When I finally transitioned from being a frustrated would-be playwright to being a frustrated playwright who was actually writing plays, the guidance of my friend Andrea Ciannavei was critical. (She's a playwright herself; she's currently on writer on the t.v. show Mayans M.C.) She led a playwriting workshop I took, in which she ran her students through a series of brainstorming exercises before we wrote a single word of our scripts. These exercises were first developed at London’s Royal Court Theatre, and the idea behind them is to flesh out your characters as completely as possible before you start, so that you don’t have to stop and think about what they would say or do in a given situation – you’ve already answered that question. They’re timed exercises; in ten minutes per list, you need to brainstorm:
- 51 things you know about the character
- 21 things the character wants
- things the character knows about themselves, that nobody else does
- things the character knows about themselves, that others know as well
- things others know about the character, that the character themself doesn’t know
- things that nobody knows about the character except you, the omniscient playwright
- things the character has to say about you, that meddlesome playwright
- things the character has on their person
- things the character had about their person half a lifetime ago
- things the character will have about their person in five years’ time
You do this for each character. It takes hours. If, like me, you only have a few hours in which to write in any given day, then it takes days. But the time spent doing this translates into ease of composition once you’re actually drafting. It’s worth it. At least I’ve found it to be so, and I’ve done these exercises for every script I’ve written since that workshop.
You see, over the past two years or so, the scripts I’ve been working on have been very particular. They’ve been my two Shakespeare’s New Contemporaries submissions, which were built around existing Shakespearean characters that I already knew well. Or they’ve been shorter one-acts – ten to thirty minutes in length – where I knew I wouldn’t be able to go into this degree of depth in the script itself. So I’ve only done the first item (the 51 things I know). And up until now, it’s worked fine.
But Gentle Reader, I recently hit upon the idea for the next script I want to tackle. I think it’s going to translate into an hour-long one-act, give or take a few pages. I think it’s a good, solid idea. But it’s a tricky narrative, and a lot of it hasn’t come into focus yet, and in order to make it come into focus, I need to put in the time to do my brainstorming exercises.
And because this idea has a Christmas setting, I’d like to hear it at the “Twistmas” holiday session of the Naked Angels Tuesdays at Nine reading series I frequent. And that means I have to have at least the first ten pages of it drafted to submit next week.
Which puts me on a rather tight deadline. Which is even tighter than you realize because in addition to the exercises listed above, I also need to brainstorm a series of questions related to each set of relationships in the play, namely:
- How long have the two characters known each other?
- How do they know each other?
- What does each openly like about the other?
- What does each secretly like about the other?
- What does each openly dislike about the other?
- What does each secretly dislike about the other?
- What does each get from the other?
- What does each want from the other that they’re not currently getting?
So, naturally, I’m procrastinating. And in accordance with a tradition I’ve established since my very first post, I’m postponing the writing I need to do by writing a blog post about the writing I need to do.
If only I were able to turn that into a brainstorming exercise…
Posted on December 3, 2018
by Michael C. O'Day