5 Things Playwrights can do to Improve Their Writing By Geoffrey Williams

Play texts are strange things because they are difficult to read if they work well on stage. This is because so much of what’s in your head as the playwright doesn’t easily jump from page to imagination; it’s not designed to. What you have to remember when you’re writing a play is that the purpose of the text is to offer a blueprint for the creative team. It’s supposed to be seen, not read, which often means that plays which read very well don’t stage well. Here are 5 things you can do to improve the stagability of your play:

Splurge out the first draft

You have an idea. Now write it. Don’t worry if some of it – or all of it – is bad. At the start, this just doesn’t matter, and worrying about whether it’s bad will only hold you back. What counts is getting something on paper, so don’t be afraid of making a mess. You won’t manage to solve all the problems before you get started anyway, and new ones will present themselves as you write. Think of it this way: you can fix things you realise aren’t working later. You can’t fix things you haven’t written.

Cut, cut, cut

Once you have your first draft, run away from it for a while. Come back and do a couple more drafts to hone the play. Writing is re-writing after all, much like acting is reacting. Once the shape is where you want it, do Sarah Kane’s favourite exercise: cut. Go through your latest draft and the only thing you’re allowed to do is cut. To add my own two cents, cut the stage direction. Most of what you’re trying to do should be clear from the dialogue. Being overly descriptive can be extremely limiting to those who have to stage the play. Speaking as a director, the less stage direction the better. Going back to the beginning of the article, if it’s flowery and descriptive, it probably won’t work well on stage.

Get feedback from the right people

Feedback is invaluable. You know what you think you’re doing. This vision may not be clear to anyone else, and hearing what others don’t understand is a great way of improving your work. But a word of caution: often, well-intentioned friends and family will tell you the work is unequivocally awesome – the next Shakespeare, beyond critique. While this can be confidence boosting, it’s a lot more valuable to hear from those who will honestly identify the flaws in your work.

Fix what you know isn’t working

There are things in your play’s early drafts which won’t work. Guaranteed. You may brush past them and as you do more drafts it may all seem fine: the feedback is positive and you feel ready to see your words come to life on stage. But these lurking problems will remain unless you do something about them. You don’t intuitively know why something is wrong, or how to fix it and that’s why you’ll pretend the problems are not there. Grapple with them. Lose sleep over them but solve them. Because the problems you fight to solve are the ones which will be most delightful to the audience.

Allow yourself to be surprised

David Mamet says the audience as a group is always ahead of you, so you need to work especially hard to offer them something interesting. If an idea in your play is obvious to you, or a twist leads super naturally from what came before, the audience guessed it way the play gets there. So allow things to surprise you. Write a scene without knowing the ending. Put characters in unexpected situations and let them tell you how they’re going to get out of them. Perhaps they don’t, and where does that leave you?

Ultimately, you need to decide if your play is what you want it to be. If you take one thing away from the article take this: you’re the only one who knows whether you’re honestly happy with your play. It’s your name on it, and you will be judged by it, so did you solve the problems you knew were there? If so, stand by it and after listening to what others think, make up your own mind about what to keep or change.

Geoff’s recent play, Drowned or Saved? will premiere at the Tristan Bates Theatre in London this November. The piece follows Primo Levi, one of the twentieth century’s greatest thinkers,  as he reflects on having written some of the most significant documents the world has ever seen. For more information and tickets, click here.