Playwriting with Purpose
eBook - ePub

Playwriting with Purpose

A Guide and Workbook for New Playwrights

Jacqueline Goldfinger

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  1. 160 pages
  2. English
  3. ePUB (mobile friendly)
  4. Available on iOS & Android
eBook - ePub

Playwriting with Purpose

A Guide and Workbook for New Playwrights

Jacqueline Goldfinger

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About This Book

Playwriting with Purpose: A Guide and Workbook for New Playwrights provides a holistic approach to playwriting from an award-winning playwright and instructor.

This book incorporates craft lessons by contemporary playwrights and provides concrete guidance for new and emerging playwrights. The author takes readers through the entire creative process, from creating characters and writing dialogue and silent moments to analyzing elements of well-made plays and creating an atmospheric environment. Each chapter is followed by writing prompts and pro tips that address unique facets of the conversation about the art and craft of playwriting. The book also includes information on the business of playwriting and a recommended reading list of published classic and contemporary plays, providing all the tools to successfully transform an idea into a script, and a script into a performance.

Playwriting with Purpose gives writers and students of playwriting hands-on lessons, artistic concepts, and business savvy to succeed in today's theater industry.

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Creating Compelling Characters

If you already have a story that you want to tell, wonderful! Let’s explore the characters that will be telling that story. If you don’t have a story in mind yet, wonderful! We are going to create characters to help you find a story to tell. This book supports those who come to the table with a story to tell, as well as those still generating dramatic ideas. However, we begin with character because, no matter what structure or form you use for your theatrical extravaganza, at least one character will be the heart and soul of your story.

What Are Characters?

Characters are the raw materials for your new play. You might be writing a short play, a full-length play, or an epic in multiple parts. Regardless, characters will appear in all of them.
Characters can be human beings. They can also be objects, animals, nature, imaginary creatures, or anything else you want them to be! There is no limit.
Regardless of the form characters take, it is their individual wants and burning desires that propel the story forward, create complication and conflict, and provide an opportunity to connect larger themes and ideas.
The one universal truism in creating compelling characters is that they feel something deeply and are compelled to act on it – whether it’s a commitment to changing the world or a commitment to ignoring it, a commitment to make something happen or a commitment to prevent something from happening, whatever the cost.
A character wanting something gives us a reason to watch. We spend our time at the theater to see something happen within characters. What is happening within those characters must be externalized so that we can see it on-stage. This is one reason long-running shows like Law & Order are so popular – the characters either desperately want, or do not want, the crime to be solved.
In The Science of Storytelling, Journalist Will Storr wrote:
In a stable environment, the brain is relatively calm. But when it detects change, that event is immediately registered as a surge of neural activity. It’s from such neural activity that your experience of life emerges. Everything you’ve ever seen and thought; everyone you’ve loved and hated; every secret you’ve kept, every dream you’ve pursued … Unexpected change makes us curious, and curious is how we should feel in the opening movements of an effective story… . That is what storytellers do. They create moments of unexpected change that seize the attention of their protagonists and, by extension, their readers and viewers.1
Interesting characters with significant depth, who have active wants and are motivated by deep needs that can be externalized, create an engaging theatrical story. “The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance,” wrote the philosopher Aristotle.2 A primary way that we show our stories on-stage is by characters going after what they want while making increasingly difficult choices to reach their goal.
The one thing you absolutely must have to write a play are characters who want something. In order to know what your character wants, you usually need to know about their lives, their histories, and their passions. There are, of course, a few notable exceptions to this rule. For example, Harold Pinter did not dig deeply into his characters’ backstories. He heard a few lines of dialogue, and then wrote forward, learning about the characters along the way.3
However, as a beginning playwright, it is good to practice creating specific character in detail. Later, you may choose to use this tool of Character Creation or not, but you will have it in your creative toolbox in case you ever need it.
“I understood, through rehab, things about creating characters. I understood that creating whole people means knowing where we come from, how we can make a mistake and how we overcome things to make ourselves stronger,” said Actor Samuel L. Jackson.4
“Because the only reality is subjective,” wrote Playwright Yasmina Reza.5
To help you begin creating a great character, answer as many of the following questions as you can about the character whose story you may be interested in including in your play. This will help you to begin exploring a character so that you can unearth their deepest desires and learn what compels them to make the choices that they do. The information that you uncover in this exercise might be directly used in your final play, or it might not. What is important right now is simply taking the time to learn more about your character(s).

Exercise #1:

You can create as many characters, or as few, as you wish. But I suggest that you create at least three to practice thinking through individual characters and to generate ample material to draw from for future exercises.
(NOTE: If you are working from a character who already exists in a short play or other material, start answering these questions afresh. Pick your favorite aspects of that character and dig deeper. Don’t be afraid if your character, or your idea of the character, evolves as you learn more about them.)
  • Name(s):
  • City of residence:
  • Occupation:
  • Age or age range:
  • Partner:
  • Kids:
  • Job(s):
  • Passion(s):
  • Favorite hobby or hobbies:
  • What is the character’s biggest fear?
  • What is the biggest lie they have told and why?
  • What is their schedule for a workday?
  • What is their schedule for a day off?
  • Most embarrassing moment:
  • Favorite movie and why:
  • Favorite book and why:
  • Who was this character’s first love?
  • Who was this character’s first kiss, and how did it happen?
  • Description of home:
  • If their home were on fire and they could grab one object to save, what would they grab and why?
  • What does this character want out of life?
  • Is what the character wants out of life actually what they need, or is it good for them?
  • How would this character’s obituary read?
  • How would this character want their obituary to read?

Writer’s Block?

If you have trouble getting started, grab a magazine, rip out a picture that includes a person that appeals to you (even if you don’t know why), and answer these questions about that person. That will help give you a jump-start.
Congratulations!! You’ve finished your first writing exercise. You’ve created at least one character. You have the raw material to write a play.
Think about or discuss with a writing partner: What did you learn from exploring your character? What did you already know? What surprised you?
Often we surprise ourselves while we are writing, and that’s a good thing! That means that the character(s) are beginning to speak to us; get out of their way. Listen to what they are saying to you. You might find that what you pull out of your subconscious while writing your character is more compelling than what you originally planned to write. Be open to many possibilities, especially this early in the process. Each possibility is an adventurous avenue to explore; they give you many opportunities to journey down different roads of a character’s possible experience in order to find the one you are most excited to write about.
You may or may not use all of these characters and/or all of these characters’ specifics for your play. However, you now know your character and their world better, which will allow you to write a more compelling character with greater specificity.
One of the counterintuitive realities of theater is that the more specific your characters and their situations are, the more universal their stories become.
Playwright In-Sook Chappell said:
I use a lot of acting exercises. The whole thing of really imagining the backstory of your character … Even if you don’t need it for the play, you as a writer know your character and then I think little bits of detail will come out through the play that you are unaware of and that flesh out the character.6
Let’s now take one of your characters’ specifics and turn it into a monologue!
What is a monologue? A monologue is a long speech by one actor. By writing a monologue, you will move from understanding your character on a personal level to begin hearing your character’s voice – which is a vital step on the journey to writing dialogue for your character.

Exercise #2:

Pick one character from Exercise #1. Write an unconsidered monologue – a monologue, from your character’s point of view, that you write from stream of consciousness and don’t edit yourself. Here are prompts to choose from:
  1. (1) When a character learns a secret
  2. (2) When a character faces a betrayal
  3. (3) When a character wins (or loses) something they want
You are now getting to know the voice of your character. You are learning about what they care about, what drives them, and what obstacles they face.
Now, let’s take the next step.
In fiction and poetry, the readers (audience) have the luxury of sitting down with a text at their convenience, taking it in at their own pace. Th...

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