EXTRACT: Five essential playwriting tips from Stephen Jeffreys
How do you write a great play? Renowned dramatist and teacher Stephen Jeffreys lays out five things to think about, in these extracts from his…
This is an edited extract from The Playwright’s Journey by Jemma Kennedy – out now, published by Nick Hern Books (Publishing Partner of the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting). Save 20% when you order your copy direct from the NHB website: https://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/playwrights-journey.
Jemma Kennedy is a playwright and screenwriter. She has been writing for the stage since 2004, when her first play was placed in the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Write 2 Playwriting Competition. Her work has been seen internationally, including at Hampstead Theatre and the National Theatre, London, where she has been both playwright-in-residence and teacher of playwriting.
The problem is that if you (the writer) and/or we (the audience) don’t understand what’s motivating the characters to feel, behave and act – if you/we can’t sense a logic to their actions arising from their emotions – then the story will ultimately disappoint. So when I ask a writer, ‘Where’s the emotional logic?’ I am really asking, ‘How do the key events of your play relate to the nature/desires/needs of your protagonist?’, or ‘Where’s the narrative cause and effect in relation to human behaviour?’ And the most damning question of all: ‘Why don’t we care enough about your story?’
One of the key elements that all good stories share is causality – a relationship between cause and effect – and it should exist in the story events of your play as well as the characters’ actions. The external events are what make up your plot. By this I mean concrete things that the audience can see happening on stage, alongside those that take place before the play starts, and/or offstage.
We could sum up the plot of Hamlet like this: a young prince whose beloved father, the king, has recently died, receives a supernatural message that his uncle murdered the king. He swears to avenge his father and embarks on a journey to find out if this is true, and then to trap his uncle into confessing he was the murderer, using subterfuge, bullying, and finally theatrics. Along the way he kills his uncle’s advisor, drives his romantic interest to suicide, and ultimately dies after poisoning his uncle. Even in this very condensed breakdown, we start to get a sense of character. It’s clear that the driving action of the play is motivated by Hamlet’s desire for revenge as well as his grief for his murdered father. So there is a causality to his behaviour as well as an emotional logic – both apparent in this most basic outline.
The plots of plays may be dramatic in the sense of seismic events within institutions: deaths of kings and queens, wars, betrayals, murders, decisions with far-reaching consequences. Or they may be dramatic in a very small way: men and women putting their differences aside for a few hours in a bar while they drink and share stories. But the plot – or the what – is only one part of a story. To create a truly dramatic story, you also need plenty of why.
THE ‘WHY’ OF STORY VERSUS THE ‘WHAT’ OF PLOT
I read a useful definition of ‘story’ in an article by the writer and story coach Lisa Cron. For Cron, a story is: ‘about how what happens affects someone in pursuit of a deceptively difficult goal and then how that person, the protagonist, changes internally as a result, how their world view changes.’
Cron analyses and works with novels, not plays, but I think the principle she is articulating transcends form. If the plot is the events in a play that take place in a particular place or time over a particular period of time, and the structure of a play is how you choose to arrange, sequence and present those events, then story is what the experience of those events means to your characters. Story is really emotion. Internal change only comes about when characters experience, process, reflect and adjust. In other words, how they look for meaning in their lives – as we all do. Like us, characters act and react, act and react, act and react. What these events mean to them and how they cause them to feel, think, speak and act, are at the heart of all good plays. Dramatic characters thus effect and affect the plot – they create the story.
Your sense of your character will be rooted in a unique particularity based on environment, genes and biology, life experience, emotional make-up, habits; what we could reduce rather crassly to three ‘-ology’s: psychology, physiology and sociology. This doesn’t mean that every single character in your play must have a driving goal, a series of obstacles, and a grand climactic battle resulting in some sort of epiphany or catharsis. But it’s usually the case that one or two characters in every play will drive the action – and in every case it’s the psychological and emotional wrangling between them that holds our attention. This is where the work starts, often before you’ve written a single word of dialogue. Story is created when we understand – or want to understand – why characters are acting as they are.
Of course, sometimes you know exactly who your characters are in their bones. You’ve lived with them for months or years; their voices in your head are crystal clear; you have a deep sense of their emotions and thoughts and feelings. As a dramatist, your job is to then externalise all of that into action on the stage. That means, yes, giving the characters enough to do, but also giving the audience a sense of how the characters are emotionally joining the dots in the story.
Many first plays are full of interesting people doing interesting things, saying interesting sentences, and experiencing interesting predicaments. But none of this will constitute a truly engaging story unless we, the audience, understand what is driving the people reacting to the events, making the choices, and dealing with the consequences.