Playwriting, Part Two: Avoiding the Theatrical Pitfalls of a Beginning Playwright
I’ve found that most of my fellow writers believe they can write a play. When asked to expound upon the source of their self-confidence, many seem to think that a theater script is a poor man’s version of a screenplay. Simply put, they’ve reduced theater’s complexity to dialogue and parlor trick versions of special effects. While these writers assume that there’s a tried and true process, they know little of the rigors of rehearsing and staging a show. As a theater instructor and production director at College of Menominee Nation (CMN), I’ve had dozens of aspiring playwrights tell me about their forays into the field. Many of them speak of stories that need to be told, but often these would-be playwrights fail to appreciate the necessities of writing a theatrical script.
I hope my fellow writers reading this don’t misunderstand me. I’m not trying to discourage you from creating the plays your community needs to see—in fact, it’s just the opposite. I’m hoping to use this column to help fortify you against the common pitfalls that limit a beginning playwright’s potential. Below are some tips to consider when writing a play.
- Even compelling topics need mystique. Some writers assume that their topic is so timely that it will inherently hold the audience’s attention. It won’t. Blood quantum requirements, racist mascots, and loss of culture are necessary topics, but a writer has to do more than just talk about them. I advise you to keep some elements of the plot a mystery until the play’s climax. Every audience member is a would-be detective, and if you’re leaving plot clues they’ll listen intently to the issues your story is exploring.
- Remember the “rule of three.” Theater is not film. An audience cannot replay a scene or a line that may have been missed. Playwrights therefore need to ensure characters state important exposition at least three times. If the characters only state a necessary plot point once, then a single patron’s coughing fit could ruin an audience’s understanding of the show.
- Bury guns. The somewhat ambiguous way we writers describe the practice of hiding “weapons” that can empower or harm characters in our script is known as “burying guns.” The idea is that when these foreshadowed “guns” are unearthed in the plot, they will alter the trajectory of the story. Two well-known examples of employing these weapons are when Popeye becomes unstoppable after eating his spinach and how Superman is paralyzed once his enemies wield kryptonite. We writers must realize that all engaging characters need revitalizing or paralyzing physical, emotional, or psychological weapons to pivot the momentum of our work. Moreover, if you bury “guns” early in the script, they can be excavated and used to solve complications that your characters and audience believe are otherwise insurmountable.
- Keep raising the stakes. The missing ingredient in every stalled story is conflict. Simply put, justified, compelling, climaxing conflict is what your audience wants to see. Yet conflict for conflict’s sake takes away from a story’s potency. We writers must build a rational story that invests our audience in a journey. In theater, the crux of the story has to be what keeps the characters onstage and involved until the play is over—the more hurdles they have to clear en route to the final curtain the better.
- Utilize theater conventions consistently. Sitcoms have taught many writers that a “stage whisper” is when characters yell out their “whispered” lines to one another in a pseudo-hushed voice. The same is true of the imaginary “fourth wall” that separates the show on the stage from the audience. This wall allows patrons to suspend their disbelief when watching a live show. The lesson is that we writers can’t break the wall at will any more than letting a stage whisper work or fail at random. We must set a consistent plan for the show’s conventions and not stray from it.
- Use the play’s conclusion to inspire a discussion. Theater should always have a point, but it should never be preachy. The best shows explore a topic, examine possibilities, end satisfyingly, and yet don’t completely resolve an issue. Life isn’t fair and neither is art, but the two should reflect one another. When art is done well it makes us examine aspects of our life more closely, and for thousands of years the theater has been a mirror for introspection. Let your script work its magic on the issues you value by remembering that a play works best when it doesn’t force-feed its audience an oversimplified solution.
Every theater production begins with sound, timely, and compelling scripts, which means that hopeful playwrights mustn’t take shortcuts when dabbling in the medium. The aforementioned tips will help you steer clear from the stumbles that’ll diminish your work, and I hope you’ll use them to write shows that’ll pack houses and break legs in the community you call home.
Ryan Winn teaches English, theater, and communication at College of Menominee Nation, where he has been recognized as the American Indian College Fund’s Faculty Member of the Year.
Editor’s note: The opinions expressed in the Writer’s Corner or any other opinion columns published by the Tribal College Journal (TCJ) do not necessarily reflect the opinions of TCJ or the American Indian Higher Education Consortium.