BRUNTWOOD PRIZE TOOLKIT – WEEK ONE – Getting started with Dramaturg Suzanne Bell
In this first session, we will be focusing on some exercises to get you started 1. WRITING AS A MUSCLE – Writing takes practice,…
Coming up with characters is something I find really hard to do without making them talk to each other. Which sounds kind of weird – how’d you make characters talk to each other when you don’t have characters to talk to each other? Bear with me though. By now you might have thought about characters and who they are and what they do. What they’ve got in their pockets. When the last time they cried was. Or laughed. Or bled. How old they are. What age. Where they live. All that stuff which is rich and needed to add texture and depth to a scene, and ultimately the play. But for now I want you, if you’ve got all this, to forget most of it, for now. Close the notebook pages with all that written down. Don’t look at any of it. You might remember their name. You might remember where they’re from. That’s fine. But everything else – save all that for later. The only place I can write from is when I’ve simplified things down to where I can’t simplify them anymore. And this is especially true when getting characters talking, finding out their objectives, and getting a scene written. So hopefully having a go at the following might help dialogue to flow, find some action and discover things about your characters that you didn’t know were there before they started communicating.
1. A skeleton scene.
All scenes can essentially be stripped down to a really basic thing. – a character wants something and another character may or may not be willing to give them this thing. That thing could be an object, a secret, some information etc. And the scene works around this basic set up. So write a scene that’s literally as basic as this – one character wants something, the other is unwilling to give it to them. Take one of your characters that you might have thought of. And then drop them in with someone else that you’ve never thought of before. And write around your character with NOTHING preplanned. Let it flow. So no location, no names, no ages, nothing. It’s just voices. All it that happens is someone wants something. Remember. Don’t add anything yet. And don’t be precious or hard on yourself. Just let the dialogue flow. Don’t stop to put character names in. No beats or pauses or silences. No stage directions. Just keep going. Something like this:
Give it to me.
I’ll get it.
No stop asking me alright?
Have to sometime.
Give in. Won’t have any choice.
Said you’re not having it.
Give it to me.
Won’t ask again.
Told you no alright so stop fucking asking-
I’ll get it anyway you know.
If you won’t give it then I’ll just get it somewhere else.
I’ll find out.
I will. I’ll ask around. Can get anything.
Can’t hide it forever.
I can and I will. Alright?
I’ll find out from somewhere. From someone. I’ll keep asking. Keep asking. Don’t believe
Stop it. Please.
You’ll give up soon. You know you will. You’ll have to.
We can all agree this isn’t the most amazing piece of writing anyone has seen. Because it took about 30 seconds to write. But things are happening in the scene. Tactics are changing. When you wrote yours did you notice that things quickly became stale? That a character didn’t want to give the other character the thing? And what happened? You were forced to change tactics. And you most likely did this naturally. In the little scene above the first tactic shift occurred on the line “have to sometime”. A time limit has been placed on our characters. That came out of nowhere. I didn’t pre-plan this. It just occurred naturally. So time has become part of the world, causing a slight pressure to build. Another tactic shift happens with “I’ll find out from somewhere”. On that line a world outside of these two voices has opened up – there are other people in the lives of these two voices that can be used to get what the character wants. The world has expanded just with one line.
Have a look at your scene and see each time the tactic shifted. Go over each line because things might be hidden. Then just make a quick note of what the change does to expand the world. Time limits? Other people? Fears? You’ll find that there is a lot of things that came up completely naturally while you were writing, but maybe didn’t notice. This is the good stuff. The stuff that shows your characters are driving your dialogue and forcing you to happen upon things that weren’t preplanned. Next…
2. Add something physical
Keep the little skeleton scene you just wrote. And now we’re going to throw something at it. Remember, it still should have nothing inside it. Expect maybe one of your characters you came up with. So we’ve still got no location, no ages, no pre-planned ideas of the relationship. But now let’s throw something into the scene that’s a physical thing. That, on stage, will have a nice visual presence. That will immediately get an audience leaning forward, wanting to find out the situation straight away. So choose one of the following:
One of the characters is bleeding.
One of the characters is covered in sick.
One of the characters has wet themselves.
One of the characters is ten years old.
One of the characters has a broken leg.
One of the characters is soaking wet.
One of the characters has no shoes or socks on.
One of the characters has make-up running down their face.
Choose quickly. First one you thought was interesting. Don’t dwell. Just stick with it. Now throw that at the scene you just wrote. Don’t write a brand new scene. Use your skeleton one but add lines and take away lines to incorporate the physicality in. So for example. If one of my characters was bleeding (doesn’t matter which, just choose one and go with it) a bit of the scene might look like this:
… Can’t hide it forever.
I can and I will. Alright?
I’ll find out from somewhere. From someone. I’ll keep asking. Keep asking. Don’t believe me?
Stop it. Please. Feel dizzy.
Yeah probably. Get you a plaster if you tell me.
Don’t need a plaster need you to fuck off.
I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just stand here watching you bleed until you tell me.
With a little bit of blood the scene changes and the characters develop. We also create some history. What’s just happened to cause the blood? Why does one character seem completely uninterested in helping unless they get what they want? And also the tension has gone up massively. Adding richness and texture to the scene. Do this to your scene. Remember. We still have no idea what the thing they want is, we’re just interested in playing around with dialogue and finding out some things about your character that might only come up when put in situations like this. And now…
3. Put them somewhere with some situation
Location is a really amazing way of developing characters. Putting my characters in landscapes and seeing how they behave is sometimes the most useful thing I can do. And those landscapes might be completely not what I want to write about. So sometimes shoving some characters in ridiculous situations is a fun thing to do. And might throw up some things about them that you can take to more appropriate locations for the play you want to write. I do it when I’m stuck (which happens a lot) and it sometimes throws something up about the characters that I didn’t know was there before, which hopefully let’s everything become unstuck again. So same thing, adding to parts 1 and 2. Choose one of the following locations and situations:
On a bench in a park in the middle of a city, at five in the morning.
In a pub car park at half ten at night, in December.
At a countryside bus stop at dawn, in the rain.
In a space-station on Mercury, the oxygen is running out.
In a dinghy in the middle of the ocean, with no food and little water.
In the middle of a field, at night.
In a bathroom of a small flat, a sink covered in blood.
On an empty train station platform at two o’clock in the morning, in the middle of summer.
In a deserted quarry in the mountains, at midnight.
Again, one that caught your interest. Although you might like absolutely none of them. And fair enough. But that’s not the point. The point is to put your characters in places you might not of thought of before, and see how they react, because all we’re doing here is getting them talking, and finding out some things about them and how these things can be used to build scenes that have tension and texture, rooted on a skeleton that is strong. So do the same thing again. Take your scene from parts 1 and 2 and throw one of the above at it. So I’ll drop mine in a pub car park. And it looks like this:
…Can’t hide it forever.
I can and I will. Alright?
I’ll find out from someone, Just keep asking. Only half ten isn’t it?
Big pre-christmas lock in isn’t it mate? People’ll get shitfaced then someone’ll tell me.
Stop it alright? Not going to tell you. Feel fucking dizzy and all.
Yeah no shit. Get you a plaster. If you tell me.
Don’t need a plaster need you to fuck off back inside. And get us a pint.
You’re not going back in looking like that are you?
Only a scratch.
Only a scratch? Head’s split open mate.
Not that bad is it?
I wouldn’t look in a mirror.
Go get us a pint. Be fine.
I’m not going anywhere. I’ll just stand here watching you bleed until you tell me. Then I might get you a pint. If they let you back in. Which they won’t. Because you acted like a twat.
Some more things have come up. A relationship is forming. It feels like they’ve know each other. How long, not sure. But definitely there’s history. They drink together. They feel like friends. So does this happen a lot? One of them get’s in a fight in a pub and the other one doesn’t seem that bothered about helping? Who have they wound up to get like this? The world around them feels like it’s starting to breathe with them. The pub is full of drinkers. We know the time of year. We know there’s a secret or a piece of information that needs to be found out. What we don’t know is ages, names, genders, sexualities, etc. But from this exercise some things kind of feel right. Like maybe this:
The character who is bleeding is eighteen. They live at home with their Mum. Their Dad died and they are quite happy about that. The drinkers in the pub all loved their Dad. But that man wasn’t what people think he was. And this person, just made through lines of dialogue, now covered in blood, is struggling to reveal the past to the community, changing the memory of their dead father. Etc etc etc.
All this has come from the scene we did in step 1. And only with two additional things – bleeding and a pub car park in December – we’ve got a world that feels like it exists. A couple of characters. A relationship. And feels like tension exists within it.
What happened with your scene? Did you find out things about your character you didn’t know was there before? And what about the other character in the scene? Are they useful to you? Can you take them with you and put them in the play you’re thinking of writing? Maybe the scene you’ve just written is the start of a new play itself that you didn’t know was in your head? Or the end scene? Or a scene that go fit in with a play you might be stuck with? Or maybe you got nothing from it in this sense. But you’ve played around with some dialogue. Which is useful too. Because writing dialogue is, in itself, a thing that is good to practice to get used to the rhythms and pace of. Everything is useful, even if you don’t feel like it is. Somewhere something will stick, it just takes time.
Keeping playing around like this. Maybe switch the physicality around. What happens when the other character is the one that is soaking wet, or covered in sick? How does the power shift in the scene? Put them in a different location too, if you like. And now maybe open your notebook on your characters you came up with. Is there something you’ve forgotten that you can put in the scene? Did you write down their fears? Or what they keep in their pocket? Can one of these be brought in to change things? Remember to not over-clutter the scene, keep it simple.
Simplifying things is so important in writing. I used to think that having every tiny piece of a character mapped out completely was the only place to begin writing from. For some people it might be. Which is fine. But for me I can’t write like that at all. I have to give my characters the bare minimum, and build them up through dialogue. Rachel De-Lahay’s exercise at 26 mins from her workshop on journey, character and dialogue is really good for simplifying and exploring without any clutter and is definitely worth a watch, and a go at.
Why do this?
For the opening scene of Gundog I essentially did the above. I knew I wanted to write about a couple of sisters in the countryside. I had their names. But not much else. So I decided to put them in a field in the middle of the night. One had a shotgun. They were pointing it at someone who I had no idea who they were before writing the scene. And then threw a dead lamb on the ground. And out of those small physicality’s and locations I got the opening of the play. And the character of Guy. And learned a lot of things about who Becky and Anna were.
It’s worth remembering with exercises like this is that it’s all above playing around. And not being self critical about what you’re writing. Because that will just make you anxious and you just won’t write a word, but just think about writing a word, then maybe write a word, then hate the word, delete the word, and go back to the start, and continue like that forever. Which isn’t a good place to be in. There’s a time and a place for being self-critical and asking questions of the play – once you’ve got your first draft done, in my opinion. That’s really important. But at this early stage. Just play. Allow yourself to be stupid. Allow yourself to be serious. Write dialogue that goes nowhere just to see how your characters begin to talk to each other. For Island Town, I wrote so many pages about the three characters drinking cider and talking about a pumpkin and generally pissing about. Just because letting them talk to each other without any worry of “where is this going?” was a good way of finding out some things about them. And from those pages I cut loads out and got a scene, still with a pumpkin, but with a sense of depth about who Kate, Pete and Sam were and how they were essentially using each other to escape from their respective situations at home, which were causing them to worry and feel anxiety.
Chloe Moss’ play Christmas Is Miles Away is a really good example of this kind of thing. In her play, two sixteen year olds try and set up a tent in a bit of parkland in Manchester. This situation is brilliant. It immediately gives the characters an action and a distraction, adds tension to their relationship, and also gives the audience some questions about them.
Dennis Kelly’s Orphans is another useful example. The very opening of the play – a character stands covered in blood, a couple are nicely dressed in the middle of a meal. It’s such a brilliant stage image. We are immediately drawn in, trying to work out the situation. Then the characters begin talking and we’re working it all out with them.
Have a go. Don’t worry. Just play around. You might get a scene out of it. You might get two lines of dialogue that you quite like. You might discover a new character. You might find out something about a character you’ve thought about but never knew was there. You might become unstuck. You might find the spark of a new play. And on, and maybe, on. All of which, are useful things.
Simon Longman is a playwright from the West Midlands. His plays include Island Town (Paines Plough), Gundog (Royal Court), Rails (TBTL), White Sky (RWCMD/Royal Court), Sparks (Old Red Lion) and Milked (Pentabus Theatre Company). In 2018 he was awarded the 49th George Devine award for Most Promising Playwright and has previously won the Channel 4 Playwrights’ Scheme.