The Difference between a Skit and a Play

One might think that the main difference between a skit and a play is its length – skits being short and plays being long. But I contend that is not the distinction at all. I write short plays all the time, and they can be quite short, even just a few minutes in length. I believe that length is not a good indicator of their difference.

What about subject matter? Are skits silly and funny, while plays are more serious? Perhaps in one sense, which I’ll mention in a minute, yes, but plays can also be silly and funny. And short, as we’ve already established.

In my view, the difference is the context and preparation which separate skits from plays. Let me explain.

Skits are often meant to augment a very specific event or situation. Perhaps a church service in order to illustrate a point. An awards ceremony to roast an honoree. A school assembly to get everyone thinking about a certain topic. Skits are rarely written without a specific purpose in mind. At our school, the honor society prepare skits each year to help introduce the new inductees. They also use them in chapels, at banquets, or for classroom activities. In this way, skits do not translate well into other settings, because they are specific to a certain event. Plays, on the other hand, must stand on their own. Anyone who picks up a play script should be able to understand it and its themes, regardless of where it is performed. Skits typically are not like that.

And that leads us to our second point, preparation. While people in skits do prepare for their roles, the preparation is much less intense than that of a play – even a short play. Skits do not care with character development or even a cohesive plot, they are meant to entertain or make a point. A play, even an extremely short play, must have clear character development, even if its only one character. And while skits may have scripts, often time those scripts are just guidelines. Plays have precise language. The dialogue cannot be ad libbed or changed unless that specifically is the playwrights intention. Even short plays must be memorized completely, and the action, set, tone of the play may be well prescribed by the playwright.

Can all of these items really be addressed in a short play of only 5 minutes? Absolutely!

The next time you see a short performance, ask yourself, did I just witness a mini-play or a skit?  I think you’ll be able to tell the difference.

Writing an Ensemble Piece

I find it to be a valuable exercise in determination and frustration to try and write a limited length ensemble piece. I do drama writing so that’s where my piece fits in. And yes, it’s causing me fits.

Here’s the situation: I’m writing a less than 15 minute piece that has 12 characters. Talk about not having much time for character development! It’s a challenge.

But it’s a great exercise for writing because it really forces you to get down to the nitty-gritty. There’s no way you can develop 12 characters in 15 minutes. So if you can’t do that, what can you do?

The first time I did a large ensemble piece was last year. It was called “The Will.” It had 11 characters and it clocked in at 15 minutes. It luckily worked really well. The main reason for its success (I am now just figuring it out) is that there was a very well defined plot, and each character had a specific role (very specific) that they needed to accomplish.

As I look at the piece I’m writing this year, I’m on draft four and it’s too long with too few developed characters. There a couple characters which I could completely take out of the plot and not change the story or meaning. That’s not good. How can I make all of them essential or at least beneficial to the storyline?

This shows me the benefit of ensemble writing. It makes me struggle. Honestly, not much of my writing makes me struggle. It usually comes easy and flows right off the keyboard.

But it’s good to be stretched. It’s good to be frustrated. It’s good to write draft after draft. It’s good to have the feeling of just wanting to deep-six the whole thing and start over. (Which I still might do!) It’s good to wrestle and struggle with your writing. What is actually important? Why is that character there? How can I make that character’s presence more meaningful? How can I shorten and tighten everything? How can I make all of the actors happy with their roles?

All of these questions need to be answered. And that’s a good thing for my writing.

UPDATE: This ensemble piece is still killing me!

Integrity: Can it be lost and then re-found? (Philosophical musings of my next novel.)

He is a man of integrity.

Have you ever heard someone referred to as such? What does that really mean? A man of perfection? A man of excellent decision making abilities? A man who is trustworthy and honest?

Isn’t that actually quite a heavy anchor to put on someone’s shoulders?

I remember a former pastor of mine once referring to me to someone else as “one of the good ones.” It was a nice compliment, but it frightened me because of its implications. What if I don’t remain “one of the good ones?” What if I mess up? What if I make a terrible mistake in my life? Am I suddenly not one of the good ones anymore?

This, in theme, is what my fifth novel is about. I’m currently writing it and it is, in a sense, a (very) loose re-telling of the story of David. I have always found his story fascinating because he was “one of the good ones” and then fell as hard as anyone could have fallen only to be once again considered, in the end, “one of the good ones.” It’s a fascinating dynamic, which I’m attempting to discover if it can practically work in our modern setting. Lots of good philosophical ideas to debate in my head as I write this one.

So as I wrestle with this idea of integrity, the question must be asked: can integrity be lost? At what point is integrity lost? And, can it ever be gained back again?

These are difficult questions, which actually expose some of the fallacy of integrity to begin with, and here’s why: every person does things that he or she isn’t proud of. Every person is capable of making a huge mistake. Every person has the ability to lose the integrity perceived upon them by outside eyes.

This is also the same problem I have with the term ‘hypocrite’ because everyone at some point in their life is a hypocrite. No one will ever 100% follow through on what they say they believe or what they say they do.

Then why do we bestow such flame happy words upon them? Why can’t we just let humans be humans – mistakes and all – moles and all – hypocritical behavior and all?

We spend too much energy requiring everyone’s actions to live up to their words, and when they don’t, our modern society and our ever encompassing social media and news networks are always happy to expose everyone’s vulnerability.

But when I go back to the question of integrity, can lost integrity ever be gained back again? Is it possible? What would it take? Is there ever a way for good that has fallen to evil be brought back around to good again?

I’ll let you know when I finish my novel.


Some of the Vietnamese characters of my new novel THE REACH OF THE BANYAN TREE

I’d like to highlight a few of the characters whom I have come to know very well inside the world of my new story.

Year 2000:

Thuy – She is a pretty, yet simple Vietnamese young woman twenty-two years old. She has a degree from the local agricultural and forestry university, but her real skills is English. Excellent English speaker including the ability to understand the idioms of the language. Actually, I have had Vietnamese students like this and I kind of modeled her after some of them. Truly impressive grasp of the language. She has a strong sense of duty and obligation to her family, especially her father. She has become, to her surprise, attracted to a young American man, Chip Carson, who has been doing humanitarian aid in northern Vietnam.

Thang – Thuy’s father. He is a drunk. The eldest child of a large family and extended clan dating back seven generations. Besides Thuy, he has a seven year old son named Quat who is everything in the world to him. Thang is rather indifferent to Thuy’s relationship with Chip, thinking it’s good for her to learn English from him for her future. What he doesn’t expect is Thuy falling in love with the American. That will complicate everything.

Mr. Hung – Chief of Police in Thai Nguyen. He is protected by his famous and well-connected father in Hanoi. He should have been executed for drug running, but was able to skirt the law through framing others. He is extremely ambitious, but most people want nothing to do with him. That is why he is stuck in a small provincial town.

Mr. Dung – he is the Chief Minister of the Interior. He has few scruples and is willing to do whatever to get the oil contracts his government wants.

Miss Thanh – the naive translator for Mr. Dung, who has to deal with the abrasive C.R. Carson, Chip’s father and CEO of Carson Oil.

Year: 1945

Long – a fourteen year old boy who befriends OSS paratrooper Charles Carson, Chip’s grandfather, and goes on an incredible adventure with him during the waning moments of World War II.

Mai – the beautiful young translator and officer who travels with Charles and Long on their unexpected adventure. Mai and Charles are thrust in a love relationship which neither of them could have expected.

I hope you will join in the story and meet these incredible characters.

A(nother) Parallel Between Acting & Writing

Acting coach Larry Moss said:

“Acting represents all that human beings experience, and if you want to be “nice” you will never be a serious communicator of the human experience.”

Let’s see if we can substitute “writing” for “acting” and still have it make sense.

Writing represents all that human beings experience, and if you want to be “nice” you will never be a serious communicator of the human experience.” 

Yes, I think that works nicely for me. I certainly want my writing to represent human experience – the best and the worst that is out there.

What does he mean by being “nice”?

Well, I’m sure we have all read the stories or seen the movies or shows which put “nice” ahead of everything else. I’ve been turned off by cheesy, insincere story lines which basically are afraid to be vulnerable. Everything must be wrapped up nice and neat. The fairy tale happy ending. But as we all know, life isn’t like that. Usually.

Is there room for being “nice” and having a happy ending in a story. Absolutely. When the stories requires it! Not just because every story must have it. That is the huge difference.

Honestly, on some levels, I was afraid to embark on this journey as an indie author. I wanted to be, and I strive to be, a serious communicator of the human experience. At first I wondered what a friend or acquaintance might say if my character says this or if my character does that. I had a friend look at me strangely after hearing about my first novel and he wondered out loud to me “whoa, I know what you have been thinking about” as if I, as the author, had the same experience as my character. I understood from the beginning that if my writing would peak at the expectations of others then I would be doomed as a writer. I knew if I couldn’t write about controversial topics or strive to portray people in all their glorious depravity then I wouldn’t be taken as a serious writer. I had to cast off the shackles of other people’s expectations and learn to be free as a writer.

Writing is not about being “nice” but it also isn’t about being gratuitously depraved either. Neither extreme is authentic. Serious writing is about portraying people in stories as they really all – beautiful, complex, ugly, serious, and light. All wrapped together. That’s what I strive to do.

It’s good for acting. It’s good for writing, too.

Characterization: A thought from Sir Lawrence Olivier

Lawrence Olivier said the following about acting:

“If I play a beggar, I look for the king, and when I play a king, I find the beggar.”

This is wonderfully simple expression of how to approach an acting role that you’ve been awarded. In real life, there are no regal people or destitute people. There are people who act as if they are regal and other people who act as they are destitute.

Can you show me a king who doesn’t have his doubts? Can you show me a beggar who doesn’t have his moments of grandeur in his mind?

People are not cardboard – one dimensional beings. We all have vulnerabilities. We all have our grand moments. That’s what makes us human, and that’s what makes Olivier such the accomplished performer.

But his thoughts can also mean much to writers. To make well-rounded, believable characters we, too, need to find the beggar in the king.

Everyone has redeeming qualities. Even the bully. Even the pest. Even the murderer. The criminal. The adulterer. The dictator. No one starts out on the road to evil without passing a few moments of beauty along the way. So as you craft your villain or your antagonist or your whomever, make them real. Make them easy to like and easier to loathe. Bathe them in consistent contradictions. Have them be conflicted. Put them in situations which stretch their resolve. If you do, you’ll be on your way to crafting a believable, three-dimensional bad guy or girl.

Everyone has faults. Even the saint. Even the reverend. Even the … you get the picture. There’s no such thing as a hypocrite in real life (more on this later) because everyone fails, falls, stumbles, and makes mistakes. We’ve all seen writing where characters are too perfect. Who can relate to that? The “good guys or girls”, the heroes, the protagonists the whomever also must be bathed in contradictions. What gives them doubts? What causes them to do things they say they will never do? What drives them to a precipice they swore they would never reach? What hard things can they do which will steel their resolve? This is also the start of building a solid character whom your readers will be engaged with.

Thank you Sir Lawrence Olivier for a good reminder.

(And yes, that was a preposition ending a sentence. It’s fun making grammarians squirm.)

Writing and the Human Condition

There really is nothing new under the sun. I think Solomon was correct.

Perhaps, writers know this more than most people. Each time they string together a sentence, they are stepping on the toes of someone who has come before them. Each time they craft a character, they are describing countless other people who at one point roamed the face of the earth.

There are only a limited supply of storylines. Does the protagonist do it for greed or for love? Does she do it for revenge or for an ego boost? Is pride the downfall? Will he have the courage to go on?  etc …

This is what makes writing great fiction such a difficult task. How can one stand out of the crowd and do something unique? Do you think the “Hunger Games” was not influenced by “The Most Dangerous Game?” Everyone is standing on the shoulders of someone else. Perhaps this is where sci-fi and fantasy are so popular with some authors – creating new worlds and aliens which have never been seen before; but, remarkably, even those are limited to the tried and true human-condition storylines we have all come to know and love.

The names may change and the details may vary, but the story is very much the same.

A key, at least as far as I currently see it, is to be as creative as possible within this framework – maximize the human drama to such a degree as to pull on the heartstrings of the reader – but you can’t cheat and be cheap about it or you’ll end up writing a Hallmark movie without even knowing it. (Sorry, I do think that Hallmark has its place. I personally would rather watch one of those than a vampire story, but I digress.)

Authenticity is crucial, and so, in my estimation, is purpose.Because ultimately, I believe everyone in life wants purpose or at least hopes there is some grand purpose for the madness around them. This is the element I love to write about – giving a protagonist an ultimate desire – a spine – a superobjective – a goal that is bigger than themselves which can highlight the human condition in all of us.

The themes and struggles remain the same, but the stories remain fresh as long as the readers are moved to be believe in the characters and hope for their success. At that point, it doesn’t even matter if the characters achieve their goals because the writer has achieved his or hers.

So I will continue writing about the human condition because I love writing about humans. Nothing is more fascinating. Endless possibilities – tried already in the past – can still live on as stories worth telling.

That’s what I try to do. Sometimes, I might even succeed.

A Thinking Stop

I was writing early today, and the story flowed well. It wasn’t long until I had rattled off a thousand words without much difficulty at all. It felt good. I was accomplishing something.

And then I stopped. Not because I couldn’t have written more; I was completely prepared and able to do so, but I purposefully stopped – to think.

I have found that an extremely important part of writing is thinking. I tend to just go, but what comes first isn’t necessarily the best. I reached a part in my story where I have to make some conscious decisions about what to do next. I generally know where it is going, but some small important details may greatly hinge on the pondering that I do.

So I purposefully stopped in order to let the plot and characters rattle around in my brain for a day. I want to see if any seed thoughts can grow into a direction which is more intriguing that I originally intended. A lot of writing can happen without any keyboard or pen or pencil. A lot of writing can happen in the mind while driving, while doing the dishes, or while exercising.

Some people stop writing because their stuck. I stop writing because I’m not stuck. I just want to add a layer of thought to the direction I am taking.

Slow down for a day and see what happens the next time you turn on your computer.


Can we identify a real person’s ‘superobjective’ by how they actually behave in real life?

As I think about writing and character development and human behavior and a ton of other things, I keep going back to the fascinating world of the superobjective.

A superobjective is what acting coach Larry Moss calls the overarching goal or desire of a character’s existence.  Whether acting or writing, keeping the superobjective in mind will keep your character grounded in reality and genuineness, while keeping their focus on what is most important.

But lately, as I’ve been thinking about how people react in certain circumstances, I started to think if people in real life actually have superobjectives? Is there something that I am striving for more than anything else? Hmmm …Can some reactions and behavior of the people around us be explained away by understanding what caused that behavior? Is there some hidden superobjective tucked under the surface which could make a person’s action suddenly make sense?

A few years back I was at a banquet where some individuals were being honored. A relative of a certain person who was to be honored discovered that this person’s name was left off of the program by mistake. Well that was it! The relative could not let it go. The complaining got boisterous and the person’t behavior so distracting that the event could not go on and everyone in the room was giving this person their attention. The relative demanded restitution and would not back down until promised that their due reward would be forthcoming.

Why was recognition so important to this person that she was willing to cause a scene of epic proportions over an honest oversight? Could it have been that this person has been fighting for respect their whole life? Could it have been that she was belittled at a child? Or made fun of? Or had the perception of not getting their just rewards for their effort? Was she a middle child who envied the praise given to an eldest? Was respect this person’s life superobjective and she was willing to go to any lengths to right the wrong of not getting what was perceived as her due respect?

Of course, this is all conjecture as I don’t know the person at all. But I find this whole line of pondering rather invigorating. It makes me want to go create a character and give her some tragic past which helps explain current behavior.

So are thinking about superobjectives useful in looking at real life behavior? I’m not sure. But this is the kind of stuff I think about in my free time. Only a writer, I suppose.

Villains: An exercise in drama & writing

In my Intro to Theater Arts class, we did an exercise on villains. Everyone had to choose an especially wicked villain from a movie or book. I told them to chose someone who would be particularly unpleasant to be with in real life.

Then, they had to pretend that they had to act the part of this villain in a play or movie. How would they approach the role?

The goal was to try to empathize and put oneself into the shoes of a villain.

Strange, you say? Not really. In acting, one of the basic rules is not to judge a character. That is also a difficult rule because we bring with us much prejudice concerning people we do not like.

The exercise involved asking “why”. Why is that person like that? The goal was to become compassionate towards that evil character – to empathize with them – in order to bring their character to life in a realistic manner.

And so my students delved into the background of these characters, and if the background wasn’t available, they created one which would correctly justify the person’s behavior.

One person chose Cinderella’s step-mother. Seemed silly. But, it was quite instructive since we all know the story so well. What could possibly justify her nastiness towards her sweet step-daughter.

How about love?  Cinderella’s father, perhaps, favored Cinderella and cherished her so much because she reminded her of his first wife. He never showed enough love and care for his second wife who felt like she was taking a backseat. Love jealousy angle – very powerful – and justified because the wife-husband relationship should be first.

Another was that the step-mom only married for money and didn’t love him. Perhaps she was orphaned as a child, or had a harsh life, so much so that would do anything for her girls. Perhaps her first husband left her abandoned or tricked her into thinking he had royal blood, which embittered her and drove her to her obsession for getting her girls married to the prince.  We could go on all day with this.

The point is, keep asking ‘why’ until the action is sufficiently justified. Then remember those feelings when you bring the character to life.

How about writing? Well, I hope we can all see the parallels. When we create the villains or antagonists or characters who do unspeakable things, are we filling in the the appropriate back story which answers the questions ‘why’? Actions must be justified or a character will simply come across as unbelievable.

What applies to the stage is equally applicable to the page.