10 common mistakes in playwriting from people who should know better

I never guessed this when I first posted this in the first year of my blog, but 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting is by far the most read post on this blog. Since then I had advanced a lot further and learnt a lot more, but it’s interesting to discover that I haven’t changed my mind about any of these. It’s frequently linked as a resource by  schools, and Papatango even once named this one of their resources for their playwriting competition.

But … am I pointing the finger at the easy targets? I want to help, but there’s always the nagging doubt that the real audience of the post is people who are familiar with writing plays exchanging knowing laughs about people who aren’t. Well, if that’s you, it’s time to stop smirking. My biggest frustration in the last few years isn’t from the people who don’t know any better, but the people who should. I can understand why novices would keep making the same mistakes, but I’m increasingly noticing that there’s another set of repeat mistakes made by established artists. People who ought to have learned by now.

So here’s comes my less popular companion article: 10 common mistakes in playwriting  from people who should know better. Unlike beginners’ mistakes, not everything here will get your script binned in the reading room – on the contrary, some people think any or all the things listed here are a plus. If you want a commissions performed in front of a praiseful clique, ignore everything I say. But if your goal if for people to look back at your play years or decades later and say “wasn’t that good?” – and I hope this is what you’re aspiring to – you should take heed. I’m listing this in ascending order of controversy – I’m expecting the last one to piss quite a few people off – but all of these things are inspired by plays I’ve seen. I won’t say which ones*, because I don’t want to personalise this, but if you think it’s you, please consider this my hint to change tack.

[*: And no, I’m not going to tell you, so don’t ask.]

Without further ado, here we go.

1: Set piece overkill

This one is a giveaway of recent drama school graduates. I’m not knocking drama schools here: whilst there some damned good performances from people with no training, in my experience the biggest strength of professional training is versatility. (Good amateurs are great at playing variants of their real selves – with professional training you can do a lot more.) Another asset of drama schools is learning every trick in the book to put together a great performance. After seen enough plays, you learn to spot the “set pieces”. Things that wow regular theatregoers are known by more experienced viewers to be quite easy if you know how. Which is fine – you should be trying to impress the 95% of the audience who just want to enjoy this, not the 5% who know enough about the craft to judge your skills.

Some groups, however, seem to chase the 5% in such a ham-fisted way that the entire script seems to be built around set pieces. Or, worse, keep using the same set pieces. I don’t mind seeing you showing off your actors talking over each other, or carry out a stage punch, or whatever else you learnt in drama school, but when you’ve done the same set piece for the third time in the play it gets tedious. The 5% roll their eyes, and 95% probably want you to get on with the story. Don’t get me wrong – the things you learn as an actor can enhance a great story a lot, But it can never work as a substitute for the story itself.

2: The fact checklist

Some of these items are things that are also in my list for beginners. Not all of them – experiences theatre-makers do, for example, know better than to write a screenplay for the stage. But some mistakes are universal, and one of them is over-dependence on research. It’s not an easy temptation to resist. You don’t have to restrict yourself to writing about what you know, but at professional level you are expected to plug any gaps with background research. This can be fascinating. So fascinating, in fact, that you feel obliged to put it all in the play. But if you’re not careful, this comes at the expense of the plot; by the time your characters have finished talking about the impeccably-researched setting of the play, your audience have already fallen asleep.

There is one variant of this which is a bit more puzzling – I don’t know why I keep seeing this but I do – and it’s putting a scientific description of a topic into a play. I have to say, most of the time it looks like something suspiciously scooped off the internet and written into the script by someone who doesn’t properly understand it. Now, I don’t want to sound like a science snob and I am of the view that most scientific topics can be grasped by anyone willing to learn, but the problem here is that most of these profound observations have little to do with the play. Ooh, that was quite a thorough description of how the nervous system in the brain works, wonder how this relates to the story? Answer: a character was thinking. Sciency-sounding text might sound profound, but unless it’s intrinsic to subject matter, it rarely adds anything of substance.

3: Adaptations that miss the point

Most of thing I’m list here, for all my scorn, are easy mistakes; I can understand what leads you down the wrong path. There’s a couple, however, where I cannot for the life of me understand why people do this, and one of them is adaptation, or more specifically, stage adaptations.

Screenplay adaptations are as notorious for godawful adaptations as they are predictable. They will generally do the bare minimum needed to resemble a book people have heard of, abandon the original plot at the first opportunity, and pander to formulaic Hollywood expectations from there on. If there’s no love interest in the book, they’ll shoehorn one in even if it means butchering the characterisation, just because. There are of course exceptions, but countless times I have compared book to film and despaired how the best bits of the book were lost. Sadly, this is a tried and tested formula that makes money with the the minimum of innovation and creativity. Thank goodness, I thought, that theatre doesn’t butcher stories the way the film industry does.

But instead mucking about with the plot for shallow commercial reasons, stage adaptations muck about with the plot for no seemingly no reason at all. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve seen plenty of good stage adaptations too, but when they’re bad, they’re inexplicably bad. For example, murder mysteries have plots carefully crafted around the revelation of the murderer’s identity, and yet many stage adaptations change the end-of-story twist such that the rest of the plot ceases to make sense. Then there’s attempts to shoehorn political messages into stories, where both the message its the relevance to the play are just baffling. It is the original story that’s proven to have made a name for itself, not your reinvention of it – but still people feel they know better.

I’m not saying you can’t do good retellings of stories – you only need to look at The Woman in Black to see how brilliant it can be. In fact, I’m coming to the view that all aspiring writers should try this at least once, because it’s a great exercise in learning how to stage the unstageable. But the golden rule surely is that everything that matters should stay the same. If you need to change that, you clearly don’t think much of the original story. In which case, why are you bringing it the the stage at all?

4: Front-loaded plots

This one, I suspect, is an unintended by-product of playwriting competitions and script submissions. Many places that accept unsolicited scripts will only read the first ten or so minutes before deciding whether to proceed. Even with places that don’t, there’s a lot at stake with the opening of a play. When you’ve got hundreds of plays to read through, it’s likely you’ll have normally made up your mind by page eight. This inevitably means there’s going to be a bias towards scripts with fast-moving openings. Writers are either naturally inclined to write this way, or learn to front-load their stories in order to get past the first sift. I’m not sure how this could be made any better, but the bottom line is – all other things being equal – fast openers beat slow burners.

The problem is that what pleases a script room isn’t necessarily what pleases an audience. Apart from the inherent bias against aspiring Scandi-noir writers, the common problem with the preference for eye-catching beginnings is … that’s all there is to it. I have lost count of the number of times my interest had been grabbed by a promising opening – the kind that presumably drew in a reader in the first place – which then stays the same for the rest of the play. Basic disciplines such as changing characters, rising tension and pacing the plot all go out the window. What happened to the story I was so looking forward to seeing? Answer: it came and went in the first ten minutes.

That’s is only a theory, I might change my mind, but it doesn’t help that so many script readers seem to hold the attitude that they are infallible arbiters of writing talent. It’s like binning 80%+ of scripts after the first ten pages is considered a totally reliable first stage to finding the best scripts writers. In reality, of course, no method is perfect when you’re dealing with hundreds of scripts, and it’s inevitable that some gems will slip through the net; but would help if this limitation could be acknowledged by all script readers and not just the honourable exception. Until then, the fact remains that, whether you like or not, you’ve got a better chance of getting through a sift with a front-loaded plot; just try not to let that come at the expense of the rest of the play.

5: Local reference overkill

This is something I’ve got in both this list and the beginners’ mistakes list.

Most theatres like putting a local touch on their plays. Not all non-Londoners glaze over when yet another play is set in London, but many people like seeing places they recognise and people they relate to. It’s one of a few advantages theatre has over film and television, who sell to nationally or globally and can’t appeal to a regional audience. Because of this, you’ll see local references in regional theatre for more than you do elsewhere. Other plays are frequently transplanted to the region. All of this is fine provided this isn’t used as a substitute for a story. Unfortunately, it often is. I’ve seen scenes in plays where plot slows or stalls whilst it rams in every every reference on checklist mode. Worse, it gets so predictable. I have lost count of the number of times a play drops in getting caught by the tide of Holy Island, or football rivalry between Newcastle and Sunderland as if this is unique and special to Newcastle and Sunderland.

However, the worst offenders are plays that shoehorn in someone else’s local references. I don’t know how other regions compares to the north-east, but over here there’s a problem with people who think that the north-east is Newcastle and the entire region is a cultural monolith. Newsflash: not everyone in the north-east talks with a Geordie accent and calls their friends “man”. And no, Wikipedia-level research doesn’t help us understand what makes this place tick. Trotting off the names of a few local shops will not will stop the people who live there and failing to recognise your depiction.

My suspicion is that local references are so popular because it’s an easy way to get bums on seats. But easy writing is a short step from lazy writing. Don’t think this takes away the hard work of the plot.

6: Playing to the gallery

The next three are lifted from The problem with political theatre, but they are all relevant here. Worse, they all defeat the object of political theatre.

Theatre prides itself on being diverse, but the the area that is not diverse is politics. Whether this is a good thing or bad thing is a discussion for elsewhere, but one effect of this is a comfort zone. Unlike main stage theatre, the audiences you get in the smaller spaces tends to be drawn from a closer-knit community. As such, an easy route is to do plays advancing views popular with your peers. Like all communities, the views in fashion vary from year to year, but in fringe-scale theatre it’s what dominates the programme at any one time. And they get audiences in, so it works.

But watch out – this comfort zone is dangerous. Like I said, if the limit of your ambitions is the approval of your peers, carry on doing what you’re doing; but if you are hoping to appeal further than that,  you’ve got to win over less like-minded people too. Which you can do provided your play have something to else to offer, like a good story. If, however, your only offering is validation of your peers’ pre-existing mindset, you won’t be going any further.

The other problem with playing to the gallery is the number of plays that fight straw men. At the moment, the #1 hate figure of the arts world is the twin demon of Brexit and Trump, but so many times I see artists debunk arguments no-one made. Which is real shame, because, in my opinion, most of what they actually say is just as bollocks as the imagined arguments the arts world is battling. The straw man arguments can be rebutted with “we never said that” and the real arguments go unchallenged. This is not a problem unique to the arts, but this is what happens if your only political discourse is talking to people who agree with you.

7: Trying to be clever

Another one common to both list list and the beginners’ list – although this one manifests itself differently in the two cases. Amongst beginners, trying to be clever (or, as I also call this, failing the “what’s going on?” test) usually means outstripping your current ability. I suspect the following happens: 1) see something that is both critically acclaimed and confusingly abstract, 2) think if you write something confusingly abstract that will also be critically acclaimed, 3) achieve first without the second. I’ve seen this overspill into aspiring professionals – incomprehensible performances at scratch nights where the we are asked what emotions it made us feel; the brutally honest answer is usually “Uh?????”

Amongst more experienced writers, however, it’s a bit more of a puzzle. When seasoned veterans write plays that are impossible to understand, it’s almost always political theatre. This baffles me, because I can’t understand what this is supposed to achieve. Even if they’ve retreated to the comfort zone of audience of ideological soulmates, surely they realise the point of political theatre is to be persuasive? How do they expect to win people over if they can’t understand what point you’re making? Most oddly, this seems to happen with writers whose previous work shone for its clarity – yet once they step into politics I haven’t a clue what they’re saying beyond “[bad thing] is bad”.

All I can think (and I am speculating here, please correct me if I’m wrong) is they want to stand out from all the other writers saying “[bad thing] is bad” by doing some clever analysis of the issue. To be fair, this can work – I know of plays that bombed in the mainstream that still got support from people strongly subscribed to the cause. They presumably knew the arguments and could therefore pick up how this abstract play related to it. If that’s what you’re trying to achieve, fair enough. But if you’re trying to make a difference, that last think you want is to make your play incomprehensible to people yet to be talked round.

8: Talking down to people

The last two items are two variants of the same thing: political theatre aimed people who already agree with you. The good news is that the theatre world is beginning to realise  you need to reach outside of the bubble. This is why you’ll often see politically-charged plays ask at the end, if you enjoyed it, to come back with someone who’s not yet on board with The Issue so that they can heard what The Issue is all about. It’s an improvement.

The trouble is, half the time, any hope the play could win over potential supporters is obliterated by insulting them throughout the play. Perhaps these theatre makers have a reason why behaving this way is justified and the targets of their ire deserve to be collectively treated this way.  It doesn’t matter. You do not win friends and influence people by talking down to them – how can so many people not see this?

I’ve really got nothing else to say about this one. There’s an infinite number of alternative ways winning people over that doesn’t involve behaving treating them like dirt. And if your entire political cause is based on treating everybody else as the enemy – well, you’re doomed anyway.

9: Excessive self-indulgence

I have seen countless articles from reading rooms ridiculing scripts about a bloke called Dave who works in an office that’s like so boring and a has a boss who’s a douchebag (written by a bloke called Steve who works in an office that’s like so boring and etc.) Then there’s the unflattering trope of the dudes and dudettes who say “You know, someone should do a sitcom based on my life.” They send their stories in blithely unaware there’s hundreds of other scripts of the same thing. It’s a fair criticism.

And yet, I am seeing something very similar happen from established writers. I see plays that are literally nothing more than the actor, on stage, talking about their life. Don’t get me wrong:  some actors have amazing personal stories that I gladly watch for an hour, but other stories are just so … mundane. I hate to be the one to break this to you, but your minor relationship issues and twentysomething problems you experienced at drama school aren’t nearly as riveting as you think they are. No amount of props or lighting plots or soundscapes or movement direction changes the fact your play boils down to “let’s talk about me for an hour.”

This excess of self-indulgence creeps into other plays too. I’ve seen plays on other subjects – usually true stories based on research –  actors tells us about how it made them feel hearing about this. Sometimes this is even done instead of acting the story. But that defeat the object of theatre. Surely the story you are telling other people is meant to make them feel something – if you have to tell them how you’re feeling, you’re not achieving this.

However, the type of self-indulgence I have the biggest problem with is self-justification for your own shitty behaviour. As I said, I don’t want to personalise this so I’m not giving examples, so all I can say is that I really really really hope I have got the wrong end of the stick here. Because the alternative is that some people are openly talking on stage about reprehensible things they’ve done in the past, which they acknowledge were reprehensible – but rather than showing any remorse or contrition, they analyse this as part of who they are, or pass it off as raising awareness, or blame society in general for making them do this sort of thing. If that’s you, you can fuck off. If you have a track record as a shitty human being that’s your problem. You do not deserve back-patting just for being you’re open about your shittiness.

10: Snobbery

Okay, this one is going to lose me some friends, but sod it, it’s about time I said this: theatre has a big snobbery problem. Everybody acknowledges that there’s a big class divide in theatre and a lot of working-class people think theatre’s not for people like them, but worst offenders seem completely oblivious to the fact they’re part of the problem.

It’s not a new thing. For decades East has been lauded as a definitive exploration of working-class culture, and yet it’s relentlessly negative about the East End of London, depicting everyone as thugs, sluts and racists. I’m not saying Berkoff himself is a snob – as a Jew who grew in Oswald Mosely’s favourite stomping ground, I don’t blame him for having a poor opinion of his fellow East Enders. But I’ve read countless reviews of East that don’t question the one-sidedness, make little or no attempt to look for nuance, and instead praise the language for its poetic structure. I’m prepared to debate where it is and isn’t the duty for reviewers and other to call out objectionable material, but I know for a fact the theatre world would be up in arms if someone did this sort of “exploration” of women, or black people, or Muslim, or Jews, or gay people, or pretty much any other minority I can think of. Sorry, but there’s a double-standard here.

The problem of middle-class domination of theatre has not gone unnoticed. If fact, there’s been quite a lot of theatre aimed at working-class engagement in the last few years. I don’t doubt the motives and I welcome moves to makes a difference, but some of this … well, I cannot speak on behalf of anybody working-class here, but if it was me, I would find it condescending in the extreme. The trouble is that theatre-makers routinely confuse stories of working-class interest with political causes currently popular with middle-class left-wingers We learned the hard way last year these are not the same thing. To be fair, some of these projects are at pains to say they’re only getting this started and they want working class people to take the lead, but the problem there is that you’re only working with a self-selecting sample who probably already share your outlook. That’s not as representative as you think.

Meanwhile, theatre continues its collective attitude to the wrong kind of working class people. This isn’t uniquely a class thing – I’ve heard complaints elsewhere from people who feel like they’re “off-message minorities” – but class is the most blatant. For anyone working-class who does not fit into the arts’ idealised depiction, it still seems to be open season. I’ve seen appalling anti-working-class stereotypes casually bandied about on- and off-stage when it’s convenient to do so. One lulzy remark I frequently see propagated by people who should know better is British beaches being full of disgusting Daily Mail-reading Wetherspoons fatties guffaw guffaw*. Try saying that about anyone else, even as a joke, and you would be quite rightly massacred. And yet making stupid generalisations about poor people is considered normal behaviour. I look at all of this and think – no fucking wonder most working-class people think theatre’s not for them.

(*: The context of this, as far as I can gather, is why would refugees want to comes to Britain when they have to mix with the aforementioned disgusting wrong type of poor people if they weren’t fleeing something bad, but that’s really no excuse.)

I might be speaking out of turn here – I do not believe in telling other people what they’re supposed to find offensive, and if I see evidence that a strong majority of working-class people don’t have a problem with what I’ve highlighted (and by strong majority I don’t mean cherry-picked mates), I will happily retract this.  In the meantime, I am worried. The theatre world is starting to get it, but progress is way too slow. The other mistakes in this list stand to spoil a play, or, at worst, all the works of an artist. Snobbery, however, one stands to spoil theatre as a whole. I can forgive the other mistakes – but in a discipline that prides itself on being tolerant, open-minded and inclusive, this is the one where we really really should know better.

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