Plays. What Constitutes a Script? A Few Dramatic Insights.

Just finished judging a drama competition for a writers' group. There were plenty of entries, considering that this is a fairly specialised area of writing and one not everyone wishes to venture on - and the level of competence was high. This is a very good group! But working with these scripts and trying to find ways to help people improve, reminded me of a few issues  - not necessarily from this particular set of entries, but from many others which I have read over the years - problems and provisos which I felt might be worth sharing with other people who might also be starting out on writing drama.

The first issue is that writers so often submit a script to a 'general' drama competition without being in any way specific as to what medium they are writing for. To anyone with any experience of the various dramatic media this seems almost unbelievable but when you look at it from the perspective of somebody just starting out, it is perfectly understandable. I think we underestimate how few people realise that a television script is, for example, quite a different animal from a stage play. This is not the time or the place to go into the many differences - but if you're planning to write drama, and especially if you're planning to write a piece of drama for a competition - you'd be wise to do your research first, get hold of some scripts, visit some websites, read some books - and set out to write your script for a particular medium and only for that medium.

Related to this, is the realisation that beginning writers so often conflate four, five or six individual scenes into one big scene - showing a complete lack of awareness of the practical processes involved. A character will get out of bed, go down the stairs, go into the kitchen, come back out, open the front door, go out into the street, walk down the street and get onto a bus, without any indication of just how this is going to be orchestrated for television or film, how long this might take and/or whether or not we really need to see them do all these things anyway. It's only possible to do it this way for radio, and even then it might be inadvisable to let the listener hear the whole process!

As far as stage plays are concerned, writers sometimes specify large casts (fine if you're aiming for amateur dramatics, but not for professional theatre, where budgets are very tight) and lots of different and highly complicated sets. If you are going to set your play in a simple, generic space which represents various spaces or places in a simple way, then that’s fine. I've done it myself, most notably in a play called Wormwood, about Chernobyl. But you can’t describe a series of very specific and complicated stage sets and have your characters moving between them very quickly within the space of a few pages, without running into real production problems.

People also seem blithely unaware of the way - for example - stage plays work in real time. So a character may go off fully clothed to take a bath and re-appear fifteen seconds later, primped and powdered, in their jammies and dressing gown, ready for bed - a tour de force of undressing and make-up that is probably beyond all but a contortionist.

Most of these problems can be remedied by people remembering that they are writing something which is by its very nature, visual and immediate. As dramatists and playwrights, we are not telling a story of something that ‘happened’ once upon a time. We are showing the audience something as it happens, and if necessary, shaping it, so that it draws the audience in. Even when characters are telling the audience something that did happen, the playwright still has to be dramatising it in some way for the audience, bringing it to life for them in the present. If one of your characters spends pages and pages telling another character all about something that happened to them once upon a time, you can bet you're committing the cardinal sin of telling rather than showing. Go back and find a way to dramatise it.  A dead giveaway is when - as so often happens with writers who are starting out - the stage directions lapse into the past tense. 'He sat down on the bench and looked into the distance.' If you ever find yourself doing that, you can be sure that you've stopped writing a play and started writing a story. You are no longer in the 'now' of the drama. You have to see it happen as you are writing it. You have to be there. You, yourself, have to be in the immediate present of your play. That is one of the joys of writing drama!

If any writer has any other useful hints and tips, I'll gladly add add them to this post.

Threads of Feeling, Textiles and Writing

Wasn't sure whether to post this on my writing blog or my textiles blog so will probably put something about it on both! It's an online exhibition called Threads of Feeling. It was flagged up by the excellent Amanda Vickery, on Twitter and I find it moving and beautiful. It could be the source of a million stories.

I have always found textiles inspirational for my writing. It's not just that I love researching costume history and finding out exactly what people would have worn. I've acquired dozens and dozens of books about textiles, costume and so on over the years - many of them from charity shops or (more inexplicably) from academic library sales where I have managed to buy quite rare books for a song, volumes which I now treasure and refer to all the time.

Getting the details right is important, (although there's a fine line between getting the details right and feeling the need to fling all your research into the story, just because you know about it!)  But I also find that textiles of all kinds inspire the actual subject matter and content of my novels and plays. Many writers, but I suspect especially female writers, are fascinated by these 'made' items which are so closely related to how we live our lives, so necessary for us. There is some interlinking between beauty and utility that we love to write and to read about.

I don't think men quite 'get' this fascination but I'm willing to be proved wrong.  I'm sometimes asked to talk about the textiles I write about and whenever I take - for example - pieces of Ayrshire Whitework, and allow people to handle them and look at them while they hear about their history, I do find the men become as fascinated as the women, although they may have come along to the session somewhat reluctantly, dragged there by the women in their lives!

We all know that there is something uniquely personal about items of clothing. Shoes take on the personality of the wearer. Sorting out clothes after a bereavement is always sad, but it can also be obscurely comforting. In fact I wrote about just this feeling in my novel The Curiosity Cabinet, albeit in a historical context. I'm writing about antique textiles and needlework again in a new novel called The Physic Garden where a piece of embroidery is an integral part of the story. And costume, dress, items of clothing, all figure largely in my new Polish historical novel, The Amber Heart. Researching this aspect of fiction and drama is always a pleasure for me. And because I collect antique and vintage textiles and sometimes deal in them, I find that the ideas come thick and fast. There's always something new waiting to be discovered.