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January 29, 2009

prep for playwriting class

by sven at 12:08 pm

I'm going to be taking an 8-week playwriting class starting Saturday. It sounded like fun -- and I want to put myself in a context that forces me to put what I've been reading about into practice.

Why Playwriting Is Relevant To Stopmoes

I view all creative fiction as related: the novel, the short story, the film script, the stage play. However, I think playwriting may be what is most relevant to creating stopmo scripts. Unlike novels and short stories, scripts for plays prohibit writing internal thought. Everything has to be visible action.

Playwriting also has a focus that I believe will speak to my particular weaknesses as a fantasist. There is an emphasis on the construction of "character" and what creates good "drama" that is not discussed so pointedly in the other realms of writing.

I could also point to the tendency of stage plays to have a limited number of sets and characters -- which is useful to the stopmoe who can't afford to fabricate "a cast of thousands." (Though this actually has more to do with the budgets of modern theaters than inherent limits of the form.)

The Best Stuff I've Learned About Playwriting Lately

In preparation for the class, I've been feverishly reviewing and digesting everything I've learned during the last year about story construction. I'm going to haphazardly throw out a few of the best concepts I've gleaned:

1) The "iceberg" principle
Only 10% of the world that you create is going to appear on stage. Explore the backstory of your characters fully. Then, when you frame a portion of their storyline on stage, it is sure to be rich with subtext and detail. Give yourself permission to generate far more material than you need -- then you can select the best bits to share.

2) The "treatment"
Before you write a story, describe what you're going to write in summary form. Describing what you roughly imagine is going to happen makes the process of writing the real script far easier. Recognize that just as you may do several storyboards at varying levels of polish (thumbnail storyboard, polished storyboard, "storyreel" slideshow, 2D animatic with moving elements), so too you can write several varieties of treatment: an explanation of the key elements that make your story worth telling; a summary of your world's history; a summary of what occurs in the story frame; detailed summaries of what you want to happen in each scene.

3) 1000 question marks
Treatments are a form of summary for material you've already generated. The best way to generate new material is to start writing down questions. Try putting a question mark at the end of every sentence. Even when you propose an answer to one of your questions, frame it as a question, thus encouraging yourself to throw out additional possible answers. The most important thing is to keep typing non-stop -- don't pause! The work goes quickly, and excites the imagination. Use the "search" function on your word processor to look for question marks. If you haven't hit 1000 yet, it's unlikely that you've imagined and explored your story world deeply enough.

4) Auxiliary documents
The primary work of creating a story is accomplished by the "1000 question marks" method. As you create possibilities, you'll naturally begin seeing bits coming out that you like and want to keep. Develop a personal list of documents (in addition to the treatments) that you hope you'll have adequate information for by the end of the generation phase. These might include:

5) Personal vocabulary of images
Most of the work of writing boils down to this: identify all possible options, select your favorites, develop a logic that can successfully connect your best elements. However, this process doesn't address the fundamental issue of where to find ideas that you care about. Just as I advocate working from "rough to polished," there's an argument for working from "illogic to logic." Discover material that excites you not through brute intellect, but by intuitive emotion that is focussed on randomized inspirational materials. There are several ways to accomplish this. Collaging: Go through magazines as fast as you can, tearing out images that you find appealing -- without regard to why you're attracted to them; turn them into a collage -- now do stream-of-consciousness writing about what your juxtaposed images bring to mind; underline the bits of your writing that seem exciting. Memory: Gather a bowl of writing prompts (several books have lists); do stream-of-consciousness writing, proceed as described in the last method. (There are several more similar approaches.)

[Star Wars is held up as the quintessential expression of Joseph Campbell's "Hero's Journey" pattern... That's true -- but try looking at it as a collage instead: Lucas stitched together Tarzan, Errol Flynn sword fights, WWII dogfights, Kurosawa's "The Hidden Fortress." He found key images that spoke to him, which helped give the story its soul.]

6) Proof as you develop
As you develop germs of ideas into fleshed out story worlds, keep a check-list similar to this one at hand... As you work, make certain that all of these necessities are ultimately being satisfied.

  1. Does your story have a conflict?
  2. Does your story have any one focal character?
  3. Who is the focal character of the story?
  4. Is the POV character different from the main character?
  5. Has the main/POV character received deep characterization?
  6. What does your character desperately want/need in life?
  7. What is the main problem/conflict of the story?
  8. Does the problem/conflict confirm the centrality of the main character?
  9. When does the conflict/problem become apparent in your storyline?
  10. Does the start of the story clearly establish what the problem/conflict is?
  11. Does the resolution of the story answer the same problem/conflict established at the beginning?

7) Conflict is over physical objects of symbolic significance
Every scene is structured around a conflict. Characters seldom address conflict openly. Meaning is invested into objects, which the characters battle over. (Every scene has a "mcguffin.") Understand the deep yearnings of your story people -- but then look for how it's expressed in terms of props or even people that they want to possess.

[Try analyzing Star Wars in terms of how each scene is an argument about a mcguffin. (a) Vader to Leia: Where are those plans? (b) C3PO to R2D2: I reject your route (it's much too rocky). (c) Luke to Uncle Owen: I want to go get power converters. (d) Ben to Luke: I want you to come with me to Alderaan... Which is resolved by killing off Owen and Beru. (f) Ben to Han: I want use of your ship. ...etc.]

posted by sven | January 29, 2009 12:08 PM | categories: writing