REPOST- Ben Musgrave on Scene and Action

Now in it’s 14th year, the Bruntwood Prize has had some brilliant free resources for developing writers. Throughout 2019, we’ll go back into the archives to re-post some materials that haven’t been available on this site before. Ben Musgrave’s PRETEND YOU HAVE BIG BUILDINGS won first prize in the inaugural Bruntwood Prize. The play was performed in the main house of the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, in July 2007, as part of the Manchester International Festival, and was translated into German.

Ben was subsequently commissioned by the National Theatre. His commission for Y Touring, BREATHING COUNTRY, in association with the Royal Academy of Engineering and the Wellcome Trust, toured the country in 2009-10, and was shortlisted for the Theatre Centre Brian Way award for the Best New Play for Young People. In 2009, he worked with David Watson and Paula Stanic on a piece for Only Connect – PANCRAS BOYS CLUB. His play for the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, EXAMS ARE GETTING EASIER, was performed by the Young REP in April 2010. HIS TEETH, for Only Connect, was performed in October 2011. It was Evening Standard and Time Out Critics’ Choice, and was nominated for an award for best new play. POLITRIX, for The Big House, was at the Hackney Showrooms in March/April 2015. ACROSS THE DARK WATER, for The Point in Eastleigh, toured venues on the south coast in July 2015. CRUSHED SHELLS AND MUD, which was developed on attachment at the NT Studio, opened at the Southwark Playhouse in October 2015. He is currently under commission to The Big House and Tara Arts, and is developing a new interactive performance project with Ice and Fire. He is also developing a new play, MAD BEES RIOT IN THE LIGHT, supported by the Arts Council / British Council Artists International Development Fund.


Some of the most marvellous experiences of theatre are those that happen on the level of the scene – those moments when we’re lost deep in the play, when the lights are burning down hot on actors, when we can feel their hearts thump. And then a character does something remarkable. Something awful, something wonderful, something entirely unexpected. Some action occurs: she kisses him, he forgives her, she plucks his eyes out. Sometimes the purest kind of writing doesn’t care about the ‘overall scheme’ of the play, it cares only about the moment it is in. The purest kind of theatre doesn’t plan, doesn’t need graphs depicting diagonals of rising tension – instead it responds instinctively (viciously, carefully, shockingly) to what has happened in the previous instant.


Exercise: Flow

  1. Choose two characters from your play. They are going to meet. This need not be a scene from your actual play.
  2. Where are they?
  3. What are they carrying?
  4. What was the darkest dream they had last night?
  5. What would they like to do the other character?
  6. Now write 20 lines of dialogue, very fast, beginning a scene in which your characters meet. Write very fast – write the very first thing your brain throws up, even if it’s rude or boring or rubbish. A physical character-action in stage directions counts as a line of dialogue.


You’ll have written now a short scene or semi-scene, rapidly constructed, the result of your brain leaping in a panic between scanty floorboards, free-running, suddenly moving one way and then the other, always keeping moving. There may be something of a flow about the writing, a musicality, a sense of rising mood. Did anything exciting or unexpected happen? Outside of the expected ‘scheme’ of the scene? Listen to the unexpected things. Prod them and ask questions of them.


The Tactician

But ‘free-running’ is only one approach we can take to writing a scene. It’s just one of the things our brain can do. Inspiration is one thing, but sometimes it helps to stop at key junctions and think. To step back from the melee of your play, then, carefully, or recklessly, throw something in – just so, at that angle.


  1. Look again at your scene. Identify the moments where your character has acted, in some way. Where they’ve slagged off the other character, where they’ve retreated, where they’ve counter-attacked, where they’ve moved in for reconciliation, where they’ve gone in for the kill.
  2. Return to the first moment of decisive action. List four alternative things the character could have done. Instead of hitting him, could she not smear his glasses up his face? Or kiss his eyelids?
  3. Choose the best action.
  4. Now move to the next character. How do they change their response? List five ways they could respond to the first action.
  5. Choose the best action.
  6. And so on.


A writer – I can’t remember who – suggested that our best ideas are not always the first ones we have. Certainly, I often write in a flow, free-running, and I imagine what I’m doing is absolutely glorious. And then I read it a week later, with horror at the awful predictability of it. And then I think ‘well, what else could they do’? Instead of shouting, what else could he do? This writer I can’t remember, she suggested I think that you choose the third idea you come to.


They say that listening to Mozart makes you smarter. Why? Because Mozart subverts the expectation you have about the chord that will follow. You’re expecting a nice resolution of what has been set up, and then Mozart just comes along and, with obnoxious genius, throws in something you didn’t expect. It expands our neurons’ minds, gives them the willies, shows them the world is more delicious than they thought.

The point, I suppose, is that once you’ve gone with the flow, you can begin to make brilliant decisions for your characters. The ‘genius beat’. There’s a bit in Winterlong, Andy Sheridan’s unforgettable play, when Neil is trying to get John to sit down. But John won’t let Neil order him around, and refuses to sit, ‘making a stand’. Neil’s response is astonishing. I won’t print it here. It’s on page 31 of the playtext.




Drama comes about as a result of character action. As I write more, I realise more and more how this is more than a truism. A scene is not about a symphonic triumph of language, or its jokes, or its colours, or its philosophical insights, it’s about what characters do to themselves, and to each other, and how that changes them. And of course, in order for those actions to be meaningful to us (meaningful, at least in the guts) we need to be able to follow the characters. We need to have a sense of what they want. There’s so much written about this elsewhere – about character wants, or motivations, or drives, or unconscious desires that I don’t need to go into this here, but it’s worth saying again that there is an invisible law of theatre, the first law of theatre perhaps: characters exist through their actions. We understand characters through what they do, and what they do is driven by their deep desires and motivation. If you look closely at characters in successful scenes, you begin to notice how every line really stands in for an action – an attack, a gesture of love, a deception.


Action a scene…

Take a scene from your play. Work through it, attaching a transitive verb to each line. What interests you? Does the action of the scene develop? Or are the characters stuck in a rut, rigidly performing the same action over again (a stalemate)? If they are, perhaps someone needs to give in, or do something else. Scenes need to contain a moment of significant change – some shift in the characters’ fortunes.

How do the actions of your characters reflect what you suspect to be the deep desires of your characters? Are there any actions that don’t feel true, about that person?



Theatre can be incredibly hard to write because fundamentally it needs to be very simple. Despite their gorgeous complexity, people are very simple. There’s a finite number of feelings, and actions. It’s no coincidence that people bang on about the universal appeal of Shakespeare – if we didn’t all empathise with King Lear’s pitiful grief at the death of Cordelia, or hope that Iago doesn’t manage to perpetuate horrible injustice through his terrible deceit, the plays would be meaningless to us today. They explore human actions that we easily understand and relate to.


Scenes – and plays – go wrong when writers try to do much with a scene, or a character, or when there’s a muddiness or confusion about what a character is doing. A character can have contradictions, but they can only perform one action at once.  And even our actions are fundamentally very simple. Noel Greig, in his invaluable Playwriting: A Practical Guide argues that ‘all psychological interactions between people can be categorised under any one of three active headings: I attack, I retreat, I stand my ground.’ Within this simplicity, of course, can come great variety – attacking, we can criticise, command, degrade, humour, tickle; retreating, we can withdraw, collapse, abandon, and so on…


Scenes contain many small actions, but, as I mention above, they tend to feature a significant moment of change (which has wider implications for the play as a whole). I think it’s really important to realise that a scene can’t do too many things at once – can’t contain too many different sorts of change. Otherwise we pull focus from other significant events. In the scene in which a man declares his love for his best friend’s wife, it’s really distracting when he gets a phone call from important clients telling him he’s failed to get the contract for the skyscraper he was trying to build. Where both are important story elements, it’s confusing to deal with both at once.


Most importantly, though, scenes must be stageable. You can dissect a text all you like, but there’s something about theatre that means you can’t test the stage-worthiness of a scene until you see it with actors. The other day I had a workshop for the first draft of a play I’ve just written. People were very positive about the play on the page, but as soon as the actors picked it up, as soon as they stood up with it, and spoke it, it became clear that it wasn’t simple enough, it became clear that one character was muddled, and another character was too passive, and had no presence.



1) Look again at your scene, and divide it into sections, drawing a line when you reach a moment of change – a noticeable shift in the action for example. Name each section. What is it ‘about’? When you have finished, look again at the composition of your scene. Is it about too much? Does it move smoothly towards the moment of decisive change, in the scene? How many such decisive moments does the scene contain? How could this scene be simplified?

2) Have your work read out, or better still, stood up. Use friends, actors, or do it yourself – but nothing else will help you ‘see’ your play as seeing it performed.


Noel Greig, Playwriting: A Practical Guide, Routledge, London, p169

Published on:
15 Feb 2019


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