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.


Bill Kirton said…
All good advice, Catherine. The failure to be sensitive to the demands and limitations of the various media is surprising. It's equally surprising when the dialogue reads like a series of extracts from manuals or sermons. We don't talk in paragraphs. Nor do most of us sound like Oscar Wilde or a Ted Hughes poem. I remember Albert Finney in a stage play saying a line something like 'I lurch from one derelict sunset to the next' - OK as an image but far too 'writerly' as a piece of dialogue.

But we can all still learn. I remember writing a radio play featuring a blind woman. My thinking was that lots of blind people listen to the radio so it made sense. But when I was in London at the rehearsals, the director said 'D'you realise how difficult it is to convey blindness on radio?'. It hadn't occurred to me and I had to drop in a few lines here and there to make it clear that she couldn't see.