REPOST- Story on Stage- Duncan Macmillan

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. 

Duncan Macmillan is an award-winning writer and theatre director whose plays include Lungs, Every Brilliant Thing and 2071 (all published by Oberon Books). His play People, Places and Things transferred from the National Theatre to the West End in 2016.

Duncan Macmillan’s other plays include: 1984, co-adapted/co-directed with Robert Icke (Headlong/Nottingham Playhouse, UK tour, Almeida Theatre and West End); The Forbidden Zone (Salzburg Festival/Schaubühne Berlin); Wunschloses Unglück, adapt. Peter Handke (Burgtheater Vienna); Reise durch die Nacht, adapt. Friederike Mayröcker created with Katie Mitchell and Lyndsey Turner (Schauspielhaus Köln, Theatertreffen, Festival d’Avignon), Atmen (Schaubühne Berlin); Monster (Royal Exchange/Manchester International Festival).

Monster won the Bruntwood Prize in 2015, its first year

We are cavemen. That is, our brains haven’t changed since our ancestors gathered around a fire to hear the hunters tell stories of their adventures. They would learn important lessons not by receiving cold facts, but by using their empathy and imagination. The better the listeners were at putting themselves in the stories they heard, the more likely they were to survive long enough to pass on their genes. In short, through natural selection, we have become a species who give a particular quality of attention to the words ‘Once upon a time’ because what follows may just save our lives.


Exercise One

Tell someone the story of your play. Don’t read it to them, don’t use notes, don’t talk about the themes of the play, just make them a cup of tea, sit them down and tell them your story. Do they get bored? Are they confused? Do they laugh or cry or gasp or get so lost in your story that they let their tea go cold? Does it make them angry or sad or excited or do they just smile afterwards and tell you, unconvincingly, that ‘it’s really good, yeah, yeah definitely it’s…yeah.’ We all know the feeling of an audience becoming restless and disengaged but it’s difficult to sense in our own work. That is, until it’s up on stage in front of a room full of strangers. Then you really feel it. Stand up comedians call it ‘dying.’ Better to get a sense of that now and work to rectify it. The one thing we should all strive for in our writing (and it’s harder than it seems) is that it shouldn’t be boring.


No doubt there are many of you reading this who feel that this doesn’t apply to your play – your writing doesn’t work like this, it’s more formally innovative or thematically driven, the very idea of thinking of your work in this way feels regressive, limiting, uninspiring. You’d be in good company. The chaos and atrocity which defined the 20th Century engendered a skepticism about the stories we’d been reassuring ourselves with, the cultural narratives we’d constructed. Artists attacked their own work and that of previous generations, deconstructing assumptions about what painting, sculpture or literature should be, what it should look like, how it should be made and what its function was. Many audiences and theatre makers distrusted linear story structures, single-authored, message-driven work, often funded by the state. Story, along with the proscenium arch, mannered performances, wooden sets and comforting moral conclusions were seen by many as bourgeois, outdated, dishonest, even fascist. They’re still regarded this way by many people. For them, it simply doesn’t reflect the way they experience the world.


But the formal innovations couldn’t cancel out story. The stories they told may have been cyclical, repetitive or illogical, they may have had a disrupted chronology or may have defied audiences expectations but they were still stories. Kick against it, play with it, bend it’s rules but ignore story at your peril for the simple fact that if we see a person enter a space our minds automatically begin making assumptions, looking for clues, constructing a narrative, projecting our own experience on to them. Again, we have our caveman brains to thank for this. On the plains of the Savannah, when our ancestors heard a rustle in a nearby bush or saw a shadow on the wall of a cave, they assumed it was a predator and ran. We know this because we’re here. Those who stopped to investigate never lived long enough to pass on their genes. We descended from those who imagined a bush was a snake and a shadow was a lion. So here we are, seeing faces in clouds and swearing at our printers as if they have human agency. Without even trying, we piece together clues and make stories. So do our audiences. As playwrights we need to acknowledge this and be in charge of it.


Exercise Two

A week or so after telling your story, make another cup of tea, sit down again with the person you told and get them to tell you the story. Don’t warn them that you’re going to ask them to do this.


How much has stayed with them? Has it made any impact on their imagination? Do they add stuff that you hadn’t thought of? Are you surprised by what they leave out? Do you feel bored by it? Does it sound like something you’d want to see?

One way to think about story is that it’s about setting up certain expectations and then subverting them in a surprising way. The gap between expectation and result is what makes something compelling.


Think about your favourite scene in a play. It’s likely that it has some sort of recognisable event structure – a dinner or interview or wedding or funeral. By locating a scene in a particular ritual or routine, the audience immediately constructs a set of expectations regarding the rules of that world and what is likely to happen, what is at stake and what the time pressure is. It’s then your job as writer to disrupt those expectations. The more concrete and detailed the ritual, the freer you are to subvert expectations. Pinter was great at this. For all the absurd digression and elusive meaning in his work, you only need to look at his titles to see the framework he’s operating within ‘The Birthday Party’, ‘The Caretaker’, ‘The Homecoming’, ‘Celebration’ – all titles which create a set of expectations in the minds of the audience which he then disrupts.

Exercise Three
Take a scene you’re working on and decide on the routine/ritual it depicts. This could be a large, public, sacramental ceremony like a wedding or funeral (or King’s Speech or performance of Swan Lake for instance), or it can be miniature and domestic, like getting ready for bed, brushing your teeth or checking your Facebook profile.

Write out every moment that ritual typically consists of – eg. standing at the sink, selecting a toothbrush, picking up the paste, applying paste to the brush, wetting the brush, raising brush to mouth etc.

List as many ways as you can of subverting each of these moments. Perhaps something interrupts from outside the room, perhaps the toothbrush has gone or the paste has been squeezed from the middle instead of the end, perhaps teeth start falling out into the sink. Some may be dull and predictable, some may be surreal and fantastical. This is separate from the play in progress, so allow yourself to play, forget about what happens in your story and just experiment. Keep asking ‘what if’, ‘what if…’ Give yourself a few minutes and try to write fifty things that could happen.

Go back over your list and circle anything that strikes you as interesting, funny, dangerous, frightening.

Do this for every scene in your play.

At best you may unlock something that hasn’t been working in a scene or discover a brand new idea. At the very least you’ll understand the expectations your audiences will be forming and be able to see if you’re presenting something more interesting than they had anticipated.


Every review of my Bruntwood play, ‘Monster’, listed the themes of the play – race, education, mental health, childhood, parenthood, religion – and this, for me, is what the play is truly about. But the themes were all byproducts of the story. All I started with was the impulse to put an audience in the same room as a vulnerable and angry woman confronting a disturbed teenage boy with a knife in his hand. I know other writers who would argue with me on this but it’s been my bitter experience that we writers frequently get in the way of our own writing by worrying too much about theme or concept. What we should be focusing on is writing truthfully, by which I mean honestly representing life as we experience it. Of course we want our work to be meaningful and to resonate beyond the purely domestic, but I think the best way to do this is to discover your theme as you write, not the other way round. It can be impossible to find the detailed human interaction or compelling metaphor when starting with a huge topic – climate change for example or the financial crisis or, worse, an abstract noun or vague concept like ‘terror’ or ‘grief’ or ‘home’. If you’re really interested in these subjects, if they’re things you’re thinking, reading and talking about then they’ll find their way into your work without you having to crowbar them in.


Exercise Four

List all of the choices your characters are forced to make in your play. What is the time pressure for each decision? What is at stake? What makes the decision difficult? What is the risk they take? What are the consequences? What is surprising about the decision they make?


It’s easy to write a play in which nobody has to make a decision. Such plays will be dramatically inert.


Plot is character. There’s a long and dull debate about which is more important but they’re the same thing. The only time we really learn what a character is really like is through the choices they make when faced with tough decisions. Those decisions further the plot. Plot is character. For me, theatre is ‘live decision making’. Audiences want to see characters taking risks, to see them go out of the comfort zone and into harms way, to see what they’re capable of when they’re in jeopardy. Make the dilemmas clear and the decisions difficult. Allow your characters to make surprising choices. Don’t ever second guess what an audience will find surprising, truthful or interesting. The only question is – do you find it surprising? Truthful? Do you find it interesting, compelling, exciting? Does it depict the world in a way which is different to anything else you’ve seen and which feels accurate to your experience of it? In reading your play back do you discover something that you hadn’t previously considered? If you’ve written a good play, it will, in some way, be smarter than you are. This is good, because, whoever you are, the audience is also smarter than you are. I have that fact written on a post-it above my desk.


I can’t wait to see the winning plays. If you don’t win, don’t stop. No-one writes a masterpiece first time round. You’ll learn with every new thing you write. Go to the theatre as often as you can. Read plays. Keep writing.


Good luck.

Published on:
7 Mar 2019


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  1. I am in the process of writing a 15 minute play and am nearing completion of a first draft. Along with the David Eldridge’s workshop this has been tremendously inspiring and helpful. Hoping to submit a full length to Bruntwood this year. Thank you Duncan.

    5:08 pm, 11 Mar 2019