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

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3 comments on “Thoughts on Writing My First Play

  1. James Swanek says:

    Great Spirit…What does Aristotle say in Poetics? I

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