BWW Blog: Adam Brandner - Breaking the Rules: A Guide for Young Playwrights
You can go anywhere on the Internet and Google how to write a play. You will likely get generic answers like: Understand your theater space, write realistic dialogue, create characters the audience can relate to, write suspenseful stories with high stakes, and don't be afraid to rewrite and make edits. All of these simple statements are true, but they can turn off a beginning writer because they aren't specific enough. In this piece, I'd like to offer some unique perspective for a young writer that is just beginning. Here you will read about my personal tricks for developing characters and finding your individual voice as a writer.
While watching this year's 2013 US Tennis Open, I saw Serena Williams in an interview say that she would be reviewing her film to improve upon her game for the later rounds of the tournament. She absolutely dominated her opponent. What did she need to learn? Her answer was that you can always get better. You can always grow, and your past efforts can improve your future ones.
This adage can be paralleled with the playwriting process as well. My advice to young writers is simply to put pen to paper and just write. Frequently. Don't forget to always save what you write. You never know when it will come in handy.
The purpose of saving your writing is not to look back and see how terrible you used to be. The purpose is to have a window into the your mindset at that moment in time. For instance, I still have writing samples that I did when I was fifteen. Now twenty-six, I can flip through my writings of the past and obviously say my skill level has improved. But we as artists can find another use for old journals or diaries besides a quick confidence boost. When writing characters that are a different age then myself currently, I try to get inside the mind of a person of that specific age. Older characters are hardest to write for me because I haven't experienced an older mindset as of yet. Going through my old journals though, I find a window into my fifteen-year-old psyche. At fifteen, the way I wrote was very sophomoric but it reminded me how I viewed the world, myself, my environment, and so many other aspects of life. Simply perusing the then life-altering events of my world can thrust me back into exactly how I felt when I wrote what I wrote. It reminds me how my mind worked at that specific age which can really help me write a fifteen-year-old character. Most characters will not mirror my fifteen-year-old mindset, but it's an excellent place to start. Had I discarded said sophomoric writing, that window would be lost. Never rely on your memory. Memories can get twisted and morphed into false truths over time. They say smell is the sense most tied into memory because the olfactory nerve is very close to the hippocampus, which is associated with memory. Well I will go one step further to say that reading my old writing samples causes me to remember how things smelled in that moment and that can further thrust me back into my old environment. Sometimes I'll even jot down in my journals smells that I can remember in order to really keep my mind sharp. For instance my old wood shop in middle school used to smell like lemon. That note helps me take myself back with better accuracy. It's a very powerful feeling to go back with such vivid clarity.
Having this trick in my back pocket really helped me understand how to write characters. However, what about form? What about plot structure? Pre-Modern and Modern Theatre History courses that I took at Ball State University helped me with that. When looking at a blank piece of paper, you can get intimidated. Having so many possibilities can frustrate a beginning writer. I've crumpled up and thrown away more pieces of notebook paper than I care to remember. In fact, I had to switch to typing rough drafts because I began to feel guilty about all of the trees I was wasting with my awful early attempts. I didn't have a voice as a writer yet. What is a voice? What is a tone? How do I get one? What am I trying to say? These questions ran through my head each time I'd open a new blank Word document. It wasn't until that I started studying the 'Isms' that I really began to understand framework, style, and voice.
The 'Isms' were all a youth movements and they were also radical experiments with form. They all explored modes of perception and voice. They blurred artistic boundaries, which for thousands of years had become tradition. They were new forms of writing that were a part of a specific time period or specific location in the world. These 'Isms' are much like my old journals that gave me a window into my past. 'Isms' are a window into writing styles, forms, and attitudes of the past. They showed me guidelines, perspective, and artistic voices that were all new to me. Reading plays that would fall into the 'Ism' categories, would really help me understand the main ideas of each 'Ism.'