I love stories. I gobble them up. One might be a massive blockbuster at the cinema, another a bit of gossip on the bus coming back. But I reckon that the place to experience the greatest of stories is in the theatre. Of course it is. That’s why we’re here. So what makes a story on stage fizzle with energy? What makes it so great for a room full of people? What, in fact, makes it theatrical?
What do we even mean by ‘theatrical’? If we say someone is being theatrical, we suggest they’re being over-the-top or exaggerated. Maybe this conjures up an old-fashioned style of theatre, when a performer in lace is hollering ‘forsooth’ at a giant auditorium (Patrick Troughton used to call theatre ‘shouting on an evening’). But I’m taking ‘theatrical story’ to literally mean a story for theatre, and there needn’t be anything over-the-top or exaggerated about that. I think about the kinds of stories I want to experience in theatre – the ones that grip me, the ones that make me feel strange feelings, the ones that catch me off-guard. I think we all want that as well.
This is Week Six, and maybe you’re opening a new tin of biscuits. Let me join you. We’re going to consider some theatrical elements we can use in our stories. Wherever you’re at with your scribbling, it’s always useful to check-in and ensure you’re crafting the most active and exciting version of your play. Get your pen. Pass a custard cream. Let’s get pondering.
- Find the moments that surprise you. Peggy Ramsay, agent extraordinaire, was once asked about story structure. She responded: ‘Oh darling, it’s just two or three surprises followed every now and then by a bigger surprise.’ The best plays aren’t a shopping list of predictable events – they’re characters and actions colliding with each other to produce surprising responses. What are the unexpected choices being made? When a character is pushed to a limit, what’s the surprising way they act? Does a quiet person suddenly speak out? Is a harrowing revelation made at a shocking time? Does the wrong spy take the secret briefcase? Surprises keep us engaged.
- As though to instantly ground my first suggestion – make sure any surprise is believable, and doesn’t overwhelm the story. It doesn’t mean bolting on a twist ending or anything like that. Twists can work, but don’t cheat an audience. We should balance the surprising and the expected. There can be an inevitability about a destination – the couple that will eventually get together, or the tragic hero who will eventually die – but surprising bumps along the journey. We may dread the fate of King Lear, because hey, we know this is a tragedy and we heavily suspect it won’t work out well for him – but we can still be surprised by his vicious treatment of Cordelia. However, we understand where his insecurity is coming from. Perhaps the best surprises are the ones that feel inevitable in hindsight.
- Whip up some suspense. This can function as anti-surprise because when something is suspenseful, we KNOW something is going to happen. And gosh it’s stressful. Perhaps we don’t know what will occur. But there’s a tension that’s forming in the theatre and the audience can feel it. Now it’s all very well me saying to ‘whip up some suspense’ like it’s a soufflé, but how do we generate suspense on stage? Perhaps the audience knows something that a character doesn’t – they’re walking into a trap! They’re about to find their boyfriend having an affair! (When the audience knows something a character doesn’t, this is called ‘dramatic irony’.) Alternatively, maybe your audience is as much in the dark as the characters – and the tension is formed by theatrical changes. Is the dialogue getting shorter, snappier? Does it vanish all together and form moments of silence? Is there a ticking deadline hanging over the scene? Are your characters running out of time? Will the bomb go off, do we need to get the washing in before it rains?
- Push the scale of your story. Perhaps your story takes place in a 500ft deep ice cave and all the characters are 10ft tall, and that’s awesome. Crack out the stilts. But with the word scale, I don’t refer to literal size. I’m talking about emotional size. Don’t be afraid to go big. Is it life and death? Will this journey change your character forever? Whose hearts will break? What fundamental questions of the world are they wrestling with? That’s one version of going big. But you can also tell the most intimate tale between two lost souls in a private corner of a cave, and it’s still an emotional mammoth. Why? Because there’s an audience. This scenario will ripple out, lap at these people watching, fill up the whole auditorium. The bigger a character’s stakes, the more an audience will invest in them. Talking of character:
- Is this a story about someone we care about? Stories come from characters. If we don’t care about the character, we won’t care about the story. A dull character may be one who is a bit stereotyped and two-dimensional. Or it may be a character that’s just a bit bland and we don’t know much about them. The more complex and interesting and contradictory the character, the more we’ll engage with their story. (I’m not saying your protagonist has to be likeable, by the way. There are plenty of antiheroes who we love to hate, but we still care what happens to them.)
- Make sure you stage striking moments. I’m told the Ancient Greeks had an artful way of shuffling away their characters to die off-stage (I don’t know, sadly I wasn’t around). Now there are tonnes of storytelling tropes we still use from classical antiquity, but personally this isn’t one I like. We want important moments of a story to be depicted onstage, as opposed to merely reported. This is the old adage of ‘show don’t tell’ coming into play. It’s especially effective in theatre because we have our characters living, breathing, existing right before us, processing new information before our very eyes. Do we see this character get fired? Do we witness an act of portrayal? Are we awkward voyeurs to a bad proposal? Strike the audience the same time you strike your character. If you want to know more about writing for the ‘liveness’ of theatre, I really recommend the video of the 2017 workshop with Chris Thorpe. Find the link in the resources below.
- Bear in mind, this isn’t to say we can’t have off-stage deaths, or off-stage incidents of any kind. That would be silly – there’s a whole world beyond these walls. I love to world build, and it’s important to know the context of this little slice of Kenya or Mars or Auntie Sals caravan that you’re putting out in front of us. But I’ll say again – really question why you confine something to offstage. There is so much power the dramatist can wield when a moment is witnessed.
- Do you interrupt a ritual? When I say ritual, I mean ‘something that we do that has a set way of doing it’. This can be anything from a funeral of a prince to clipping your toenails every Wednesday. We fly the flags at half mast; we make sure we’re finished before The Chase. Duncan MacMillan has written a beautiful tutorial titled Story on Stage, which you’ll find in the resources below. It’s incredibly useful to read it in its entirety, but check out the section on interrupted ritual. The power of interruption or disruption can send a bolt of electricity through a scene. We know everybody is meant to wear black at a funeral – so what happens if your character turns up in white? We know your character cuts their toenails to calm themselves down – so what happens when their ex-boyfriend turns up at the door?
- Remember this is a shared experience. We have all felt the crackle of energy when a bustling audience is enrapt and engorged with the events of a play. The things I’ve mentioned earlier – surprise, suspense, striking moments – when shared, they can be amplified. What else do we share? Cultural ceremonies, moments of history. Read David Edgar’s article called Making History (in the resources below). He’s got five reasons why he thinks stories about the past should be shared in the present. It’s a great read with a load of play recommendations to boot.
- Your space and time is without limit! It still amazes me that we rock up at a certain hour (say 7:30pm, or maybe 15 minutes earlier to get the drinks in) at a certain location (for example, the Royal Exchange Theatre), and though our bodies are anchored to those temporal spatial coordinates, our hearts and minds can be pulled anywhere and everywhere. Perhaps your play spans the globe and takes place over three generations, or maybe it’s all taking place during a melancholic evening in a Swedish service station. Your audience want to go on a journey with you, so do not be afraid of taking them. This is what excites me most about the theatre. I hope it excites you too.
Let’s think about Peggy’s advice on surprise. List the surprising moments of your story. Are there enough? What’s the biggest? Can you make it any bigger? Think of something your character would never do, and then think about what it would take for them to do it.
Let’s think about those striking moments. Find an offstage event in your story. Perhaps this is something that happened between scenes, perhaps it’s an occurrence that massively pre-dates what’s happening in your story but it’s always had an effect on your character’s life. Script it. I’m not going to make you shove it into your play, but I want you to write out that moment and have your characters actively go through it. This is something I do a lot – it helps with my world building as well.
(A lovely precursor to this would be to do Duncan’s ritual exercise in his tutorial.)
Let’s think about rituals. Pick a task that requires two people. We’ll call them A and B. Maybe it’s folding bed sheets, maybe it’s docking procedures on a spaceship shuttle. Think about the instructions that they might need to issue to each other during this activity. Write out scenario as naturalistic as you can. Take us beat by beat, from the flapping of the bedsheets, right through to docking complete.
Now rework the scene. This time, imagine A has something they wish to reveal to B during this shared activity. At what point do they manage to do? What happens to the interrupted activity? Does the bed get made, will the shuttle be safe?
PLAYS TO READ
For a play full of suspense and surprise – read Vivienne Franzman’s MOGIDISHU. This is a former Bruntwood winner (I’ve not been bribed to say this, honest) and I recommend it all the time. It reads like a thriller.
For a play that revels in its theatricality – try Tarell Alvin McCraney’s WIG OUT! It’s lyrical and dizzying.
I’ve also included an extract of my first play, DOGS OF WAR. This was a family drama about a mother with bipolar disorder and the way her family responded to it. This extract takes place towards the end of the play, when new neighbour Frances disturbs Mam sleeping. Dad has arrived and attempts to diffuse, and the calming ritual of tea time gets warped as a result. You’ll see the suspense heighten as the arguing gets heated, and the surprising action which caused audiences to gasp night after night.
RESOURCES & LINKS
Duncan MacMillan’s Story On Stage
Workshop with Chris Thorpe: https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/chris-thorpe-writing-collaboratively-writing-performance-performing-work/
Making History by David Edgar: https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/making-history-david-edgar/
Check out Matthew Xia’s workshop. https://www.writeaplay.co.uk/matthew-xia-research-political-writing-responsibility-representation/
Tim Foley is a writer based in Manchester, and is the Associate Artist for Pentabus Theatre. His play ELECTRIC ROSARY won a 2017 Bruntwood Prize Judges’ Award. Tim’s first full-length play, THE DOGS OF WAR, premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre in May 2015 and won the 2016 OffWestEnd award for Most Promising New Playwright. He was awarded the Channel 4 Playwright’s bursary in 2016. His second play, ASTRONAUTS OF HARTLEPOOL, premiered at the 2017 VAULT Festival and won the VAULT Origins Award for Outstanding New Work. Tim also writes audio dramas set in the worlds of DOCTOR WHO for Big Finish Productions.