Tuesday, December 23, 2008

So, what are you saying?

Everything that is created is made for a particular purpose. When an author writes, he or she does so for a certain audience. When you write a paper for class, the audience is your teacher. When you write an email to a friend, the friend is your audience. When you are writing your play, you are writing for a particular group. Do you know who that audience is? Do you know what your play is saying to them and what they might take away from the story?

The theme of a play is the message that the audience is left with after the story. Remember our friend, Penny from a few weeks ago? Well, let's suppose that she decides to steal the money to get her mother a present and she gets caught. The theme, or message to the audience, of that story might simply be "Don't steal." What would the message be if Penny doesn't get caught?

What is the theme if Penny decides for herself that stealing is wrong and as a result, isn't able to get a present for her mother? The theme might then come from how Mom reacts to Penny's decision. Let's say that Penny's mother doesn't mind that Penny didn't get a present, but is happy that her daughter made the right decision. There might be two themes there. First, the audience learns that stealing is wrong; a second message might be "it's the thought that counts." What are some others themes that you can get from this story?

Take a look at your play. Do you know what the theme is? When the play is over, how will the audience understand that this is the theme? Is there a moment where the theme is revealed, like when Penny learns a lesson?

Knowing who the audience of a play is will help a playwright select a theme and determine how it is presented to that audience. Obviously, this does not mean that a playwright will personally know everyone in the audience for their play. What it does mean is that when writing a play, a playwright has an intended audience. Who that intended audience might be can change how a play is presented.

Again, taking Penny as our example, the way that the theme is presented to an audience of 8-year-olds will be much different than how the theme is presented to adults.

A playwright should also consider how well informed an audience might be about a particular setting in the play, or references that the characters make to certain regions, pop culture, and other things. For example, there are things that are specific to life in New Jersey that people from other parts of the country may not understand. I recently spoke with one young playwright who was writing a play that takes place at the beach. There were some terms in the play that people who don't live near a beach may not know, which could lead to confusion about what is going on. To help avoid this kind of confusion, find some friends or family members who may not be familiar with your play, or these specifics, and ask them to read the play. You can use their feedback to find creative ways to include more details in your story without making it too unnatural to the dialogue. It is difficult to do, but definitely worth the try. But the results are very exciting!

Happy writing!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

One month to go!

Hey Young Playwrights! Just a reminder that script submissions to the NJ Young Playwrights Contest are due one month from today - January 16, 2009.

Please remember that this deadline is a postmark deadline. That means that you need to put your script in the mail no later than Friday, January 16, 2009.

I hope you are having a great time writing your play. The Contest Readers and I are very excited to read what you've created. In the meantime, do not hesitate to contact the Education Office at Playwrights Theatre with any questions about the Contest.

Have fun!

Friday, December 12, 2008

Creating Conflict and Raising the Stakes

Conflict is what drives the story of your play forward. This is the tension created between the main character and the obstacles that stand in the way of the character achieving his or her goal(s). Conflict starts with what the character wants. This can be something as simple as a character wanting to earn enough money to get a present for his or her mother. But remember, a playwright wants to get the audience to care about the main character and really root for him or her and that can be done by “raising the stakes,” or to put it another way, challenging the character’s desire to get what he or she wants.

Let’s use the example of the character who wants to earn money for a present. We’ll call her Penny. Keeping in mind the outline from a few posts ago, we need to identify Penny’s WANT and EMERGENCY. We know that she wants to earn money to get a present for her mother; I will leave it to you to decide why she needs to begin that journey (the Emergency). The next step is to figure out what she will do to earn the money. To do that, consider what are some things that people do to get what they want. These are the ACTIONS. Some examples might be:


You might be able to add more ideas to this list, or to change some of these suggestions to be more specific. “Ask” could become “borrow.”

Do you see how each action gets more serious? Not everyone will be comfortable to try each of these things, so the idea is not to choose one of these actions for the character, but to have them try each kind until they reach something that the character is not comfortable doing and needs to make a choice. For example, Penny might try asking a friend, or relative for the money, but is unable to earn enough to the present that she wants. So, she gets a job, but finds that she won’t earn the money quick enough. Then perhaps a friend mentions to Penny that she could steal the money, but Penny knows that stealing is wrong and is not comfortable doing that. Now she needs to make a decision. Does she steal the money so her mother has a present? Does she try something else? Does she get a different present? Not get a present at all?

Presenting your character with these different challenges raises their stakes in the story and creates greater tension. The result may be a play that draws the audience deeper into the story and gets them more invested in the outcome. And it is the outcome, or what the character decides to do and how they experience the consequence, which delivers your theme or message to the audience. But that’s for next week. For now, raise the stakes for your character – push them to the limit and see how they respond!

Happy writing!

Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Emergency Situation

Consider this statement – Some of the strongest stories have a main character that the audience cares about and roots for to achieve his or her goal.

Identifying the emergency in your story is one way to measure how well an audience is able to root for the main character. Think about some of your favorite stories. Why do you like them? Why do you want to see them succeed?

Let’s look at Cinderella again as an example. I indicated that the emergency is when something happens to the character that prompts them to go after their goal/want. For Cinderella, the emergency is the arrival of the invitation to the ball. Now, imagine her story without all of the scenes that occur before emergency (when the invitation to the ball arrives). If the audience is introduced to the character of Cinderella right at that moment, what do they know about her? In that scene, she is just someone trying to get to the ball, but why should the audience care whether or not Cinderella gets to go?

The exposition scenes before the invitation arrives are the key to the audience’s investment in Cinderella’s journey. Without the introduction to the evil stepfamily, the scenes of the horrible way that Cinderella is treated, and the display of Cinderella’s personality as she deals with these events, is what can lead an audience to care about the character and really root for her to find something better.

So, take a look at your play. What is the emergency? When does it occur? What happens beforehand? Make sure to give your audience plenty of time to get to know the main character and what everyday life is like for him or her. When the emergency arrives, the audience will want to see your character succeed almost as much as the character does!

Have fun and happy writing!