Writing a Play Part 4: Workshops

Okay. You’ve had your inspiration. You’ve written your first draft. You’ve sucked it up and let people read it. Now let’s take it to the next level… reading it out loud.

Sounded better in your head

There are things you can’t know about your script until you hear it out loud. Sentences that seem hilarious on paper can fall flat when you actually have to read them out. Dialogue that seems fine in your head can be awful coming out of someone’s mou–there has to be a better phrasing… can sound awful spoken out loud.

Why yes, I do have examples.

One of my favourite webcomics is Something Positive. Like most webcomics I follow, it has a strong wit and a unique voice in its dialogue. What I didn’t know is that it wouldn’t really translate from the page. And then some fans did a short film based on one of the earlier stories, and some of my favourite lines from the story… fell flat. Now you could say that it’s because the film was shot by amateur fans and not Joseph Gordon-Levitt, but honestly, spoken out loud, the lines got clunky. Super clunky. Because they move a lot faster when you’re reading them in your head than actually speaking them.

Which is something to look out for when you have my unfortunate tendency to think wit can be accomplished with excessive verbosity. Um… “bein’ all wordy.”

The second example comes from something I did, instead of a well-meaning fan film that came out a little clunky.

It was one of the earliest drafts of Salvage. I handed it to two close friends for a review, got notes, came back with a second draft, and was chided for not cutting a section of dialogue that one of my readers had advised me to be rid of. I attempted to defend the section, at which point my friend decided to prove his point in the swiftest way possible: reading the lines aloud. My reactions were as followed:

“I don’t think it’s so– Well, if you read it like that, it– maybe it needs to– STOP IT! STOP IT!”

Took, maybe, 15 seconds to be utterly broken by my own dialogue. Needless to say, it got rewritten pretty thoroughly.

The Reading

So gather your friends, hand out scripts, read it out loud. It’s hard to predict how you’ll react or what’s going to happen. Me? Frequently, my nose runs. No idea why. It’s like the emotions triggered by people enjoying something I wrote set off leaks in all of my face-holes. Kind of annoying, not gonna lie.

When they laugh, how it sounds, it’s all hard to predict. Personally, I swap between trying to savour hearing the words out loud and following along in the script so that I can catch the more obvious flaws. And then… down to business.

Once the script is read, you need people’s reactions.

It’s, at best, organized chaos. You have a room full of people (depending on how many people you invited) that hopefully will all want to sound off on what they thought, and keeping it all orderly can be a challenge.

Now, in my case, I had a fiction writing class back in University with novelist Aritha Van Herk. Aritha is a nice person and an impeccable teacher, but part of her technique is that she is merciless. Aritha Van Herk will tear you down to rubble and rebuild you, stronger and better than you were. And the way this happens is that everyone reads each other’s stories, then in class everyone tears into the story to discuss what’s wrong with it. And maybe, if you’re in the second or third year, what’s right with it, but the focus is on the former. And the writer just sits there and takes notes. Because it’s not like you can find everyone who reads your book and explain what you meant to say.

Clem Martini, my playwriting prof, believed more in positive enforcement. He’d still spend the bulk of the time on how a script needed to improve, but would open by discussing what worked.

But back to Aritha. The most valuable thing I got from two years of fiction writing class was a thick skin. By the time I started playwriting class with Clem, I wasn’t afraid to have people read my stuff and tell me what they thought. In fact, I was starting to thrive on it. However, the flip side is that I also sort of got into the habit of being a passive observer in the commentary portion, which some people find baffling.

Results

Steer into the chaos. Mine your readers for everything you can; which characters work, which don’t. If it’s a comedy, do the jokes land? If it’s a mystery, how obvious is the ending? Do people care about the story? Get everything you can, because there is going to be a lot. Unless your draft is miraculously rock-solid this early in the process (I have managed that precisely twice, similar to the number of plays I buried never to see the light of day), there will be a lot of stuff to work on. More people means more opinions and more flaws you never saw and strengths to play up.

The most recent example. My last workshop, for the farce I’ve been working on, went exceptionally well. It got the laughs it needed (if a farce isn’t funny, that’s the ball game), the main characters all worked, it was a hit. People enjoyed it, some wanted to direct it, some might even consider staging it, but there was still an ass-ton of rewrites necessary. One character had to be cut, and a full third of the cast had to be completely rewritten. Only two characters escaped without needing tweaking. Fortunately, my two favourites, so go me on that one.

Workshopping isn’t an easy process. You need a strong stomach, a thick skin, and a tough… neck, or whatever? Ran out of body part analogies. But the insights you gain on how your script is doing are invaluable.

And if you can get past the “What if nobody likes it” fear, it’s also a hell of a lot of fun. Me, I can’t wait to finish this draft so I can think about doing another.

Guess I’d better get back to that.

See you all Friday for Writers’ Circle: Confidential, when we’ll be talking about handing one of my oldest characters over to another writer.

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