Writers Tips

 

 

To help you write your short play here are some invaluable tips from top writers, actors, and directors who have all worked their magic at INK over the last six years.

 

MIRANDA HART:  (INK Festival 2020 playwright) Miranda an actor, writer and comedian.  She is best known for her sitcom Miranda and drama Call The Midwife. Other notable roles include Miss Hannigan in Annie, and the films Spy and Emma.  Miranda has published five books and achieved a sell-out arena stand-up tour with My What I Call Live Show.   

Don’t write with concern of whom it’s going to appeal to, or with fear of whether it will be liked and admired.  Write what you want to write.  Write what you need to write.  Write because you need to tell the story that is in your heart.  If it is speaking to a specific demographic then imagine telling the story to one person, the perfect person for whom you would like to be moved by your story.  Certainly think about how you want people to feel when your words reach them, but don’t judge yourself as you write.  Don’t think commercially.  It doesn’t matter if one person is buoyed, and changed by your work or one hundred or one thousand or one million, that’s not in your control or your job.  Your job is to write what’s in your soul.  My sitcom Miranda is a case in point.  I wrote it with no clue if anyone would find it funny or need the story below the comedy.  And I certainly had no idea that a woman in her late 30’s would appeal to a young and teenage audience amongst others, and nor did the BBC.  I just wrote it, for me, did the best I could and trusted and surrendered to the result.

 

ANDY POWRIE: (Frequent INK Festival playwright) is a freelance writer. He specialises in writing interactive, drama based safety and security programmes, which are delivered globally. He has a long history of working as an actor, director and sponsor of theatre.

Don’t sit and think of a title!  Titles are much easier to think of when the play is written and are sometimes obvious when it is complete.

 

Don’t believe the myth of writer’s block!  If you wait for inspiration to strike, you will drink a lot of coffee, become distracted by emails and become snow-blind from the bright white empty page in front of you.  Just start writing.  It doesn’t matter if you later change it all – there will almost certainly be at least one useful line. Some writers plan a play in great detail.  Others find where it is going once they are underway.  It doesn’t matter which sort of writer you are, but don’t beat yourself up if you don’t quite know how it is going to turn out.  Trust to serendipity!

 

Don’t tell anybody about the play until it’s finished.  An idea that has excited you will usually be met with a stunning lack of interest, or well-meaning but painful suggestions for hilarious gags…

Do tell people you are a playwright. Then prove it! Whether someone produces or publishes the play is irrelevant. You’ve crafted a play.  And never ever laugh at someone who says, ‘is it a play wot you wrote?’

 

MARTYN WADE:  (INK Festival 2020 playwright) has written a number of original plays, adaptations and translations, chiefly for radio. His play Holbein’s Skull was shortlisted for last year’s Peter Tinniswood Award.

Elmore Leonard’s “most important rule” might apply to drama as well as to fiction: “If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.” Supporting (I assume) the virtues of omission, compression and careful choice of words, Truman Capote dismissed Jack Kerouac’s work with the comment, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”

Billy Wilder talked about “the power of omission”. What’s left out can be as important as what’s put in – especially in a short play.

“Kill your darlings”. There may, e.g. be one or two exchanges of dialogue which don’t contribute to the play at all but which, for some reason, you’re particularly fond of. Remove them.

 

Michael Powell referred to the use of “little bombs” – i.e. unresolved situations, unexplained incidents – which are strategically placed in his films and which explode (are resolved/explained etc) as the storyline develops.

 

Write the first draft quickly. Re-write, and re-write again, and again, as slowly as you like. The difficult task is bringing something out of nothing, so it’s better to achieve Draft 1 at some speed; with a burst of initial enthusiasm; on impulse, and a wing and a prayer. Though you might be unhappy about what you’ve written, don’t stop after the first few pages and start again; you might get stuck forever. A first draft, however inadequate, is at least a first draft. Abandoned opening pages aren’t much to crow about, or give you the confidence to go on. When it has begun to take shape, read the play out loud – or ask others to do so. Much can then be learned. The play, after all, is written to be heard.

 

Stay ahead of the audience (i.e. make sure that you’re not treading an entirely predictable path), but not so far that you lose their confidence or patience.

The topmost tip of all is Somerset Maugham’s: “Writers should always sit with their backs to the window.”

 

JAMES CHRISTOPHER: (INK Associate Director) In a previous life James was a theatre and film critic mostly for Time Out and The Times.

Less is more: a cast of one to four actors is more than enough for an INK play. It still allows a huge amount of flexibility as actors can play multiple roles.

 

Stage pictures: imagine your play as a graphic story book or comic strip with a single caption for each event. Trying to visualise your play helps nail the story and can also help you shed needless amounts of exposition (aka waffle).

 

Know your characters: it sounds obvious but it’s amazing how many plays come unstuck because the audience doesn’t ‘buy’ the character. It is the true test of your play. Profile your characters. Know how they tick — what they love, loathe, and fear. If we believe in your characters your play will fly

 

STEVE WATERS: (INK Festival 2018 playwright) Steve’s plays include Limehouse and Temple (Donmar warehouse); The Contingency Plan and Little Platoons (Bush Theatre); published by Nick Stern as is his seminal guide, The Secret Life of plays. Television and radio work includes Saving The Blue Radio for Radio 4. Steve is Professor of Scriptwriting at the University of East Anglia, where he convenes the MA in Creative Writing: Scriptwriting programme. His new 10 Part drama for BBC World Service ‘Miriam and Youssef ‘ will be broadcast from April-June and available on BBC Sounds’

It’s a moment not a story

No more than three voices and preferably less

Cut to the chase

Invite laughter

Character not concept

One small shift or change

No exposition

Be playful

 

JUDY UPTON: (INK Festival 2020 Playwright) is an award-winning playwright and screenwriter who has had plays produced by the Royal Court, National Theatre and BBC Radio 4 as well as feature film and TV credits.

  Write What You Want To Write

If you love political dramas, maybe write one. If you don’t, don’t try to do that just because it is fashionable. There was a phase where everyone felt they had to write at least one very gory scene. Fine if that’s your thing, but if it isn’t you, it’s not likely to be convincing. Topical plays are in demand, but it’s better to set a trend than follow one. If you ‘write what you know’ it will feel authentic, but if you want to ‘write what you don’t know’ there’s nothing wrong with that either, and it can work just as well.

 

Book jackets try to sell you a novel by telling you what a great story the book contains and that it is told in a great way. People visit the theatre for a great story, well told too.

 

 Make Your characters do stuff (rather than just let them talk).

Best keep to six actors or less, even if there needs to be some doubling up.

The exceptions are plays written for youth theatres, community groups schools etc that ask for big casts. For New Writing Theatre, if approaching the paid sector, a small cast play sadly has the best hope of being produced, because of the wages bill.

 

Always make sure each actor has a part worth playing. Put yourself in an actor’s shoes. Even on the fringe where they may not be paying the actors, would you give up your evening for one or two lines, or to just walk on carrying a cup of tea?

 

 Keep Staging and Props Simple

The more elaborate the staging, the more you restrict the opportunities for your play to be produced. By all means think big, but if you need a revolving stage, ice rink or a train moving across the stage, think whether you could create all this with a bit of low cost theatrical magic – like acting. If your actors tell the audience they’re floating in zero gravity, or give that impression by their movements, the audience will accept it.

 

It is always up to you, the writer, to describe in your script how you imagine a scene will be staged, even if the director ultimately does it differently. You need to convince the literary manager of the company or theatre that your play is stage-able, e.g. ‘The raging sea is suggested by projection and sound effects.’ Now the company doesn’t think you’re hoping they’ll flood their auditorium for your piece, they can concentrate on whether they like the script.

 

Don’t Forget The Drama!

Whether comic, tragic or neither a play needs drama. There has to be a conflict. Never forget you are using actors to tell us a story. It is not just people chatting. Stuff happens. Generally someone wants to achieve something but something or someone is stopping that happening, e.g. ‘John wants to make a sandwich but Sue won’t give him the bread.’ That’s a basic conflict, albeit not a very gripping one as it stands. Perhaps the bread is the last loaf left in the city, and perhaps Sue is starving. Now the conflict is a more urgent one and a drama is starting to build.

 

JOHN MORTON: (INK Friend and TV script writer)

It’s simple. Don’t give up.
A lot of people are in love with the idea of writing but most of them will give up because they aren’t prepared for the reality – which is that hour to hour, day to day, writing is difficult.  Sitting alone with your own thoughts for hours every day trying to will something into existence is not a normal thing to do and it’s not exactly a recipe for fun. Once you understand and accept that you’re already ahead of the field.

So much of whether something succeeds or not is to do with things outside your control, the one thing that is in your control is not giving up. It’s worth it in the end because there’s something in you that you need to say and you have no option but to try to find the way to say it.
So on bad days or days when you’ve gone backwards or days where you feel you can’t do it, remember that those are normal days. Welcome to the club.
Writing’s not supposed to be easy. If it was anybody could do it.

 

 

ESTHER FREUD: (INK Patron and playwright 2018/2019) trained as an actress. Her first novel, Hideous Kinky, was short listed for the John Llewellyn Rhys prize and made into a film starring Kate Winslet. She has written eight novels. Her stage play Stitchers enjoyed a month long London run, following a rehearsed reading of a 30-minute extract at INK 17. Her latest novel was Mr Mac and Me and her new book:  I Couldn’t Love You More will be published in May 2021

I found that writing a play was much the same as writing a novel:  Find a subject that interests you, and give it your full attention for some hours every day. Read everything you write out loud. You’ll know immediately if it’s working

Decide on the arc of your story. Is it happening over an hour, a week, a year?

Who is telling the story? What do they not know, what do they need to find out?

Every story has three acts: There’s the Set Up, The Conflict, the Conclusion. You can be as inventive with this as you like.

 

GREG MOSSE: (INK writer & workshop leader 2019-2020) is a ‘writer and encourager of writers’. A story development specialist in theatre, TV, film and novels, he is the founder of the Criterion New Writing script program. Nine of his theatre shows were produced in 2019, including Lady of Jazz, a musical set in 1920s New Orleans that premiered at INK 2019.

 

Every scene in your play should be structured like an unresolved short story – set-up, development, crescendo … new question. Except for the last scene. While all the major characters still have skin in the game, the last scene provides the answers in a single unifying climax.

 

Your characters should be in competition with one another. Their objectives should be mutually exclusive – that’s why the scenes in your play are gripping scenes of conflict. When the audience finally knows whose objectives will be realised and who will fail, that’s the end of the play.

 

Don’t write the whole play in every scene. Focus on one small drama that evolves into a bigger drama, leading to a new question. That’s enough. The play emerges in the audience’s imagination from the counterpoint between all these scenes. A good play is completed by its audience.

 

If your story is interesting, the audience will pay attention. That said, what you tell them is very quickly digested, assimilated. Leaving what? Leaving what you haven’t said, what the audience doesn’t yet know – the meaning behind the action, the intriguing question of where it might lead.

 

If you want to write a play on a larger scale, you probably need the action to have repercussions outside of the intimate interpersonal relationships of your characters. Try to introduce an important panoramic storyline – flood, war, election – to put your characters under pressure.

 

 JAN ETHERINGTON: (INK writer 2016-2020 & workshop leader) An award-winning comedy writer, Jan’s most recent success is the BBC Radio 4 comedy series, Conversations from a Long Marriage, starring Joanna Lumley and Roger Allam, which aired this year. A second series will air later this year. Writing with husband, Gavin Petrie, their many Radio and TV comedy hits, include Second Thoughts, Faith In the Future and Next of Kin.

As I had planned to lead a Things I Wish I’d Known before I started Writing Workshop for 2020, here are some of the top tips I would have passed on.

 TREAT IT SERIOUSLY. This sounds bizarre, coming from a comedy writer but many people say to me ‘I’ve often thought I could write’. Once, exasperated, I responded ‘Yes, but you didn’t, did you?!’  – for which I apologised. But as Kingsley Amis said ‘The secret of being a writer is applying the seat of your pants to the seat of the chair.’ In other words, treat it like a job and do it regularly. Try to write 1000 words a day. Some of them (most of them!) will be rubbish but there will be something there that has worked and will spur you on. Also, on this topic, present it professionally. There are plenty of books of scripts and information online on what a script should look like. Make it look like you know what you’re doing.

HIT THE GROUND RUNNING. In a short play, we don’t need to know the back-story of our characters; we need to know what’s happening to them now. In my series FAITH IN THE FUTURE, the first scene began with Lynda Bellingham opening the front door to her ‘gap year’ daughter, JULIA SAWALHA who stormed ‘Mum, why didn’t you tell me you’d moved?!’ We learned a lot from that one line a) they were related b) they’d been apart for a while and c) They hadn’t kept in touch. It cut out the need for any other ‘set-up’ explanation.

 READ IT ALOUD. This ensures that you are writing real dialogue and not sitcom or stage speak. Ask yourself ‘is this how I talk to my friends?’ Do I really use pointless expressions like ‘Talking of

which’ or ‘In my opinion’? Reading aloud also is essential to time the piece. Very important to stick to the rules, for the length of the play.

 CHARACTERS SHOULD BE DEFINED. Your characters are not there just to divide up the speeches equally. Each character should have a very definite attitude, angle, opinion on the situation. They should also have very different speech patterns, rhythms and preferably accents. Listen to people you know. How do they talk? Some never finish a sentence; others  are hesitant; many repeat words and exclamations ‘Wow!’ or ‘Like’ or have favourite phrases –  ‘To be fair’, ‘it’s not rocket science’….which are tiresome to the others.

TENSION Is the knicker elastic of every play. If it’s not kept tight, everything falls down

There must be a ‘Will they, won’t they?’ ‘Did they?’ ‘Does she know?’ ‘Did he do it?’ something to keep the audience engaged and wanting to find out what happens, which is why every scene must have a purpose, at the end of which something or someone must have changed or learned something. Who or what is causing problems?

 WHAT’S IT ABOUT? WATCH, LISTEN AND LEARN –from everything you can, on stage and screen. Learn what works, what doesn’t; do you care (or not) about the characters? As you watch, ask  – WHAT’S IT ABOUT?? Then ask yourself that question before you write. If you can say (as I did about my comedy NEXT OF KIN) ‘It’s about grandparents bringing up orphaned grandchildren’ then we  ‘get’ the situation immediately. It’s called the logline. When in doubt about how to write a play or screenplay, just watch anything by NEIL SIMON especially THE ODD COUPLE or PRISONER OF SECOND AVENUE.
GRIFF SCOTT: (INK Festival 2018-2020 Playwright) Griff’s radio and stage plays have been performed at previous INK Festivals, and at theatres in Essex.  She leads INK’s Golden Years writing workshops at Halesworth Library and is regularly commissioned to write scripts for young people’s drama workshops.  In May her work would have been performed at the first Colchester Fringe Festival.

With a short play it’s even more important that you make every word work for its place.  Also consider your characters – are any of them disposable?  If so, dispose of them.

 

Giving characters ‘back-stories’ is invaluable.  They become 3D individuals and you have a better perspective as to how they might speak, how they might react.

 

Don’t worry about your first draft being rubbish.  Once you get your raw material down, you can start to wrought your piece.  Blank pages are useless.  Write, write, write!

There is a saying that ‘Writing is re-writing’ and the importance of editing can’t be over-emphasised.   Put your 1st draft to one side and don’t look at it for 2 weeks.  When you come back to it, you WILL see things you need to change.

 

Stop being shy – it’s a waste of your time.  If you are serious about writing you need to develop a thick skin.  Let people read your work and comment on it.  Get people together for a table reading, followed by a discussion about your work in progress.  Be grateful for the feedback and pay particular attention to points made more than once.   You won’t use every suggestion, but you’ll be surprised how many times you do pick up useful feedback and act upon it.

 

GERALDINE ALEXANDER: (INK performer 2017; Writer) trained at RADA & has worked extensively in theatre, Film  & TV. She also writes & directs. Her play Amygdala is published by Oberon Books.

When I have the whole story in my head I decide what form it will most suit  –screenplay, poem or play and then I organize it.

So I find the events and work out how you get from one to the other.  Like pins in a board with string joining them. The length of string depends on you.

A short play is a lovely thing – it will probably hinge on one major event.

I tend to write uncensored for my first draft, making myself plough on however awful it feels.  I need to get it all out and then I go back and start the real work.

I like seeing things so I write titles on cards and arrange them across the floor – I draw on them sometimes – like a storyboard. That way you can see what is not needed and winkle it out.

I’m no expert; learning with every new attempt and if anyone finds the magic formula do pass it on!

 

 ANNEKA RICE: (INK friend Actress; Writer; Presenter)

I write newspaper columns and comedy for Radio4. I always start writing with what I know. I put an experience, a thought, a feeling down on paper. That is then the core of my work, the heart of it, and everything else somehow spirals out from that. Even if I’m writing about a subject I know little about, I always start with something personal to break the white of the page. It’s the same with painting; you have to kill the white of the canvas! When writing, there will always be characters, experiences, places and events that I can “draw” on and which will worm their way into the finished piece.

 

PHILLIP POPE: (INK friend – Radio Active)

My tip may seem obvious but it is to make the dialogue sound like something you would hear, not something written. Having said that cut out anything which isn’t in some way important to the story

But then again I do the music!

 

JAMES MCDERMOTT: (INK Trustee & INK Festival playwright and performer 2015 – 2019)

Write the play you want to see in the world

Wrought (or shape) play: they map through action and dialogue the verbal, physical and psychological games humans play with each other as they try to get what they want from each other.

When you write a play you’re writing a live event so think about how you map energy in a room and write for all five senses.

 

TONY HAWKS: (INK friend – Comedian)

My top tip would be to try think of your piece of work as a house that you are building from scratch. Make damn sure that the foundations are there. For me, these foundations are the characters (are they real and believable?) and the storyline (does it hold water, and what do you want to it say to your audience?). Don’t start building in earnest until these are in place….”

 

MATT CAVENDISH: (INK friend – Actor & Writer) Matt is associate member of Mischief Company creators of The Play That Goes Wrong, Peter Pan Goes Wrong, etc.

Just write it. The hardest part of the process is getting something down on paper, there are lots of reasons to not put pen to paper – most usually steeped in thinking what we write won’t be much good. But who cares? No-one gets anything right the first time. As soon as it’s down on paper then you can start to refine, edit and transform your work.

 

Write something that engages you. If you don’t find it thrilling, funny, sad or moving then it’s unlikely an audience will. So have faith in your own taste and don’t write what you think people want to see/hear.

 

Figure out an ending before you finish. One of the hardest parts of the writing process is wrapping a story up so get a head start and figure out where you’re going.

 

Write out your story puzzle pieces so that they are easy to read and rearrange. Story telling is quite often about problem solving, so don’t be put off by plot difficulties, it probably means you are doing something right.

 

Share your work. Read it aloud. You’ll find that your process will be accelerated far quicker than you thought possible by hearing it read aloud by good actors, sending your script out to people you respect for feedback is also essential. Don’t be embarrassed. And finally, try to enjoy the process as much as you can! Finish it, start a new one, get better.

 

DAN ALLUM: (INK writer 2018/2019) is an established east Anglian born writer who has worked with the National Theatre. Royal Court and BBC. He is Artistic Director of the nationally acclaimed Romany Theatre Company.

 OPENINGS:  Don’t put down the history, the set-up, why the characters are there – hit the ground running.  Everything must earn its keep – it may be a fantastic bit of prose or a wonderful image but if it’s not relevant to the story and the characters, it shouldn’t be there.

Who are we meeting?  Who do we identify with, where do we start the journey, how do we get into the piece?  Cut the preamble and emotionally tie people down.  Simple often works.

The opening can act as a trailer for the whole play.  You can set up the idea of the piece and convey something of what’s to come.

 Character: No drama works without emotionally engaging characters.  The audience must want to spend time with them.  They don’t have to like them but they must want to know what happens to them. Each character must earn their keep.  Could someone else say those lines?  If so cut the character.

If you’re thinking of an accent or a particular voice for a character, write it in – allow the distinctiveness of each personality to come through.

Don’t over-populate your play – bad scripts often have too many characters jostling for space.  Think about who the audience can emotionally engage with.

 Dialogue: Strange as it may seem, it can be more authentic to write characters that don’t finish sentences, forget what they’re saying halfway through, who don’t round everything up – it’s how we all speak.  Let the inarticulacy through.

Make sure that your writing isn’t prose masquerading as dialogue – try reading it aloud to make sure.  Avoid being descriptive or prescriptive – don’t tell the audience how to think and feel, and don’t tell them what’s happening.  Don’t over-explain – keep it lean and mean. Boil it down to the minimum, the essential.