is too obvious, change it unless it is at the big climax or reveal of the play and that thing needs to be said.
Repetition is a sign that you’re stuck. Look at your scene again and why it’s in the play. You may need to start this scene again with a clearer idea of what is happening in it and why. We tend to fall back on old tricks when we’re stuck and it usually manifests itself in repetition. Actors also do this in improvisations, when they’re stuck they tend to repeat what they’ve done before.
Explanation and too much exposition
People want to watch human drama not get a lecture. It might be tempting to put in lots of explanation if you think the audience won’t get it. They will get if it’s written well. It’s good to get an audience to think and join the dots themselves without explaining everything to them.
Action is important
Some of the most powerful moments in a play can come when no-one says anything. Don’t rely only on dialogue to communicate what is happening to the characters and their relationships. Those moments of silence will speak volumes.
Know exactly what is happening in every scene
Working out the emotional beats of the play will force you to look at the structure of the play and also look at the characters’ emotional journey. If anything just seems random it probably needs cutting. Do a timeline for your characters and their relationships as a guide so you know exactly where they are in each scene and what they’re doing there.
Treading water dialogue
Those exchanges between characters that don’t go anywhere but they’re just batting words at each other and there’s nothing happening between them? You’re stalling. Cut it. Make it more dynamic. Replace the dialogue with an action.
Know what is driving your character at every moment. It’s no use to just say oh he’s drunk that’s why he’s behaving that way – drunk people will be trying to get something they want and using different tactics to get it like any other character.
Know who’s the boss
In every scene there will be someone who has higher status and someone who has lower status. It gets interesting when characters change status during a scene in order to get what they want. It’s also good to know who’s driving the action. Which character is making things happen in each scene?
Cut out the boring bits
If at any time you’re bored by your own work, cut it! Don’t hesitate. Your characters are probably talking too much. A leaner more dynamic play will have more impact than an overlong talky one. Leave the rest to the audience’s imagination.
Don’t always take advice
Go with your gut feeling. If you get feedback that you don’t really agree with, think about why you don’t agree with it and if it’s a valid reason, ignore the advice.
Carla Grauls (http://cybergrauls.wordpress.com/) is a writer for stage and screen. Her play Occupied will be performed as part of Labfest at Theatre 503 on 10, 12, 14 July http://theatre503.com/whats-on/labfest-2012-occupied/