Thoughts on Writing My First Play

So, I’ve done something strange or weird or wonderful or just plain crazy—I’ve written a play. And it’s a comedy. As for the name and all that, I want to get to a second draft before I do a title reveal or anything like that. But that will come in time…2barton-fink

Right now, I just want to capture some basic—very basic—thoughts I had about the experience of writing a play. You see, I’ve only written straight-up prose before: short stories, novellas, novels. But plays…Plays, man…They’re something different. Those playwrights, they’re all a little bit…off. Not as off as the poets, but hey—Who is? [Please know I rib and lovingly poke fun, my dear poets!]

And there’s that whole spoken-word aspect of it. This brings it closer to poetry. It has GOT to sound good, as well as make sense and be compelling. And it has to be written with a live audience—a crowd—kept in mind. Basically, you have to keep a group of humans involved and entertained for an hour or so. That’s intimidating for a straight-up prose writer.

So, here are some random thoughts I had upon writing my first play. In no particular order:

1. It went better than I thought.
I wouldn’t say that writing my first play was easy, but it wasn’t bad. Why do I feel that way? Well, experience counts for something. A play is different from a novel, it’s true. But it has a good deal of similarities as well. A play has character, setting and plot, just like a novel. The characters change over time just like in a novel. And conversely, a novel has dialogue, so if you’re a novel writer you have some experience writing dialogue. In fact, some novels have a very script-like form. The most famous example I can think of is Manuel Puig’s Kiss of the Spider Woman which, to me, is just a movie script in book form. (And a damn good one, at that.)

So, I brought all that short story and novel writing experience to writing this play. I just simply decided, in mirror image to Puig, to write a book in play form.

2. It felt similar to writing a short story.
I looked at other long plays before I started writing this. I figured hitting between 15,000 to 20,000 words would get me a long play based on words counts of some of Chekhov’s plays (copied from online sources, pasted into Word and then analyzed with the word count tool). So, I figured, let me write a novella with about five major parts to it. The first “chapter” will set the scene. The last “chapter” will provide the denoument or wrap-up. And the chapters between will have the rising action.

I did my typical CSP+K prewrite with characters, setting, plot and knowledge needed to write this. And then I was off. I set up the scene and the characters in the first few scenes and called it Act 1. I upped the action and conflict in the next scenes and grouped them into Acts 2, 3 and 4. Then, I let the conflict peak and resolved the story lines in the last few scenes and labeled it  Act 5. Done.

3. I have to up the character quotient.
I’m pleased with the play. It’s not bad for a first draft. But I do think I would do one thing differently if I had to start over: I would make sure it had a compelling central character. I’ve come to see character as inseparable from plot. Good characters follow the plot (arch) of a story. Great characters create and drive a plot all by themselves. Think about it. Brutus drives Julius Caesar in the same way Ahab drives Moby Dick or Arjuna drives the Bhagavad Gita. Once they are on the stage, their stellar qualities (or flaws) can’t help but drive the action. That’s what you want in your plays, too. Someone on the stage who drives the plot to its conclusion through their merits or faults.

I will make sure that type of character is in any future play I write.

4. Why can’t these people do anything without talking?
Damn characters in plays, man. They can’t do or think anything without expressing it. Let’s say you’re a novelist…Bing! And you want your characters to go somewhere, well, they just go. They head out over the hill and come to…a valley. Your characters in a play? They ain’t going to do that. The only way they go somewhere is when the scene ends and…Poof! They’re somewhere else. And if they think something? Well, you can’t just have good, old internal dialogue like in a novel, nope. That character is going to have stand there and blather aloud some reflections for everyone to hear. And if you want to describe a scene, you had better do it BRIEFLY, in the introduction to that scene, not in the dialogue itself.

But it’s not all that bad. I’ve always loved dialogue and writing a piece with, essentially, only dialogue was fun and the writing seemed to go quickly.

5. I felt the pressure to be entertaining.
With a novel, you can afford to let things simmer. To develop scenes and characters slowly and meticulously. But I felt just the opposite was true in writing a play.

I think it’s because you have the drive to capture the audience’s attention and keep them entertained. There’s no time to let them nod off. You have to relentlessly build up a character or the plot or tell a joke or reveal something that will be significant later on. But you’re always, driving, driving, driving things on toward their conclusion or dangling something in front of them to keep them engaged. Come to think of it, it sounds awfully like a short story, doesn’t it?

5. Sometimes diving in is all you can do.
There’s no way to know beforehand whether what you write will be any good. So, you just have to dive in. And that’s what I did. I thought I had a good idea and some good characters and I went for it. I’m glad I did. If nothing else, writing a comic play was good fun and I was always interested to see what the characters would come up with next.

In fact, I’m still interested and can’t wait to see if they’ll have any new, winning lines for me. This weekend, I hope to re-approach them for some badly needed touching up as part of the second draft.

Until next time.

Keep reading, keep writing,

Darius Jones


How You Can Support the Art of Fiction

People often have more power than they think. The easiest thing to do in the world is throw up your hands and say: “Well, what am I supposed to do about it?” and just move on and forget. The following post is designed to discourage you from doing that. Anthology1-FinalCover-thumbnail

A question I often think about, but am rarely asked is: “How can  I support the art of writing fiction?” Well, here are some ideas. Broken down into three areas, in no particular order:

1. Buy books from writers you enjoy
It doesn’t matter to me what format you digest your books in: an e-reader, a tablet, your smartphone, a physical book,  papyrus or a stone tablet. But what does matter to me is that, at some point, you make a little contribution to the person who created the content you’re enjoying. This contribution can be $20 or $10 or even 99 cents. But it should be something.

A vibrant creative culture does not spontaneously generate, but needs support from the broader society in which it grows. Making sure artists are compensated in some form for their hard work is part of this. Sure, I would still write for free—what real writer (or artist) wouldn’t? But being on the other side, I can tell you that there’s something rewarding and validating in being paid for something you’ve created. I know this is a time of tremendous change in digital goods, but it behooves all of us to contribute something to artists so that the creative culture remains strong. To borrow from the music industry: If you like the music you hear on Spotify/Pandora/YouTube, buy the album.

2. Support the little journals
If you want to support fiction, especially the development of new writers: I suggest seeking out the smaller, harder-to-find journals. There are the big ones of course: Asimov’s, Analog and Clarkesworld to name a few. And then there are semi-pro journals (as judged  by Duotrope, not me) like Apex. But there are also smaller journals. You can find a ton of them on Duotrope or Grinder, if you sign up for a basic account.

In fact, I’ll put in a little shout out here for two I have worked with and who have published my stuff. Fiction Vortex published my first story, “The Hatchlings.” They’ve come back to life after closing a couple of years ago. They recently started a new episodic series thing that’s pretty interesting. Strangelet Journal published by second story to find its way into print, “The Ghul of Yazd.” You can subscribe to that magazine or just straight up contribute to them on their Patreon page. It’s up to you.

Without small journals like these, I doubt I would have got my foot in the door and had my first stories published. These are those self-same “obscure magazines” that new writers have always submitted to and they need your support because they’re the only ones out there taking risks and publishing unheard-of and often un-published writers.

Every issue bought and subscription renewed, helps keeps the art of discovery of new writers alive. And the only ones out there doing this, that I’ve seen, are these small journals. Please consider giving them a little love. This writer certainly would appreciate it.

3. Encourage that writer friend
You know who they are. You hear them talking in the halls at work about their writing project. Or maybe they bring it up at the bar or the kids’ softball game on the weekend. Wherever it may be, go easy on them. And be patient. And if you know it’s important to them, give them a little nudge to keep them going and producing. After all, words lead to word counts which lead to first drafts which lead to second drafts which lead to finished pieces. I should know, that’s exactly how I do it.

I’m a big believer in the power of peer pressure applied in doses when appropriate…And truth be told we writers usually like a little encouragement (pressure?).

That’s it. Short and sweet today. Next time, I’ll be back with an update on my writing. I guess you could say, I’ve been keeping busy. And productive. So, I will have quite a bit to  say.

See you then,