10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting

This is a follow-on from my Edinburgh Fringe roundup. I’ve already listed what was good about what I saw about the Fringe. Unfortunately, there was also quite a lot of stuff that was bad. I’m not going to name and shame individual productions – that’s not what this blog is for – but I do need to start listing what goes wrong, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere, in the hope that this stops someone doing the same in the future.

First thing’s first. I do not claim to be an expert on playwriting. Indeed, some of these mistakes I’ve done myself. At present, I have written a number of one-act and full-length plays, had a few of my one-acts done on stage, made it to the finals of two playwriting competitions, and been selected for Live Theatre’s 2011 writers’ group. Not bad, but not spectacular either. What I do have is a vast number of plays I’ve seen – at least 60 plays per year lately – from small fringe productions to big-budget West End productions. I have also considered scripts of plays from Samuel French texts to unperformed unpublished works. In both cases, they range from outstanding to abominable.

The thing is, I never see a play because I expect it to be bad. Usually the description of the play was promising – it just failed to live up to its potential. And when it fails, it is down to the same mistakes being made over and over again. So here is my list of the most common easy ways that beginners spoil plays (and established professionals too, but beginners do this more often), together with some not-so-easy ways on how you can avoid this.

1: Writing a screenplay for the stage

Probably the most effective way of ensuring your play never gets beyond the script. Some scripts, I swear, are written by people who’ve never set foot in a theatre, let alone taken part in a stage play, and think it’s the same as a film. Certain things that are common on film and television are unworkable on stage (the reverse is also true to a lesser extent). And it’s not just special effects such as ninja fights or transforming into the Incredible Hulk – it’s also little things such as a storyline where all the scenes follow a single character, or close-ups to detailed objects or people. When things that routinely work on TV are difficult for the stage, an experienced playwright will either find a cunning workarounds that do the job, or forgets the idea altogether and does something different entirely. Less experienced playwrights are liable to force workarounds that are so clumsy they bring the play down to snail’s pace.

When you write a play, you should always have some idea of how it could work on stage (and I’m not talking about uber-expensive special effects that West End productions boast, but simple, cheap and effective solutions to get your story told). If it gets produced, the director might have some better ideas – that is fine. But it doesn’t pay to ignore this and hope somebody else takes care of it later. Whilst there are plenty of textbooks telling you what you can and can’t do on stage, there’s no substitute for seeing plays, and – if you can – getting involved acting or backstage to learn in practice how stage plays work. Writers who base their experience on what they saw on the television or cinema rarely get anywhere.

2: The gag-driven plot

In all stories – from the giddiest farce to the darkest drama – the writer will decide, either consciously or automatically, how to structure the story. There’s the event-driven plot, where the writer will want some key events to happen in the story and structures the whole plot around these events. And there’s the character-driven plot, which might work by developing the traits of your characters first and writing the story on how they react to each other. You could also have the setting-driven plot (to portray life in Apertheid South Africa, 1830s Ireland, your own neighbourhood or wherever/whenever your play is set), the true story-driven plot (where the story has to follow real events), the comment-driven plot (where you’re aiming to make a statement about politics or society), or many other things. All of these can work and have worked.

What is invariably bad what I call the “gag-driven plot”. This is where the writer decides first what jokes are going to be in the play, and then writes the script around these jokes, contriving every situation needed for each gag. It doesn’t work. There is a reason why the most famous sketches in the world are never more than a few minutes long: any longer and the joke exhausts itself. Plays that try to be 1-hour extended sketches range from dull to painfully unfunny. When writing, comedy is not that different from drama. The same rules apply for comedy as for any other type of play, such as believable characters (more on this later) and keeping the audience interested in what happens next. Claiming it’s only a bit of fun may excuse you from the expectations that any other writer has to live up to, but it achieves little else.

3: Padding

After several years of watching plays, I have devised a simple but effective test. It’s called the “Get on with it” test, and it’s quite simple: if I find myself thinking “Get on with it”, it fails the “Get on with it” test. It’s a trap that’s not always easy to avoid. You’ve got to guess what is going to grab your audience’s interest, and putting yourself in their shoes in no easy task because you know what’s coming in your play and they don’t. But one surefire way to bore the pants off your audience is with “padding”. By padding, I mean stretches of script that serve no function other than taking up time in the play.

In my opinion, the worst offenders are plays that are stretched beyond their natural length. I’ve seen plenty of plays that would have made a decent 20- to 30-minute play, but when stretched out to 50-60 minutes become dull times infinity. This frequently happens at drama festivals where there is a limit of 55 minutes. Will these people please take note: that is a limit, not a target. Just because your play can be up to 55 minutes long doesn’t necessarily mean it should be. A similar fate meets plays that could have made decent one-acts but instead make a boring full-lengths. Why do I think “get on with it”? Because in order to get the play that long, they write in long sections where nothing interesting happens.

Sometimes padding is harder to avoid. Suppose your plot depends on a character leaving for the shops and coming back in the same scene. What’s the shortest plausible period you could make this? 5 minutes? Because even 5 minutes of padding can be deadly. My advice is that whenever you face a situation where you have to fill in time, think of something interesting to happen. Is this a good time to develop one of the characters on stage? Could you move a twist in another sub-plot to this time? The answer could be anything depending on your play, but anything, please, anything is better than nothing happening at all.

4: Essays instead of lines

Lines are written to be spoken, not read. This may sound obvious, but an easy trap is to write dialogue like you’re writing an essay. I know, because that was one of my early mistakes. It’s quite natural when writing to carefully construct your sentences to convey all the information you want in as much detail as you like. But remember that when you’re reading, you can go back and re-read any complicated words or phrases you didn’t pick up the first time round. No so when it’s being spoken on stage. In any case, much as this might be a good idea, in real life people don’t carefully construct and re-draft every sentence before speaking. They usually say things off the top of their head. Your monologue or dialogue has to sound like what someone would actually say.

A similar mistake in dialogue is long lines. I’ve seen a many plays where most lines are several sentences long. This might be convenient for the writer to get everything across, but very few conversations work like this. Most real people don’t wait for the other person to stop speaking before opening their mouths – certainly not people who intend to keep talking once they have the chance. And for those people who do listen patiently to an endless talker, the conversations tend to be very one-sided. (In fact, that’s a good dialogue technique to use in the right situation.)

This does not mean theatre dialogue should mirror actual conversations. Much as I like theatre to be realistic, 90% of what people say is quite pointless. Avoid lines such as “Would you like a coffee? Yes? A large one? No, a small one will do? Now, I don’t have any ground so would instant be fine? [Continued on page 94.]” What you need to look for is lines that sound natural but actually advance the plot at a suitable pace. And this often what separates the average writers from the good writers. Crack this and you could be on to a winner.

5: Local reference overkill

This is something where established professional writers are just as bad as beginners, if not worse. One thing you will notice throughout new writing theatres is the large number of plays set in the local area. I don’t do this myself, but there are good reasons why theatres like this. Setting a play where your audience lives gives them something to identify with, and it’s a good way of bringing in people who don’t otherwise go to the theatre. This is one of the few things where theatre has an advantage over television, because TV programmes broadcast to the whole nation, and consequently set their stories where at least 90% of their audience don’t live. More bums on seats means more income, so it’s little wonder theatres are so keen.

But it’s easy to overdo this. A local theme can make a great play in conjunction with a good plot, believable characters, well-structured plot and so on. All too often, however, local references are not used to strengthen the story; it is used as a substitute for a story. I’ve seen too many plays – highly-trumpeted professional plays at that – where nothing interesting happens at all; the attraction is that the play mentioned the Angel of the North, Holy Island (bonus points if they get cut off by the tide) and Newcastle v Sunderland football rivalry. And worse, half the time these plays aren’t even that local. Once you substitute the local landmarks for landmarks in Essex or Glasgow and change the football reference to another pair of derby rivals, you’re left with a generic “local” play that could be anywhere. (Or, if like me you want to see plays at your own local theatre in Durham, you don’t even get that. You get endless plays done by people who think north-east England equals Newcastle.)

And don’t be tempted to write a play full of local references and nothing else in the hope that a regional theatre will snap it up. You’ll still be up against all the other writers who set their plays locally (which, in my experience, constitute the majority of aspiring writers). By all means set your play where you live if that’s what you want to do, but it must not come at the expense of a good story.

6: Over-dependence on research

A similar problem lies with plays that rely on research. Unlike “local” plays, which is all too often a lazy way of getting bums on seats, it takes a lot for effort to do background research for a play. Some writers spend ages looking into the time and place the play is set in. They look at old documents, speak to people who used to live through the time in question, and painstakingly reconstruct life in 1960s Manchester, or Apartheid South Africa, or Ireland after the potato famine, or anything else. It’s not a method I’ve seriously considered, but I have a lot of respect for people who do it this way. Otherwise, writers like me would end up relying on increasingly unreliable depictions of far-gone times and places in other people’s works of fiction.

The trouble is, it’s easy to get carried away. Like local references, what you have researched must add to the story, not compensate for the lack of one. When you have done all this work, it’s tempting to put every detail of what you have found in your play. But there is only a finite amount of information you can put in before the story starts to suffer. Spend too much time covering all the fascinating facts you want to share and you’re straight back to failing the “Get on with it” test. Unless you want to forget about the play altogether and write a non-fiction book instead, you’ll have a difficult choice about what to include and what to leave out. If you really want to tell your audience everything you know, you might want to consider spreading it over two plays, or even more.

(A similar problem can arise with character development. Some writers like to develop every aspect of their character before writing a single word of script, down to their age, childhood memories, shoe size and favourite colour. There’s nothing wrong with this technique as such – but for heaven’s sake, when it’s that detailed, don’t try to work every aspect into the script.)

7: Characters doing implausible things

At the other end of the scale are people who don’t bother with research at all. You can take a lot of liberties in a play. You can set your play in an alternate history, create a country that doesn’t exist, or bend the laws of science. If your play is more conventional, you can take short cuts with fact checking and get away with it. Is that recipe for Sushi you found on the internet accurate? No-one knows, and no-one cares. Alan Ayckbourn admits that often he can’t be bothered to make the short trip from his computer to his bookshelf. But there is one short cut you cannot get away with making, and that is compromising the believability of characters. Everything your characters do must be plausible. And that includes comedies. Even if the situation is the most ridiculous or surrealistic thing you can imagine, how your characters react to it must be believable.

As a rule of the thumb, the more out of the ordinary a character behaves, the more you need to do to explain this. How does a faithful husband react to his wife’s news of her affair? Slaps her? Breaks down and cries? Fair enough, that can be taken as read, within reason. What about if he strangles her? That requires a much more of an explanation, because it is far from a normal reaction. Was he intensely possessive of her? Does he have a history of violent behaviour? If you haven’t developed such  character traits in the play (and we’re talking about properly developing and understanding the character, not just a passing mention in scene 2), the default answer is no.

This, incidentally, is I think one of the key weaknesses in soaps. For fifty-two weeks a year, you need the fights, the affairs, the lying, the cheating. In a one-off drama series you can develop whichever characters you need to suit your plot, but in soaps you are stuck with the same characters – characters that until now would have done something completely different. But you’re not writing a soap so you don’t have this excuse. Never compromise the believability of a character to meet the requirements of a plot, or, worse, a gag. The two must always work together.

8: Idealised characters

There is one other repeat offender for characterisation, and that is idealised characters. It’s often said that you need to make it clear early on in the play who the audience are supposed to side with. I’ve never been convinced of the need to spell out the goodies and baddies, but some writers seem to take this principle to an extreme and have a “hero” character, which involves winning every argument, never making mistakes out of haste or anger, and everything they do being proven right in the end. In real life, however, these people don’t exist. To borrow an Ayckbourn tip, I’ve always thought that if your play has a hero – and it’s by no means necessary to have one – look for weaknesses. (And conversely, if there’s a villain, looks for signs of vulnerability.)

The worst manifestation of idealised characters are ones based on yourself. There’s a saying that everybody has a movie of their life in their head, in which they play the hero, but quite frankly, your head is the best place to keep that movie. An idealised depiction of yourself on stage is only self-justification, and self-justification is tedious. I can spot a mile off when writers designate a character based on themselves who are right about everything. And it’s no less tedious when they change the names of the characters to supposedly turn real events into “fiction”. Even if you try to avoid idealisation, heavily basing a character on yourself brings a lot of baggage. I would urge anyone thinking of doing this to think very carefully about whether this a good idea, but if you are going to do this, you have to be brutally honest about yourself. And for all the good intentions, I suspect this is beyond most people.

9: The opinion play

I’ve saved the worst for last. There are two inexcusable things you can do to your plays, and one of them is what I call the “opinion play”. By this, I don’t mean plays that have the author’s point of view in them, I mean plays whose sole agenda is to peddle the author’s opinions on the audience at the expense of everything else. They are quite easy to spot. They typically include the “hero” character (see immediately above) being right about everything and making the same speeches the writer wants to make himself (or, worse, a “hero” character who’s become resigned and apathetic but is miraculously inspired to fight back). And to be on the safe side, there must be no chance of the audience siding with the “villain” character who holds the opposite view. If your villain is a cabinet minister (because everything wrong with society is of course the government’s fault), make sure he cheats on his wife, does shady arms deals, fiddles his expenses and watches Jeremy Kyle. Anything to prevent the audience accidentally deciding he made a valid point about something.

A useful principle to follow is: good political theatre makes people think; bad political theatre tells people what to think. Audiences generally don’t like having opinions rammed down their throats. (And, okay, you might be able to flog an opinion play to like-minded people who already agree with what you want to say, but that’s a poor cop-out and really defeats the object of political theatre.) Far better to show why you believe something than have someone on stage telling them.

One other thing is that if it’s anything contentious, there will be an opposing argument out there. Your play does not have to be balanced or even-handed, but it should at least represent the opposing argument fairly and accurately. Playgoers are not stupid. If, instead of other other side’s point of view, you portray what you want them to believe is the other side’s point of view, you will lose all credibility when you get rumbled. No matter how strongly you feel about an issue, you must be objective if you want to be taken seriously. There is some great political theatre out there, but I can’t help thinking that the playwrights most eager to write political theatre are the least suitable people to do so.

SEE ALSO: My post on 13 tips for writing a soapbox play.

10: Trying to be clever

Oh dear. I could probably write a whole article on this. There are endless ways to ruin your play by trying to be clever. If it’s also an opinion play, it doubly ruins it. Sometimes it’s well-intentioned writers who bite off more than they can chew and try things that don’t work out. More often than not, however, it’s writers trying to show off how clever and arty they are without any regard for their actual audience. This can cause the play to fail the “Get on with it” test, the “What’s going on?” test (which fails if your audience start thinking – yes, you’ve guessed it), or even the “I’ve wasted two hours of my life you bastards” test.

A frequent response to these sorts of plays is that you weren’t properly following the play, and if you go away and read the script and think about it a bit deeper, then you’ll get it. That’s not good enough. As the writer, it is your responsibility to present your play in a way your audience can understand, not to mention the directors and actors. This is not easy, because what might seem obvious to you might be far from obvious to someone who knows nothing about the play, but that’s what you’ve got to work out. Blaming your audience for not noticing your oh so clever touches is a very poor excuse.

If there’s one tip on how to avoid this (apart from not being a pretentious moron), it’s don’t try to run before you walk. Even the most conventional play is horrendously complicated to get right, with getting people on and off stage at the right times, getting events in the right order, all the practical issues and so forth. The last thing you want to do is introduce extra complications. Get the hang of conventional writing before you try running scenes in reverse chronological order, doing the play in verse or anything else like that. It might not be what you want to do in the short term, but it will pay off in the long run.

How to avoid these mistakes

So, you’ve read through this and hopefully thought “Oooh, I’d better not do that”. How do you avoid making the same mistake yourself? The quick answer is: there is no quick answer.

90% of not making the same mistakes everyone else makes is to notice these mistakes in the first place. That’s not nearly as easy as you might think. It’s one thing to read about this in a book or a blog, but actually spotting this on the stage or in your script is quite another. I should know, I’ve read books before warning me not to do things, but it was only once I got more experience of reading and writing plays that I properly understood what this was all about.

So whilst I’d like to give this the byline of “Watching the crap so you don’t have to”, that wouldn’t be correct. To put it bluntly, you do have to watch the crap. Sorry. Or to word this more constructively, if you want to write plays you really need to see as many plays as possible, and if you didn’t like it, ask yourself what went wrong. A list of common mistakes such as this one might help you pin down the problems, but neither this nor anything else is a substitute for seeing it for yourself.

And whilst it’s always better to learn from other people’s mistakes, you’ve got to learn from your own too. No matter how many plays you’ve seen, how many courses you’ve been on, and how many books you’ve read – nobody gets it right the first time. And probably not the second, third, fourth or fifth either. At this point, most new writers either lose heart and give up, or doggedly refuse to accept anything’s wrong and carry on making the same mistakes. Only a minority, it seems, think about what went right and what went wrong and take it from there.

You need patience. You need to recover from endless disappointments and setbacks. It could be years before you get anywhere. Has this put you off yet? … No? Then good luck.



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2 Comments

Filed under Tips

2 responses to “10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting

  1. Rutegar

    Not a big fan of Aaron Sorkin, then ?

  2. jenny aslo

    Very informative really glad I found this.

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