5 Tips For Writers From A Dramaturg
Written by Marcus Bazley, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director
After we spoke to playwright Katherine Soper last week on the Cyphers Theatre Podcast, I thought now might be a good time to offer up some of the main recurring bits of advice or prompts that I give to writers I’m working with. Some of these might be really obvious to you – in this case, I hope they act as a gentle reminder! If the ideas are new to you – then, great, I hope they’ll help you continue your writing journey.
1. Prioritise your writing time.
This is really worth emphasising up front. If you want to write this play and make it what you really believe it can be, then prioritise the time you give to it in your daily routine. Identify the parts of your day when you are at your best and most productive. For some people this might be first thing in the morning, others it might be late in the evening. Whenever it is, try to give yourself at least half an hour of writing time in that window every day. Working on your writing in your prime window every day (or at least every weekday), will make it a priority for you. Your brain will start to work on it in the background while you’re working on other things. And it gives you a protected window of time that is just about you and your script.
Making writing part of your daily routine, immediately gives it value. It means you are recognising the importance of your creativity. And, I guarantee you, it will make you more productive and more creative in the rest of your life as well.
2. Follow your ambitions.
At the writing stage of a production, it is not your job to worry about how producible and stage-able the script is. Obviously, this will become a concern at some point but now is not the time! We can deal with that later. If you limit your ambitions at this stage, you will never allow the play to reach its potential and will subconsciously be suppressing some of your best and most interesting ideas.
Tell the story first, with as many characters, locations, scene changes and tech elements as it needs. Worry about how to make it work on stage later! (Or, better still, get someone else to worry about it for you!!)
3. What is the story?
This seems so obvious that it can feel a bit insulting to ask but I honestly ask this question to writers so often you wouldn’t believe it. What is the story? Not what’s the play about or what are the key themes, but what is the story? What actually happens in the play?
Ultimately, what happens is the key element of drama and is why you are writing a play.
As an exercise, try to tell your story in two or three sentences, make these sentences active and imagine you’re describing the story to someone who knows nothing about it at all.
4. Structure is your friend.
As a dramaturg, I am unsurprisingly a massive fan of structure. By structure, I mean the ordering of scenes and events so that we manage, control and guide the audience’s journey through the play. It means that we are able to plan the rise and fall of tension, holding the audience’s attention throughout.
I refer a lot to what’s known as the Three Act Structure. I absolutely don’t think you should follow this like Gospel, but it is a very helpful guide. And, to be honest, it works! Once you tune into it, you notice it pretty much everywhere. Essentially every film I watch now, I’m conscious of the Three Act Structure at work.
This is definitely a whole blog in its own right so I will simply say at this stage: if you were to break your story down into 6 key moments, what would they be? Write those and then tie them together and you’ll be halfway to your Three Act Structure already.
The other bonus structure tip I’ll give you here is: remember the interval! Make a conscious decision about how you want to use your interval. Intervals have fantastic dramatic potential. Think about how Dickens used cliff-hangers at the end of each instalment (or chapter) of his novels. Use the interval to make the audience desperate to get back from the bar and watch the second half.
This is a task for after you’ve written a first draft. You’ve been ambitious (see point 2) and now you’ve got this piece that is crammed full of bold and creative ideas. This is the time to be ruthless. Hit the save button. Create a new copy of the script and mercilessly hack it back to its absolute bare essentials. Every word that doesn’t need to be there – cut it. Every character that doesn’t need to be there – cut them. Every scene that doesn’t need to be there – that goes too.
This may seem a bit overzealous but we’re absolutely not throwing away all your hard work (it’s all saved in another document, remember). This is a process of distilling and focussing your ideas. It will give you a much clearer sense of what is important to you.
We have a major tendency to over-write. We give the audience far more information than they actually need to know. This distilling process is an opportunity to trust the audience’s intelligence. Let them use their imaginations and fill in the gaps themselves. You can always add stuff back in, if you find out later that it really is necessary.
So, there you go! My 5 key tips to writers.
Marcus Bazley, Co-Founder and Co-Artistic Director
Before founding Cyphers in 2014, Marcus studied History at King's College London.
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