You're going to suck at writing plays...
At least for a while. But like most things, writing craves practice. This piece is not a “how-to” guide, nor will it focus too much on technique. These things can be learned over time with the right teachers and, of course, tons of experience. But we will get back to that later.
This piece will instead serve as a bit of motivation. It will bill itself as a hidden trove of sage advice that many writers wished they knew when they first put pen to paper. Or, the very least, the advice I wish I had when I first put pen to paper. But! We live, and we learn. So, number one…
1. Keep writing.
2. Finish what you start.
3. Be community-oriented
I know, I know… human interaction… ew.
Human beings are social creatures. It’s science, look it up. We did not get to where we are today, for better or for worse, by being loners. No, we got to this point in our civilisation by sharing. We shared food, commodities, space and, most importantly, we shared ideas.
This drive is as vital to the theatre community today as it was back when Aristotle first noted down what makes a good show or, even earlier, when we started painting on the walls of caves to describe and cement our understanding of the world around us.
So my advice to you in this regard is simple: find a like-minded group of people and share your ideas. It shouldn’t be a difficult thing to do with the wonders of social media, presenting us with a multitude of options.
Go to writers’ meetups. Read the work of your contemporaries and don’t be afraid to offer feedback. Always be positive, though, focus on the right things and provide helpful hints when you notice that something is lacking. Nothing entirely breaks the speed of an aspiring writer like being told that their work is terrible and there’s nothing they can do to fix it. But bear in mind that this may happen to you, too. Take the feedback that you receive, but never take it to heart. Keep it in your head. Poke holes in it. Put it under a microscope and find the positive in it, because there will always be some good to come out of negative criticism.
On the topic of reading, you should be doing more of it. Read good work. Read bad work. Read everything and then read some more. Recommend books and scripts to your fellow writers and read the ones they recommend too. Read history, read philosophy, read poetry, read fiction, non-fiction, biographies, all of it. Become a sponge. Talk about what you read. Tell others about a clever plot twist and listen when others tell you about how they fell in love with a character flaw.
Lastly, watch all the plays. Then, while you’re at it, write a review, tell your friends about it, discuss it and find the good stuff. The more you soak in, the better.
Be helpful. This cannot be stressed enough. Help your fellow writers, and in doing so, help yourself.
To get you started, why not have a look at this group?
This incredible initiative was founded by writer Celia Claase and artist Janine Claase in an attempt to bring writers of all sorts together to share ideas and offer a platform to network with other like-minded people. Their monthly events play host to a series of guest writers who impart some wisdom regarding the craft. If you live in Hong Kong, this is a great group to connect with.
Incidentally, The Blank Page Writers Forum will be hosting their next event on the 25th of March featuring yours truly as the guest speaker.
You can find out more about them here.
4. Sharpen up your technique
See? Told you we were going to get back to this. This tip is more or less an extension of the previous one. You can pick up so many great lessons by going to see a show or joining writer’s groups or reading. But there will come a time when getting the advice of someone slightly more seasoned will come in handy. Join a creative writing course. Long term or short term, either way, you will learn something.
Here is a tip that I will give away for free: put all of your focus on your characters. Yes, plot and structure are important, but the reaction of a well-rounded character in any given situation is far more interesting than any bit of scenery, no matter how well you describe it. Your protagonists should be just as alive as you are, with a rich history, vivid memories, fears, quirks, things that excite them, etc. The more fleshed out your hero is, the more reason they will have to behave in specific ways. An excellent trick is to keep asking “what if?” Give it a try; what if your character had a bad experience with a snake as a child? What if your character feels something slithering around his ankles but can’t see what it is? How will your character react? Now, take it a step further. Your character once had a bad experience with a snake, sure, but what if they went to therapy soon after where he learned to embrace his fears? How does your character react now in the same situation? What if your character feels something slithering around his ankle while he’s trying to, say, defuse a bomb?
The same would go for your antagonist if you were inclined to have a villain. Yes, it’s fun to see a villain who’s evil just for the sake of being evil. It makes for an easy read. But a villain your audience agrees with; now that’s award-winning stuff. Once you have your characters alive and kicking, put them in situations they would not usually be in and see how they would react. While writing, periodically stop and ask yourself, is this the most exciting thing that has ever happened to your character? If it isn’t, why aren’t you writing about that instead? While we’re on the subject of technique, let’s have a quick look at structure. You don’t always need a physical antagonist. A situation can be just as antagonistic as Thanos, Vader or The Joker. In fact, the protagonist can be the antagonist with the right amount of conflict. As far as the structure of your story or play goes, conflict is vital.
Those are my tips regarding technique. Flesh out your characters, give them a goal and make sure they have something standing in their way. It doesn’t even have to be a big thing. If it’s difficult for your character to overcome, that’s good enough. Again, it’s way more interesting to see a character that I am invested in overcome something mediocre because something that happened when they were younger is messing with their present selves. This does not mean that your story will be perfect. You still need an excellent exposition, introducing your story and characters in such a way that your audience will understand what’s happening without coming across as preachy. You will still need a proper resolution, people like closure. Tie up those loose ends. But these are things you can learn with time and experience. And a good teacher. And on that note, I am very available to help with all your writing needs. Feel free to contact me on email@example.com
Writer’s are nothing without some shameless plugging.
5. Live your life
While you should, without a doubt, take to heart the concept of writing every day and to never stop writing, please also do stop writing. I beg you. You have an entire life to live outside of the world you’ve created on paper. And do you know what happens in life? Life. Life happens. All the time. Go and experience it. Live it. And then write about it. I guarantee you will find no better inspiration than life and all it has to offer. Fall in love, get into arguments, “forget” to do your homework just to see what happens, go to birthday parties, go to gallery openings, go to the movies, go the zoo, travel. Do the things that scare you, do the things that make you comfortable, do everything, do nothing, seek out happiness and don’t be afraid of disappointment and failure. Each experience you have will mould you and your words and your characters and your stories and your plays into truth. And to stay true is the most important service you can do yourself and your audience. Don’t forget; you are a writer. And writers are powerful. They shape history itself. Now go and live!
6. Wait! One more thing…
And it’s the last thing, too, I promise. Find your voice. However…
The life you live is unique to you. You may have similarities to the people around you in terms of environment, society, upbringing and other aspects that are quantifiable and measurable. However, you also have your own friends and family, and they had their own friends and family. These people were affected by their environments in different ways, some more subtle than others. These environmental factors changed the way the people around you behave, which, in turn, changed the way they behave towards you, which, in turn, changes the way you act. You pick up vocabulary from your school, your friends, family, the books you read, the shows you watch, the advertising you see around you. You may be slightly less sad when going through a break-up because you’ve already had a number of them. You may get angrier than most at smaller things because you may be a bit of a perfectionist. These emotions will influence the people close to you and around you, which means they will react in certain ways toward you. All of these reactions lead to changed behaviour, both physically and psychologically. All these factors add up, swirl together and combust into the beautiful chaos that is your unique existence.
You don’t have to find your voice. You already have one. Everybody does. It’s what differentiates Duncan Macmillan from Athol Fugard from Anton Chekhov from Dennis Kelly from… well… you. You will always have a voice that is unique to you. And the great thing is you don’t even have to think about it. It just happens.
So, my last bit of advice to you is this: don’t find your voice.
Just let your voice happen.
Jan Brink is the Centre Director here at Starlit Voice. He is full of advice, especially when no one asked for it. To get in touch with Jan, or any of the Starlit Voice Practitioners for advice, classes or just to chat, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org