I wrote my first children's play in high school. It was about a little boy who found a watermelon and imagined it was a dinosaur egg. A nosy neighbor girl insisted it was a 'plain ol' melon' which caused the boy to doubt his sense of imagination. In a final climax, the two fought over the fruit and in the scuffle lost control as it rolled down a hill. The girl gave up on it, but when the boy finally found the cracked rind, he was able to find value in the 'ruined' melon by imagining the dinosaur inside had hatched and he resumed his game to find it.
My theater teacher chose my script to be performed in class. As I watched two actors portray the children, I realized the magic of script writing. The actors enhanced my story by adding vocal inflections, movement, and props. They used my creativity as a point to jump off from and created something all their own.
Now, I'm writing a full length musical. It's a bigger task, but the rewarding memory from high school keeps me chasing the dream. I've been working on this collaborative project for over a year now and I am amazed at how often script writing skills reflect on my career as a novelist. Here are a few reasons why I think you should try writing a stage play.
1. It will teach you how to outline.
Script writing is very formulaic. Before you write a single line of dialogue, you construct what is called a scenario. A scenario is a incredibly detailed outline of your story. To begin, lets start with the concept behind Fiddler on the Roof. A concept is an idea that has a problem, rising conflict, then a resolution. Here's an example.
Concept: A poor, Jewish milkman, Tevye, relies on God to see his family through the struggles of matchmaking, upholding traditions, and enduring persecution.
Once the concept is developed, you are going to do it over again on a slightly smaller scale by dividing the concept into acts. Acts have their own story arc underneath the concept: they have their own problem, conflict and resolution.
Fiddler on the Roof- Act 1: Tevye must decide on a suitor for his oldest daughter. Should he give her to a wealthy old man who would give her stability, or a poor young man whom she loves? The resolution of Act 1 is revealed at her wedding when the choice has been made.
Stage plays have anywhere between 1-5 acts. Unless it's the final act, ensure that the resolution still hints of overarching conflicts yet to come. If it doesn't, the audience might get up and leave before it's over. For example: At the end of act 1, even though Tevye's daughter is happily married, their wedding is crashed by Russian Catholic soldiers who claim their vandalism is just a small demonstration for what is to come.
After you have segmented the acts, we move on to scenes. Scenes are an even smaller division of the action. It usually revolves around a change in location or group of characters. Here is a few division of scenes in Fiddler.
Act 1: Prologue- Tevye is outside his house explaining the traditions of the community. The full cast is involved.
Act 1: Scene 1- Tevye's wife and daughters get ready for the Sabbath, inside the house. Only the lead characters are onstage.
Act 1: Scene 2- Tevye returns from his delivery route and prays for wealth outside his home. Only Tevye is onstage.
Think that's it? Nope. We're going to dive even further into the outline by creating segments. Segments are verbal exchanges between characters. So, let's look at the prologue of Fiddler again to see what the segments would look like.
Act 1: Prologue
Segment a: Tevye monologues about the hardships of living in Anatevka
Segment b: Village celebrates traditions.
Segment c: Tevye monologues about traditions giving each person a place in the community.
Segment d: Men detail their responsibilities.
Segment e: Women detail their responsibilities.
Segment f: Sons detail their responsibilities.
Segment g: Daughters detail their responsibilities.
Segment h: Tevye introduces the main characters in the village.
Segment i: Men question the Rabbi.
The final element and smallest category of the scenario is called a beat. Beats are the topic points hit in the dialogue. Let's look at a final example:
Act 1: Prologue
Segment i: Men question the Rabbi
Beat #1: Leibesh approaches the Rabbi.
Beat #2: Leibesh asks if there is a blessing for the tzar.
Beat #3: The Rabbi blesses the Tzar to stay away from them.
Following this kind of detailing will make writing the script fly. You'll be able to point out flaws before you even write them and you will NEVER hit writers block because you always know exactly what the next step should be. This method is a recipe for success, especially when you work collaboratively. I've heard of novelists doing this kind of detailed outlining by writing a concept , then writing a paragraph for acts, scenes/chapters, segments within the chapter, and pages. I'm thinking of trying that method this Nanowrimo. We'll see what happens!
2. It will elevate your use of dialogue.
Before I go into this, I want to discuss the difference between writing a stage play and a screenplay. In movie making, most of what comes from the script is visual. Camera cuts, emotional close ups, etc. Movies are a visual way of storytelling.
On a stage, there is an immense distance between the actors and the audience. Nuances are not going to be caught. So, stage directions in a script are limited to basic entrances, exits and crucial plot points involving props and interactions with other characters. You can't say "deliver this line with a smirk" in the script. That's for the actor to decide. Instead, your dialogue needs to be so strong that it can't be misunderstood. It's a bit like writing poetry, where every word is vital and can't be placed lazily. If you need your dialogue to be said angrily, the words must be so emotionally charged that no matter what way they are said, it will have the same affect.
To say "I hate you" can be said with malice or affectionate sarcasm.
But to say "I hope you become allergic to bacon" has a definite sarcasm about it and won't be misconstrued.
Another benefit is you'll learn how to use conversation to progress a plot. Nobody wants to watch a play that is being narrated the whole time. Reading long passages of descriptive text in a novel is basically the same thing. Audiences and viewers want to be in the characters heads, observing their interactions, not being told what the narrator saw. Dialogue reads much faster than descriptive text, and gives the reader an enhanced feeling of progress through the plot when it's done right. You'll need to study character motivation, tension, conflict, and voice to create the interesting dynamic people want to watch between characters. When you take those skills back to your novel, you'll be amazed at how your characters come alive. It's easy to fill in the details between the dialogue after its' written.
3. Working with others allows you to expand your creativity.
Writing a stage play is anything but solitary work. It requires so many different hands! When someone else interprets your work by performing it, you get to know your characters in ways you may never have realized. Every time an artist illustrates a part of my book, a musician composes a song around a plot point I helped draft, or an actor recites a line I wrote, I'm blown away by how organic creative writing can be. The composer I am working with talks about music as a living, breathing entity. She says the songs change and mature on their own sometimes and she hates to write it down because it feels like killing it.
For me I approached art in a very different way. I like to get things set in stone. I love editing and polishing until it's sparkly and done. I love checking boxes on my to-do list. So, when we came together, we both learned something amazing. Writing her music down doesn't kill it- it enables it to pass to other hands to be interpreted in new ways. Turning in my finalized dialogue for the script doesn't mean it is complete, because the composer found a better way to say it with music. By looking at writing from different artistic angles, we learn more about the craft. I encourage you to try it. One of my favorite books on this subject is called "The Artists Way". One of the things she talks about is how to 'fill your creative well' by looking at beautiful photographs, listening to music, experiencing nature. That way you'll have something to draw from when you go to perform in your own medium. If you're feeling blocked, try it. Go look at a picture, noticing the details you would draw from, the emotive qualities you want to portray. Richard G Scott said “Attempt to be creative, even if the results are modest. … Creativity can engender a spirit of gratitude for life and for what the Lord has woven into your being."
Being creative is how we enjoy life. And there's so many ways to be creative! Don't limit yourself to just one! Branch out, explore. I can't wait to see what you create.
Rachel works as a novelist and acquisitions editor for Immortal Works Press. You can find her in southern California where she enjoys sand at its finest: the beach and the desert. She homeschools her two little boys, writes science fiction and fantasy novels, and reads bedtime stories to her husband every night. Her first novel, Shattered Snow, will be released in January 2019.
We're all writers, we're all moms, writing our way through the "brambles" of life and our stories.