In the simplest possible terms ‘dramatic action’ is ‘what happens’. I think that plot or action should always come from character and I love it when characters surprise me by their choices. If as the playwright you are sitting emotionally detached, playing God and imposing plot then you might not be feeling your character strongly enough.
Put yourself in your characters shoes. Imagine that you are your character. Inhabit them physically. How does your body feel? Are you a different sex? Older? Younger? A different race? Record yourself on your phone or any other recording device. Just start talking as your character. Don’t filter or make any judgements no one else ever needs to listen to this. What is your character worried about? Hopeful about? What can’t they admit even to themselves? What makes them happy? Record your character for at least a minute but for as long as you like.
All choices and decisions are influenced or forced by the society your character inhabits. Do you know the world you are writing about well enough? Is your play set in the past, future or present day? Is it a completely imaginary realm? Whatever your choice you must know this world in detail as it will help you understand your character and their choices. I wrote a play called P’YONGYANG which was shortlisted for the 2013 Bruntwood Prize. It is set in North Korea (mainly during the famine of the 90’s), which involved a lot of research.
Write an extensive list of the rules of your world or rather ‘things to believe in’ when you inhabit the world of your play.
A few examples using P’YONGYANG.
- Kim Jong Il is the Great Leader and he is worshipped like Jesus Christ.
- There is a famine.
- There is a highly structured class system and you can never better yourself only fall.
- People are afraid to speak their true thoughts ‘even the walls have ears’.
In Act 2 scene 9 of P’YONGYANG Chi Soo and Eun Mi come to the decision to escape across the border and travel to Seoul together. The whole action of the play builds to this pivotal decision. This action fulfils both their inner needs (longing to be together, dreams of a better life) and is the inevitable culmination of their outer circumstances (Chi Soo has watched his entire family die of starvation and knows there is more food in China; Eun Mi has fallen out of favour at the P’Yongyang Film Studios and longs to be an actress in South Korea). The stakes are already high, if they are caught they will be sent to a prison camp. Can you raise the stakes of your play even higher to add tension and suspense? The stakes are further raised by Chi Soo needing to cross that night as he fears being reported by his neighbours (this comes back to knowing your world). Eun Mi can’t cross that night as she has to bury her mother. She could give him more money if he can wait. He can’t. This adds urgency or time pressure and also increases the risk for things to go horribly wrong which adds to your plot choices.
Production shot- P’Yongyang at the Finborough Theatre- Photo Credit the Other Richard
Below is an exercise I often use before I try to write a scene. It isn’t specifically for dramatic action or even writers but it really helps to get all the facts in place, allowing you freedom to write the scene. It’s an exercise consisting of 4 questions that Sanford Meisner gave to actors. I will give examples using Act 2 scene 9 of P’YONGYANG.
1. What is literally happening in the scene?
Chi Soo and Eun Mi meet again.
2. Make a list of things to believe in for the scene. This is similar to exercise 2. Make the list as long as possible.
-There is a famine.
-All of Chi Soo’s family have died of starvation.
-Chi Soo’s neighbours saw him selling his belongings in the market.
-Eun Mi has come back for her mother’s funeral.
3. What is the characters need / want?
Chi Soo wants to live, to stay alive, to be with Eun Mi.
Eun Mi wants to continue being an actress in South Korea, she wants to be with Chi Soo.
4. It’s as if…
Instead of imagining yourself in the skin of your character can you apply their situation to something comparable in your own life? Is there any way you can make it deeply personal?
Other things to bear in mind when working with story;
- Is your main character driving the story? If not why not?
- Are you a writer who starts with the end already in mind or do you start with no idea where you will end up and that is the joy of writing?
- Are you resisting where the story needs to go?
- Does enough happen in your play?
- Does too much happen in your play?
- Are you giving the audience space to breathe?
- What is the pace and rhythm of your play?
- If your play is emotionally demanding can you include lighter moments as well?
- Does your character know what he/she wants?
- Does their desire/want change through the course of the play?
- What choices (however small) does your character face? And what is the decision and resulting action that we see them make that cannot be undone?
- How is time running out for your character – within the overall arc of the play but also within the scene? What is the time pressure on your character?
In-Sook’s first play THIS ISN’T ROMANCE was produced at the Soho Theatre after winning the Verity Bargate Award and was commissioned as a screenplay by Film4. It was also broadcast on BBC Radio 3 and enjoyed a sell out Korean production at the National Theatre Company Korea summer 2017.
Theatre includes: TALES OF THE HARROW ROAD (Soho Theatre), ABSENCE (Young Vic Theatre), P’YONGYANG (Finborough Theatre), THE FREE9 (National Theatre Connections); and most recently MOUNTAINS (Royal Exchange Theatre and National Tour).
In-Sook has also made two short films as writer/director, FULL and KOTCHEBI.
She is currently in the National Theatre Musical Theatre Group and her feature film DUNWICH is in development with the BFI with In-Sook as writer/director.
If you are looking for more on driving action this is also addressed in Simon Steven’s 2015 Livestream workshop