Thirteen years ago, as a young playwright, director Jim Sharman gave me this advice: At every opportunity, work with people who know more than you do. That’s what I did over two weeks this past April with Stephen Jeffreys, who knows everything. More than knowledge, his love of the craft of dramatic writing is palpable and infectious. With extraordinary generosity and humour, with an eye to individual needs, and as a teacher consistently positive and constructive, he shared his experiences with seven fortunate writers – four playwrights and three screenwriters. The range of our work, in form as well as style, varied enormously. Yet Stephen was able to apply his intimate understanding of dramatic writing to each script equally.
“The best writing is a combination of the intuitive and the ordered.
Ideally, writing a play is like jazz: you improvise, but you know the chord changes.”
He came up with a structure for the workshop that at once created a context for his ideas, and allowed us to apply them instantly to our own work. There being nine working days and seven scripts, we spent Days 1 and 9 in overview, and the middle seven on individual works, one a day. Stephen identified particular themes that pertained to each script – such as Subtext, Character, and Types of Logic. He’d fashion a morning session around this theme, which would involve writing-exercises, and in the afternoon we’d discuss the play in question, using the theme as a jump-off point for a detailed analysis of that script. It also gave a natural shape to the fortnight, so that as it progressed we built up a body of common reference points, allowing us to move into increasingly complex territory.
(Although there was much discussion of film- and television-writing, for simplicity’s sake I’ll refer to dramatic writing as ‘plays’ unless otherwise noted.)
This was how it broke down:
Memmie Le Blanc, by Hilary Bell – TIME AND SPACE
Tender, by Nicki Bloom – WRITING A SCENE
Jukebox Boys (TV pilot), by Nick Simpson-Deeks – CHARACTER
Can White Girls Dreamtime?, by Jane Harrison – SUBTEXT
Batavia, by Patrick Carr – SIX TYPES OF LOGIC
Mad About Harry (screenplay), by Jack Douglas –WHAT WE WRITE ABOUT
The Visitor (screenplay), by Greg Woodland – NINE STORIES
These seven angles of examination cracked open the craft of playwriting in a way that was new and bracing. By the time we had investigated them all, Stephen’s description of his own working approach made a lot of sense: With nine months to write a play, he’ll spend approximately two months on research, five months structuring and making notes, and two months writing dialogue.
Over the fortnight, Stephen frequently returned to the binary nature of playwriting. It’s a balance between the left brain and the right; between poetry and logic; openness and locking-down; the visual and the spoken. If any one of these goes unchallenged by the other, the play will be either dull and lifeless, or unstable and meaningless. Compelling drama requires both in equal measure. Playing, exploring, and discovering as you grope in the dark are as necessary as the shrewd editing by the rational mind, as the excising of everything but the essential. Chance plays as valid a rôle in playwriting as does intimate knowledge of your subject. Stephen strikes this balance as a teacher as well as a playwright: his command over craft and his mental reference library of countless plays coexists with a pleasure in improvising with random elements, inviting them in to see what they might yield.
It’s also a teacher’s job to create an environment of security and trust within a group. Over the two weeks, seven writers coming from quite diverse corners – in terms of aesthetics, concerns, and professional milieus – became very close, comfortable enough to give honest critiques, while always respectful of our colleagues’ talents and objectives. It was another important aspect of the workshop, this considered feedback from fellow writers, and the development of relationships that will no doubt continue.
We began the workshop by examining the basic idea of dramatic structure, which is the weaving-together of three elements: Story, Time, and Place. Playwrights don’t always take this issue into account, letting it describe itself as they write. But getting a play’s dramatic structure right is crucial. Different structures create different effects. An emotional play is served by long scenes taking place in one room; a rational play relies on a number of short scenes, which convey information and are over before the audience becomes emotionally invested. Albee is an example of the former; Brecht favoured the latter approach, wanting people to engage with the general ideas rather than the specific characters. As a playwright you must consider, therefore, what kind of event you are writing for, as well as your intended effect.
In the first ten minutes of a play, you don’t need much at all to be happening (as opposed to television). An audience will stay with you through minimal action, and in fact people prefer being lured in to being inundated with information. They’ll impose a narrative in the absence of one. Audiences enjoy trying to work out what’s happening – and as they do, it gives them a sense of ownership and complicity. That being said, you can only get away with this kind of minimalism for a limited time; after a while they’ll start to demand more.
Does your play have an interval? Is one necessary; can you afford to break the atmosphere you’ve created? If there is one, can you use it to your advantage, so that more than being just a toilet-break, it benefits the play as a whole? You want them desperate to come back for more, so think about how a first half closes. It’s also an opportunity for things to have significantly changed when the second half begins: time can have passed; the set may have changed; characters can have progressed along their paths.
You should also take into consideration the state the audience is in when they return to their seats: they’ve had a drink or two, been outside, talked to their friends. In the first ten minutes, they’ll laugh at anything, so if you’re writing a comedy this is your moment to cash in. But if it’s a drama, you’ll have to deal with this. You might take five minutes to drain the laughter out of them, then slap them with a sudden mood change. Take advantage of these changes, make them work in your favour. Always remember that you’re not working in a vacuum, that these outside factors can be made to work for you.
The second half of a play is generally shorter than the first, and because audiences are geared for this, if you transgress this rule you risk losing them. Plays should accelerate towards the end. While you can continue to bring new material into the second half (new characters, locations…), you need to push the story faster and further.
Unlike novels or sculptures, plays happen in time. Which means that in order to keep an audience engaged, every second must be interesting, and there must always be a promise that something is about to happen. Narrative is useful in holding people’s attention, in that you can keep planting questions in their minds: what’s going to happen by the end of the scene?, by the end of the play?
A narrative must have three things: conflict, reversal, and delimitation.
We looked at Macbeth in these terms, and identified the three kinds of conflict found in it: Inner conflict (Macbeth’s anguish over whether the crown is worth murdering Duncan for), interpersonal conflict (friction with Lady Macbeth), and conflict with society/nature (the disparate groups of his enemies uniting against him). In King Lear, these levels of conflict unfold in the opposite order – first society, then interpersonal, and lastly inner. The sequence doesn’t matter, as long as each kind is dramatised.
Macbeth demonstrates the power of rising tension as the protagonist turns from fighting for power to fighting for his life, the scenes getting shorter as the odds against him increase.
Plays can go wider (further into society), or deeper (further into a character’s psychology). Great plays go both wider and deeper.
Local papers can be great for stories, and for exercising the story-telling muscle by working out how to turn a 100-word report into a three-part play or film. Who is the protagonist, the character making the big decisions? Where are the climactic moments? Stephen gave us a short article, and fifteen minutes to come up with a three-act narrative, which we then pitched to the group. Seven writers yielded as many genres, points-of-view, themes and stories.
TIME AND SPACE.
People tend to think of dialogue as being the mainstay of theatre. In fact, theatre is fifty per cent visual. It’s a series of pictures, or textures. Think about your most memorable moments in the theatre, and they are likely to be visual ones.
The duration of time covered in a play (one afternoon; forty years) is one of the most important choices we make as playwrights. But often, as with dramatic structure, we make it arbitrarily. The way you use time and space has a direct impact on how you tell a story, and the effect you have on an audience.
In traditional playwriting, there are four basic combinations of time and space.
1. Closed time, closed place (occurs in continuous time, in one location). In writing a one space/real time play, you sacrifice narrative ease for emotional temperature. This gives a pressure-cooker intensity, building up heat in a play. People make mistakes under pressure, they confess under pressure. Comedy works well in real time (Loot; Zoo Story). If you only have one location, make sure it’s an interesting one, and then explore every corner of it, eg, the jury room in Twelve Angry Men: the electric fan that doesn’t blow, the window they can’t open. Workplaces are good. Onstage, it’s interesting watching someone fry an egg, iron clothes… Later in the workshop, we discussed this in terms of Patrick Carr’s play Batavia, in which a number of scenes take place on a ship. Stephen suggested setting scenes in every corner of the ship, giving us a sense of it as both a vast and detailed ‘location’ as well as a character. If you’re stuck in one space, it’s a good idea to create the world immediately outside it – just beyond the door. An ‘entrance’ is always someone bringing a new world with them into the space. This sense of an offstage world also creates texture: there might be music, voices, sounds, lights, just out of reach. An interval can be useful in these plays – it’s a chance to bring in a minimal piece of scene design to change the play.
2. Open time, closed place (same place, different times). There’s an inherent problem with this form: the lights are always coming up on the same space. One solution can be found in lighting – changes in the time of day. This is one way of creating texture; another is the arrival or departure of props and furniture over the course of a play (such as True West’s toasters). It can help to be aware of the design while writing this kind of play. Stephen gave the example of his play Valued Friends, in which the same flat transforms, little by little, from student digs to yuppie paradise: the story of the play is told through the story of the set.
3. Closed time, open place (continuous time in several locations). This is perhaps the trickiest combination of all. Its virtue is that it builds tension. But it needs to be in continuous time for a reason, time must somehow be significant. In High Noon, there’s a watch or clock in every scene.
4. Open time, open place (different times in various locations). The easiest, and the most common form.
The more scenes involved, the easier to tell the story, but the less intensity and heat. If you do have a lot of scenes, ensure they’re not all the same length – otherwise the effect is clunky. The more scenes you use, the cooler the play becomes, the more emotionally detached.
Interesting locations are important not only for the one-space play. You can create texture by contrasting indoor locations with outdoor ones, the time of day and night, seasons. Don’t get hung up on narrative, but let the visual dominate. A play should be like an art gallery, full of contrasting textures – you can create narrative through that. It’s helpful to keep a notebook, where you can jot down ideas for locations.
Index cards are helpful when writing the multi-scene play. Then you can put it together like a jigsaw puzzle. Excel spreadsheets are also useful, so you can see how and where characters turn up and what kind of rhythm they have throughout the play.
The three-act play structure is ideal for arguments: the argument is set up in Act One, challenged in Act Two (in a different location), and in Act Three we return to the first location, which is now somehow changed, for the conclusion.
The four-act play has a very different feel. Whereas the three-act often takes place over one day, the four-act generally spans a greater length of time. Originating in Chinese plays of the 14th and 15th centuries, it was a structure Chekhov frequently employed, with each act set around a big event. Edward Bond said, “In the four-act play, Act Three is the crime, and Act Four the police report.”
In narrative structure, knowing what each section is about can help the overall play. Then you can determine what is essential, and cast aside what isn’t.
WRITING A SCENE.
Stephen described a scene as a unit of dramatic action, taking place in continuous time, in which something changes. A scene has three parts – a beginning, middle and end. Depending on where the main action occurs, your scene will have a very different focus. If it’s at the start, then it’s not about the tension of waiting for an event, but the aftermath. If it’s in the middle, the scene will be about continuous action. If it’s near the end, then it’s about the suspense of the build-up. You want to surprise an audience, but if all your scenes are the same, people twig – they know what to expect.
For a scene to justify its place in a play, it must have a very clear centre. When you know what a scene’s about, then you have a criterion by which to excise things from it. But before that stage, it’s good to wander around in the dark and see what you can discover.
Stephen reiterated the importance of waiting to write dialogue until late in the process. Like this, you get neither bored of it nor attached to it. The period of note-taking provides you with a document indicating what characters do, and it might refer to what they say, but in the process of nutting out a play your focus should be on what they’re thinking and feeling, rather than saying, in those moments.
However, the explorative period might involve writing exercises. On Day 2, we did one which involved collaboratively writing a scene for a play about which we knew nothing: no knowledge of motivations, themes, narrative, or anything else. We started with a brief game, using playing cards to delineate our characters’ basic traits. We thought about the space and the world outside, and then where characters entered from, what they did, and what they said. It was an exercise in not planning, not knowing, and seeing what this movement from inside out might yield. It was important that characters didn’t say things arbitrarily, that even though we knew little about them, their behaviour was truthful. Stephen cautioned us not to try to lock things down nor leap to conclusions too quickly, but to allow the characters to dictate what might happen next – in fact, to deliberately avoid working out what the point of the scene was. Doing this led to a slow build-up of ideas, and an averting of cliché. As a writer, you don’t have to rush to solve problems, nor be frightened of things you don’t know about. Being intrigued can be more useful than having all the answers straight away. Of course, the time will come when you have to start closing in, but it can kill a play if you know the exact point of every scene before you write it. An exercise like this may end up being an entry point to a new play. As with all entry points, the first idea isn’t necessarily the ‘deep’ idea, but simply the one that sets you off exploring a story, leading to character and then to narrative and plot.
Plot and character are two sides of the same coin: Plot is character in action, and character is revealed through plot.
How do we get information about a character? Through what the writer states about them in the stage directions, through what’s said about them by others, and through how they behave. A character comes alive when there is tension and contradiction between these three levels. They are energised by your, the playwright’s, knowledge of what’s happened to them before they appear in the play, and what happens to them afterwards – the minor ones as well as the main players. Plays are about change, about the movement to action, and you can suggest what a character’s future life might be with a brief image. Len mending a chair at the end of Saved gives us a glimmer of hope, that he may ‘fix’ things and move on.
We also glean information about a character from their surface characteristics – age, sex, clothes, where they’re coming from and going to. We make immediate judgments about characters (and people) based on these, which is why a first entrance is extremely important. In my play Memmie Le Blanc there’s a scientist, who made his first appearance hiding in the bushes spying on someone. While this was a nice bit of theatre, it gave a very misleading impression of my character, making him come across as a ne’er-do-well rather than the ambitious, passionate and clinical man I intended him to be. The nice theatrical moment was not worth the sacrifice, and giving him a proper front-door entrance immediately elevated him and gave him ground for which he had formerly had to scrabble.
Characters reveal themselves under pressure, often behaving ‘out of character’. Hamlet is an intellectual who becomes a killer: that movement through the play is what’s interesting. In life, people generally don’t change, or change very slowly. But in a play, the pressure is so extreme that change is accelerated and the real person, the ‘deep character’ comes out. A play focuses on moments like these.
If you imagine your characters as a constellation, with your protagonist the brightest star, how do all the others relate, both to him/her, and to each other? It’s useful to know what these relationships are, what each character thinks of the other.
Open a file on each character and work out their chronology. Think about what they share with the rest of their generation, so that you’re looking at their histories both personal and social/general. This needn’t be done in one single session – you can contribute to it over time. You’ll find gaps in their back-story – don’t rush to fill them, but rather, allow yourself to be intrigued by what might have happened.
Always look for contradictions and conflicts, however tiny. This is true not only of characters, but of action.
‘Action’ is the external dramatisation of the play’s ideas. A play has an overall action, as do individual characters. There are also beat-by-beat actions within every scene. Actions can be verbal as well as physical. In one moment, what someone is saying may not be consistent with what they’re doing, which creates an interesting friction. Having contradictory actions gives a scene power: you bring down the temperature only to take it up again.
An audience is often most moved by what hasn’t been said. The crucial thing that happens in a scene is not referred to, but the audience knows it.
It’s not necessary to always have everything explained – it’s often enough to simply intrigue an audience. Though it’s important that the writer knows the answers, otherwise we’re on shifting sands.
Think about each character having a different palette of actions, in terms of how they respond to a situation. One might calm, one might lecture… Making use of these actions is a great way to energise scenes. If you are very clear about what people are doing in terms of their actions, the writing comes alive.
SIX KINDS OF LOGIC.
Stephen identified two kinds of playwrights, according to their logic. There’s the left-brain writer – deductive, causal, and dialectical. And there’s the right-brain writer – inductive, off-the-wall, and poetic. Most of us fall somewhere between the two extremes (he called it Arthur Miller Vs Tennessee Williams), and would learn much by opening ourselves to the opposite approach. As mentioned earlier, at their most extreme the plays of either won’t work. Too much analysis and forethought leads to lifelessness. Writing with no framework, where anything can happen, which is all poetry, fails to engage.
The deductive writer begins with an idea, which they pursue with focus. It will conclude neatly, its intention will be clear, but the characters are often puppet-like, mouthing the writer’s thoughts, and there can be a lack of psychological truth. The inductive writer starts with little wisps of ideas, stories, images. These can be beautiful, but the writer may have trouble building them into a compelling evening of theatre.
Causal logic requires the plot to make sense (which in a first draft isn’t necessary). Off-the-wall logic, such as is found in Ionesco’s work, means anything can happen and it doesn’t matter, nothing connects. This can be intriguing up to a point, but if it’s relentless can become irritating. Though it can be wonderful to have the odd, unexplained moment in an otherwise logical play.
In the dialectical play an idea is built up, then the opposite idea is encouraged, then a third idea is set up. It’s the classic three-part structure, and it’s the idea that gives the play its shape. It’s important that the opposing argument is given weight, and made as articulate as the primary argument.
Poetic logic establishes a hidden link in a play. (‘Poetics’ in terms of playwriting is not about the language – though can include it – but about the poetics of the action.) This means that what we are seeing isn’t literal, but has hidden references. In poetic logic, a complete image is gradually constructed. You can do this by free-associating a list of words to do with an aspect of your theme. Stephen mentioned coming across a reference, when writing The Libertine, to alcoholics “being liquid”. And so there are a number of hidden references to liquid throughout the play, visual as well as spoken. You can approach it from the other direction, too: write a list based on an idea, such as ‘money’, and then write a play around a handful of the more interesting words. You’ll find yourself moving toward what the play’s about. In poetic logic, there are recurring motifs. They not only suggest a theme, but create links. And they themselves should change and grow throughout the play.
Ultimately a playwright strives to combine elements from both sides of the brain. One side will suggest your starting point, but then see if you can make the leap over to the other side. The inductive writer might write a sentence for themselves stating what the play is about, while knowing this may well change. The deductive writer would benefit from the sorts of exercises mentioned earlier, where control of the characters is shelved.
During the workshop, Stephen talked about the necessity, as a writer, to be always writing. The writing muscle needs constant exercise. If you have come to a standstill, there are ways of generating ideas to keep you working. There are exercises that might lead to fully-fledged plays, such as those above; there are formal challenges you can set yourself; adaptations; approaches you’ve not tried before. When broaching the question of ‘what we write about’, it’s less to do with analysing our own concerns than discovering the wealth of other possibilities, the things we don’t write about – thereby providing opportunities for new kinds of works.
WHAT WE WRITE ABOUT.
When looking at the themes we are drawn to, as with approaches in logic, there are two kinds of playwrights. There’s the one who writes the same play over and over again; and there’s the other who writes about different subjects in different styles, and only in totality can a common thread be discerned running through their work. Ideally, we want to be moving forward, so that the subject matter develops.
Stephen groups the various kinds of plays as follows:
The autobiographical play. This might be the working-through of a childhood trauma, or something that is uniquely your experience (such as Stephen’s family business in billiard tables becoming his play, A Going Concern). These are plays on which you must lavish care. They improve with marinating for a long time, as opposed to…
The zeitgeist play, which must be written quickly. If you don’t write it quickly, either someone else will do it first, or the particular subject will have come and gone before you get there.
The research play. The rule for these plays is that you must get out and ask questions. When you do, it’s important that you’re up front about the fact that you’re writing a play, rather than pretending to have some other agenda. You’ll find that people are much more open with you, they love having the opportunity to talk about themselves. Unlike journalists, playwrights don’t want the whole story – we can invent our own story. What we want are the details.
The historical play. Often, this is about finding parallels with the present, in order to investigate or comment on our own times. Or it might be about finding the neglected voices and events of an otherwise well-documented story. The big question is language, which concerns style more than authenticity. The trick is knowing what to leave out, which words people didn’t say, rather than what they did.
The fantasy play. This belongs in no particular period, and inhabits a completely imaginary world. An example is science fiction. It’s very underused by playwrights, though Bond employs it in Early Morning and Beckett makes use of it several times (Endgame, Happy Days).
The adaptation. All Shakespeare’s plays except The Merry Wives of Windsor fall into this category. How you adapt material to the stage depends on how you perceive it. There’s no such thing as a truthful adaptation: you’re always having to cut, edit, add. It’s difficult to dramatise the inner conflict of literature, so look for – or create – interpersonal conflict between characters. You need to find your own relationship with the original. Stephen suggests getting two copies of the book, physically cutting it up and then pasting the pages down so that they alternate with a blank page. This act in itself liberates you from the original. Adapting Hard Times, he used different-coloured highlighters for all the dialogue, the images, the expendable stuff. Whether you’re adapting a book, or your own play to the screen, you have to start from scratch. Don’t ask ‘What can I salvage?’ but ‘How can I build to the climactic moment?’
The form-led play. The technical challenge of doing something you don’t usually do can be exciting and liberating. The shape of plays can sometimes lead to a subject, such as the shape of the three-act (set-up, argument, conclusion) or four-act (crime, police-report).
Or is it four? Or seven? Whether it’s true or not that there are a finite number of stories, this is another good way of generating ideas. Stephen has identified nine, grouping them by shared tendencies rather than specific details.
The first three are defined by their beginning. The ‘Romeo and Juliet’ story is a three-part ‘boy meets girl, boy gets girl, boy loses girl, then gets her back again.’ We’re interested in how they get together, the story’s beginning. The ‘Orpheus’ story is about ‘the gift that has been lost’. Sometimes it’s simply about the character’s acceptance of this loss; sometimes it’s about the character’s attempts to regain it. The beginning of the play animates the character, gets them out the door. ‘Jacob and Esau’ is the story of ‘rival siblings’, which can be either literal or metaphorical (as in Glengarry Glen Ross, with ‘brothers’ competing). These sibling stories generally end badly, with the characters tearing each other apart.
The next three are defined by their middle. In the ‘Circe’ myth, we’re looking at a process: the spider catching the fly. We’re not surprised by the beginning or end, but interested in how events unfold. ‘Tristan and Isolde’ is the love-triangle story. It’s classic, because this three-way relationship generates a lot of energy. And the ‘Achilles’ story, that of the fatal flaw, puts the character to the test: Superman would be dull without kryptonite.
The last three are defined by their end. The ‘Cinderella’ story is about the ultimate triumph of virtue. It’s unpopular with contemporary dramatists, but Hollywood movies thrive on it. ‘Hercules’ is the story of the hero who never gives up. It appeals because people see themselves this way. Playwrights tend to treat it ironically (Mother Courage, Plenty), with the characters being destroyed by their refusal to give up. And finally, the ‘Faust’ story is about the debt that must be paid. A bargain’s been made, and now the chickens have come home to roost (The Merchant of Venice, Ghosts). These plays are often heavily moralising.
You can play around with these nine stories. Inverting them creates interesting possibilities – the fly catching the spider, or evil triumphing over good, or getting away with murder as opposed to paying the debt. You can also combine two or more. Stephen’s play I Just Stopped By To See The Man combines Orpheus and Faust: to regain the lost gift, you must make a bargain, and the debt must be paid.
* * * *
The workshop over, I went home and rewrote Memmie Le Blanc in five days. I found solutions for problems that had seemed insoluble. I made changes that I’d been hitherto afraid of, six drafts and eighteen months into the writing – like adding a new character, and dropping an unwieldy subplot. I was glad not only to be able to fix the play, but to have a ‘patient’ on which I could operate with these new instruments I’d been given.
From a number of perspectives – the benefit to my particular play; the new insights into my craft; the camaraderie that developed within the group – this was an invaluable experience. Exchanges with international artists at the top of their game can only profit our industry, by strengthening the quality of the work. And it should become a two-way street, so that Australian artists return the favour while turning on the rest of the world to our peculiar brand of theatre.
This was an inspiring fortnight, which reminded me why I write, and of how fortunate we are as artists to spend our days making a positive difference, while doing what we love.
Stephen Jeffreys is currently writing a book on playwriting. This article touches only briefly on some of his original theories, exercises and insights. For his full investigation into the craft of writing, watch for its publication by Nick Hern in the near future.