THE PLAYWRITING SEMINARS > WORKING >
-- Paul Bowles
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Many pages of the Working Unit have been revised for the new edition, Playwriting Seminars 2.0, and are no longer found here.
Writer’s block and inspiration are at the opposite ends of a very short scale. For all writers, regardless of medium, the goal is to avoid the first and get the second and while that sounds obvious, it may not be in the process of writing.
Playwriting and screenwriting are not what you do after the dishes, walking the dog, feeding the fish, washing the car, and vacuuming the rug. All of that comes after writing. Or it should, but the discipline to do so takes practice for most people.
Writing is hard work, so avoid falling into the trap of getting all the unimportant things out of the way first so you can concentrate on writing. By then your back will hurt or you’ll feel like going out to the local coffee shop. Make writing the most important thing you do and let it come first. The dishes can wait. Most professional writers treat putting words on paper as a job. They usually set aside at least four prime hours every day and do it – the hours where they feel their best and most energetic. Often they set a daily goal for the number of pages or words. You can take the weekends off if you must. That’s the ideal, but few people starting out in playwriting –or any other form of creative writing – have the luxury of adopting the life of a professional writer. Most playwrights early in their careers need a day job and that complicates the writing life – but the same rule holds. Among all the hours when you’re not working, allocate the best ones that are left to writing and try to do it every day.
Writing is no different from playing tennis or basketball or any other physical skill: The more you do it, the better you get – or at the very least, more efficient. It’s in the air now to say it takes 10,000 hours of practice to become an expert in any activity, mental or physical, but on the way to racking up those hours you may end up writing a fine play. The early plays of many playwrights often end up being among their best work (though not necessarily that very first play).
Prevention is the best cure for writer's block. Graham Greene came up with a nearly fail-safe inoculation: Stop writing when you still know exactly what the next line or even the next scene will be. If you’d really just like to get that one last line down: Don’t. Avoid writing until you simply run out of dialogue. Instead, jot a quick note about the next line if you’re afraid you’ll forget it by the next morning, but not the exact wording.
This line that's been waiting to be written, primes the creative pump the following day since those first words are ready to go the moment you face the monitor or (if you do it the old-fashioned way) that piece of paper the next morning. The odds of inviting writer’s block to come live with you go up considerably if you write until you’re too exhausted to put another word on that page. Those odds reach the moon if you keep writing until you don’t know what words to write next.
If you think writer’s block has come to roost, forget about the play you're writing (at least for the moment). Pick two new characters with no connection to what you're working on. Then make them talk to each other.
It doesn’t matter how dumb the dialogue is as long as you get words coming out of their mouths. Odds are this simple exercise will generate the urge to go on from where you hit the wall. If that fails to work, try setting up an elevator play (see Chapter 26 for more on this). If you don’t have the energy yet for either exercise, dip into the Handbook’s Afterword of Quotes on Craft. These can be a good substitute for a supportive writers’ group if there isn’t one near you and they may rekindle the desire to write again.
Keep in mind that the wall you hit may not be writer’s block at all. It could very well be the result of technical problems peculiar to playwriting.
1. Not having a suspense plot. Or not having one strong enough to support the story you're telling. Or forgetting to remind us (and the characters) at least every four to eight pages that the suspense plot is ticking away. Remember that emotional plots need a support structure to keep them afloat and to keep the play moving forward.
2. Using up the suspense plot too quickly. This usually results from having lost (or never having had) that roughly 90%-10% balance between suspense and emotional plots. If the suspense plot has been allowed to creep up to being 30% or 40% of the play, that may be why you’ve run out of gas, and that has nothing to do with writer’s block.
3. Resolving the suspense plot too soon. Go back and see if you’ve allowed the climax to occur without realizing it. Pay close attention to what was happening in those last few pages before you thought writer’s block grabbed you.
4. Letting dramatic conflict drain away. This often happens when the emotional issues between the central characters aren’t serious or deep enough to keep generating conflict. It may also be that there wasn’t enough shared – or complex enough – history between the characters at the point of attack.
5. Getting bored with the central characters. If you’re bored by them, think how your audience will feel being locked in the dark with these folks for at least 90 minutes. If boredom is the problem, it may trace back again to that shared history issue.
6. Worst of all, losing interest in the story. There’s no cure for that except starting over with a completely new idea and new characters, but those pages you’ve written are worth saving. Resist the temptation to burn them in the barbecue. Someday, you may be hit by an inspiration for the story those characters really needed.
Inspiration comes from the act of writing. That’s often where (and when) the best ideas for the next play will come from – or the next scene, or the next line of dialogue. Inspiration may also hit when taking a break from writing for a meal or walking the dog – or even while at your conventional day job.
Newton may have had an apple bounce off his head while he was sleeping and then changed the emerging field of physics, but for playwrights he's not the best role model for getting inspiration. You'll get some great ideas that seem to fall from the sky, but most of the inspired ones will probably come the old fashioned way – while putting words on paper or on the screen.
Best Practice: If you’re not writing, write in your journal; if you’re still not writing, read plays or novels.