An Approach to Drama Writing Part III: Use your image to create your characters …

Part III in my short series about writing drama – but much is applicable to any type of writing.

Part I: Be Fearless! HERE!

Part II: Writing Starts in the Mind HERE!

Part III: Use Your image or scene to create your characters or vice versa

In part two I talked about using a phrase or an image in order to flesh out in your mind what a particular scene might be about.

If you have an image or scene in your mind, you can then go on to create some possible characters who might find themselves in that scene.

OR

If you have thought about a character you’d like to write about, then you can brainstorm scenes with which he or she might be involved.

Example one: I was standing in a check-out line at a superstore when I looked over and saw a little clock shop. For whatever reason, a stupid time pun went through my head and I just started thinking about images of clocks and all the silly ways one might make puns about time. I left the store with an image of a clock shop in my head. How could I turn that into a short drama? I started thinking about characters who would come to a clock shop. Who might show up there and start saying cheesy puns about time? What might the situation be? I thought of the image of a grandfather sitting at home, lamenting the demise of his favorite time piece just as his plucky granddaughter arrives asking him what he wants for his birthday. As he drops some subtle hints of where she could go, he dresses up as a cross between the mad-hatter and the wizard of oz, greeting his granddaughter in disguise and giving her a hard time as she tries to buy a clock for her grandfather. I developed this out into a fun little piece I entitled, “A Minute Problem at the World’s Last Clock Shop.”

It all started with the image of a clock shop, followed by creating a scenario populated by characters based on that image.

Example two: “Words to Say at the End of the World”  I wrote this piece about a mother and daughter who have to understand what is really important in their lives once someone dropped an atomic bomb on their front lawn.  It all started with an image of two people starting at a nuclear explosion, knowing that life would soon be gone. From that short image, I did my prerequisite thinking, trying to determine what situation might heighten the dramatic tension. What two characters might be able to show regret, anxiety, and love within the last moments of their lives?  Husband and wife? Certainly could have chosen that route, but I decided to try writing this sketch about a mother who is preparing to send her daughter off to college. After the bomb goes off, they replay the highlights of their lives, showing how the tension and problems that they had really didn’t mean anything in that final moment of their lives. The daughter had only one last thing to say to her mother, and that was … (no spoilers!).

Once again, the drama started with a simple premise and I had to find the right characters to put into the scene. The options, of course, were endless, but you just have to choose one and try it out. If it doesn’t work, try a different character.

So here’s the steps I take when writing drama:

1) Remind myself to be fearless.

2) Find a phrase, theme or image to think upon.

3) Take that image in your mind and try out different characters who might fit well into that scene. Or, if in #2, you have some characters in mind, go ahead and insert the characters into different settings and scenes to see if they will work.

Next Up: Part IV – Creating Conflict and Coming to a Resolution

Trust Your Past and Use It

Here’s one thing I have learned about writing:

Trust your past, and use it.

Why do young writers tend to write fantasy or science fiction? Because they lack experience.

Well, I don’t. (lack experience, that is.)

So …

Trust your past, and use it.

Upbringing, experiences, relationships, stupid mistakes, brilliant moves, books you’ve read, people you’ve met, places you’ve been, languages you’ve learned, etc … Writers have so many tangible writing projects staring them in the face. Grab one and go for it.

Some of my characters I wholly imagine, but others are drawn from particular people, whom I have met who have, for some reason, stuck out in my mind. Remember that couple you met twenty years ago – the overbearing wife and the push-over of a husband who just couldn’t do anything right? Use them, twist them, mold them, bend them into something original, new and exciting. I’m using that specific couple for an important role in an upcoming novel. The names and situations change, but certain character traits are too salient to throw away. Use them!

Vietnam plays such a prominent place in my writing because I lived there for ten years. I can’t get away from it, nor would I want to because those experiences changed me. How have your experiences changed you? Use them in your writing. And if you aren’t a writer, use them in your life.

Much of my writing will always be influenced by the multi-cultural living I’ve experienced these last twenty years. My experiences are unique. No other author has them, so how can I use that to my advantage? I must figure out a way. It will help define me as a writer and it will help define my books for my readers.

Experience is a collection of tools in our writer’s toolbox. Use it. Trust it. Follow it.

It will improve your writing.

Drama & Writing

(This post starts an occasional series on the connections I see between writing and teaching or performing drama. As always, your thoughts are appreciated.)

Before I get into how working with drama has helped my writing, I’d like to recount how I ended up getting involved in drama.  I was a writer that hadn’t written much of anything in twenty years.  With the drama teacher at my school leaving, I threw out an idea that I could write a play with a group of high school students, and then we could produce it for the stage in the following semester. The powers that be said ‘yes’ so I began to realize that now was the time to try out writing once again.

Trust me, it was an exercise in experimentation, not expertise. We muddled through some ideas, put together a rough plot-line and ended up writing “What I Wouldn’t Give … for a Monkey Love Potion.”  As the title might suggest, it was long on silly jokes and physical gags, but short on plot and substance. The performance went over well enough that I decided to do another play the following year.  We produced a musical called “A Tad of Trouble”, set in 1903, where a mute boy is given the gift of song by his guardian angel if he promises to right the wrongs in his life. I’m actually quite proud of this one. It was both moving and funny when produced for the stage, and it proved to have a lasting message. This one remains unpublished. I definitely want to re-stage it in the future, and I want to publish it. It’s worthy.

By this point, I had gotten the writing bug.  So over the next couple of years I continued producing new dramatic works including “Take Two” (another musical), “Spy Blue” (the tragic and moving spy thriller), and “Life with Stewart” (the poignant and funny drama about   stardom and hidden family secrets).

I threw myself headlong into drama, not understanding the terminology and not being formally trained in drama, but I learned that I have a knack for slowly working through the threads of a dramatic performance and eventually weaving it together in a cohesive and meaning work.

Then this past year,  I asked if we could bring the Theater Arts into the regular classroom, and I was fortunate to be assigned to teach “Intro to Theater Arts” for the first time.

This is when I began to panic.  Working through a script and putting together a performance is one thing, but teaching the ins and outs of method acting and theatrical production is certainly something completely different.

So I hit the books, trying to understand what acting really was and how to approach it in an effective manner. I quickly learned there were all different types of schools of thoughts concerning acting, but the one thing I remembered in my education classes is not to get too hung up on any one method or ideology concerning the teaching of anything. The advice was this: USE EVERYTHING. So I tried to find a resource that approached acting and theater in a level-headed manner.

I came across a book by acting teacher Larry Moss which really struck a cord with me.  Larry broke down acting into very concrete parts which can and must be analyzed in order to understand the character and what they are trying to achieve.  This is where I began to see a useful connection between teaching drama and writing. For as I began to understand how to take apart a scene and understand the characters, I began to also see how the writer of the play purposefully constructed that character.

How do you take apart a scene?  Every character has an objective. It’s what they want or hope to accomplish in the scene.  You have the obstacle. What is preventing the character from achieving that objective. You have the stakes. How important is it for that character to achieve the objective?

I’ve enjoyed taking these simple steps and applying it to my characters in my own writing. It is a useful exercise. If the stakes are high, do the words and actions of the character prove it? Do they match the stakes or do they let the scene fizzle and let down the readers?

I’ll give an example from my own writing in another post.  But keep in mind: objective, obstacles, stakes. Every literary character has them.

Next up in the drama & writing series: Superobjective