A good start is half the battle: Gareth Morgan’s playwriting tips in full

Article by Gareth Morgan

“A good start is half the battle”, goes the old saying. Converting a blank word document into something which has an opening line written on it is much the same. Plays don’t write themselves overnight with dramaturgical elves swooping in to repair that awkward third act – they require time, patience and space to allow ideas to percolate around. If you’re a writer, you’ll understand this – the crippling self-doubt of ‘is this idea any good’ and ‘have I nicked that clever plot twist from Transformers: Dark of the Moon’.

This isn’t a post about how to write better, it’s more a post about what you can perhaps do to have more tools as a writer and build up your toolkit so there’s a range of approaches you can take to a particular job. Some are practical play-writing tips, others more about what you’re coming up against. The best attribute anyone working or wanting to work in the arts can have is emotional resilience for all the knock-backs you’ll get.

My playwriting tips in full

  • See as much theatre as possible to build on your knowledge. You can often learn more from seeing bad theatre too, so don’t be snobbish about what you will and won’t see. A trip to the theatre is never a waste of time.
  • Read as many play scripts as you can (Amazon Marketplace is cheap and see if your local library has a decent plays section. You could also see if you could blag a reader’s card for your local university library).
  • Write, write and write some more; it might be shit at first but you’ll get better each time. Get into the habit of writing every day. If you’re short on time, try writing little but often.
  • Try and script read for theatres or offer to look at work for other writers – it might have to be voluntary, but you’ll learn loads.
  • Join the Playwriting UK Facebook group for opportunities and conversations around playwriting. Offering on here to have a look at people’s drafts will always be met with many writers taking you upon it. Playwriting UK Facebook Group
  • Enter all playwriting competitions, even if you don’t quite fit what they are after as the script might end up on the right person’s desk.
  • Don’t be shy: contact your local theatre(s) and ask what opportunities they can offer you. They may have a writers’ group or an artists’ network offering cheap tickets in exchange for signing up to a mailing list.
  • Tell stories all the time – this makes writing them down easier. Look for them and you’ll soon start spotting them everywhere, from newspapers (my most successful piece came from an article I read in the Guardian) to snatches of overheard conversation.
  • Ask yourself what your play’s story is. You could try summarising it in a sentence or two and sticking it by your desk; so you can keep it in mind – an elevator pitch (something short and catchy enough to get someone interested on a short elevator journey) or maybe distill it down to tweet-length.
  • Overwrite, then cut – but don’t be offended by people telling you’ve over-written in the early drafts of the script. This is the note I give the most and it’s often characters showing AND telling – make sure you’re not having characters tell us what an actor can show us physically, especially in the live context of its performance.
  • Give your main character obstacles to overcome. They should have changed by the end of the play, if only fractionally. My friend Hannah says that a play’s journey is the protagonist going from trying to get what they want to getting what they need. This can be useful here.
  • Exposition that those characters already know. If two characters are obviously discussing something that they would already be very aware of then what they are saying is entirely for the audience’s benefit and needs a new way of being teased out.
  • What are your characters’ wants and objectives at each point in the play? These might change from scene to scene. How do they move toward achieving/failing to achieve them at each point, or not? And, are their objectives active or inactive? This is what Stanislavski means when he talks about objectives and units.
  • Think about the subtext of your dialogue and remember that people often don’t say what they want to say – or say the opposite of what they think. Also, why use 15 words when you can use 5 (or 0) and have the point told physically by the actor?
  • Use a consistent format when setting out your script – I personally would recommend bold for character names (when assigning who is speaking) and italics for stage directions.
  • Read your play out loud to yourself.
  • Don’t send your script out immediately. Put it in a drawer for a week or two, then have another look at it and ask yourself whether you’re sure it’s finished.
  • Send the script out to theatres that accept unsolicited submissions – there is a list of theatres that offer this on Playwriting UK.
  • If you’re sending a script to someone, be clear about what you want – if you just want to know whether the play will be put on – tell them in your cover letter. If you want notes – tell them in your cover letter. If you want to have mentorship, join the writers’ group and develop ideas – tell them in your cover letter. Thus, the next tip: write a good clear cover letter! – Why are you sending this to this theatre specifically? Artistic Directors can spot a generic cover letter a mile off! So, do your homework and it will pay off. If you put the effort in, so will they!

The Big 3

1. Get qualified in something else first; you will need a day job for years.
2. Acquire an understanding spouse who doesn’t mind paying for things now and then.
3. Develop an unshakeable belief in the quality and importance of your work; you will need it! And then hang in there: I’m talking 10 years or more before you give up; it really takes that long.

Follow Gareth’s work on Twitter @Act2playwriting

If you enjoyed this, you may also like:

10 top tips for working in the creative sector

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