Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting, Quick Tips and Tricks

The 3 Golden Rules of Playwriting

Whenever you get lost or stuck writing a play, there are three fundamental rules that will most always get you back on track. I like to call them the Three Golden Rules of Playwriting. Let’s go over them, shall we?

1 – Keep things as simple as possible, but no simpler.

The first rule reminds us to keep things clear and efficient without sacrificing any storytelling needs. Strive to get things as basic as possible in your story without leaving the audience in the dark. Audiences are smart; they need only the whiff or indication of something happening to pick up on it, so no need to over-explain anything. Always be thinking of ways you can reduce, streamline, and economize your storytelling. Favor potency over volume.

2 – The play is about one thing.

In the same vein, keep your story centered around one thing, one main action, theme, or idea. Some call this the “super objective”, or the one thing the entire play tends toward. The main action of your plot should be easy to communicate in a short, succinct sentence or two, and it should be basic enough that anyone can understand its dynamics right away (e.g. Hamlet is the story of a Danish prince who attempts to avenge his father’s murder).

3 – Rewriting is the real work.

When Muhammad Ali was training, he wouldn’t even start counting sit-ups until they began to hurt, since that was the real work. No pain, no gain. The same holds true for playwriting. First drafts are relatively painless, since they are composed safely away from the scrutiny of peers. The real work (and pain) begins in the rewriting, when you expose it to the world, get feedback, and fine-tune the piece to be more focused, lean, and mean.

So there are my Three Golden Rules for Playwriting. Maybe they will help and maybe you already knew them, but they are always good to keep in your back pocket, especially when you are trying to get unstuck. Until next time, happy writing!






Playcraft and Analysis, Playwriting, Quick Tips and Tricks

5 Tips for Overcoming Writer’s Block

What if I told you that there’s really no such thing as “writer’s block”? Well there isn’t. It’s a term dreamed up by people who aren’t writers. The truth is any act of creative writing is just extremely difficult, and rarely flows without interruption.

Writing is an act of serious alchemy, like spinning wool into gold. Creating something from nothing with zero instructions is always an impossible task. No matter how much you’ve written before, no matter what pedigrees or education you possess, new projects always start from square one. Every playwright, from Shakespeare to Sarah Ruhl, has struggled with the unknown.

Plays in particular are highly orchestrated magic tricks that take preparation, planning, and lots of stopping and starting. Hitting a wall in a creative process is inevitable, just like embarking down an unknown trail can sometimes lead to impassable terrain. Calling it “writer’s block”, as if it is some affliction out of our control, is a way of avoiding the work.

So you can lament about your writer’s block, or you can shift your perspective a bit to overcome it. Here are some quick tips that have worked for me:

  1. Stop seeking perfection – We can develop good technique, we can increase the speed and alacrity at which we write, but we will never get “good” at writing plays in general. The best we can do is become “good” at writing this play. When you get stuck, remember the point is not to get it right, but to get it written. You can always rewrite later.
  2. Write out of sequence – It can be tempting to write your play in a linear fashion from beginning to end. However it can force you into writing scenes you do not yet know how to write, and create nasty logjams. Focus instead on writing the scenes you are excited to write, the scenes you know, even if they are out of sequence. It makes it easier to fill-in-the-blanks with those scenes you haven’t figured out yet.
  3. Read a book – Do you have a favorite play or fiction book handy? If you find yourself stuck, stop writing and start reading immediately. It’s extremely easy to get stuck in your own head while writing, and simply taking a break to read what others have written can help get you back into the present moment, increase your empathy for your characters, and shake you out of a rut.
  4. Draw diagrams – If the magic isn’t flowing through the keyboard, take a step back to your fundamentals and draw some free-form story diagrams. These don’t have to be case-crackers, but they will help you visualize the story from a different perspective, hopefully shaking some things loose in your head.
  5. Take a break – Chekhov said that “if you stare at the wall; it comes out of the wall.” This is a very Russian way of saying that if it’s not flowing it just isn’t flowing. But it will, because the whole story is inside you somewhere. So take a break, go outside, do human things, and try to put some space between it. Having faith that the answers will come eventually and putting it out of mind for a bit relaxes your brain and actually lets ideas flow easier.

Writer’s “block” is no affliction, only a natural part of the creative process. Resistance is futile, so embrace it. Hitting a wall in a story is just nature’s way of telling you it needs more thought, so don’t be afraid to give yourself a breather. Remember that when you put the actual words to the page, you are merely typing. Writing is a cognitive skill that involves lots of furrowed brows, several false starts, and copious wall-staring. But the hard work is the only work worth doing. Give yourself some time, use these tips, and you will be pleasantly surprised.