Writing a Play, Part One: Inspiration

I’ve talked a fair amount about plays I’ve written on this blog. And because I started at the beginning and have been working my way forward, it’s easy to mistake these entries for the equivalent of sharing your most embarrassing drunken college party stories rather than the history of the thing I do I’m most proud of. But I’ve tended to focus on how the plays turned out, rather than a more in-depth look at how they came to be. Something I aim to correct this year, by sharing the process as I piece together what will hopefully be my next script.

I’d say “hopefully my next award-winning script” but sweet calamari of Alpha Centauri is that a pretentious thing to say. If I read that in a blog, I’d rededicate myself to finding the author and punching him in his stupid face, and I am just not hard enough to track down to be tempting fate on that score.

Also, my primary concern has always been “Hopefully it’s not so bad that people who read it are compelled to knock me over and spit on me.” They typically aren’t, I mean that’s never actually happened to my recollection, but it’s not a concern that’s easy to shake.

So let’s begin our journey from idea to script that’s hopefully stageable with the earliest steps: the moments of inspiration.

Finding the Idea

The worst thing you can do as a writer is sit around waiting for “The Muse” to strike you. Ideas for stories don’t just drift out of nowhere, drag you to a keyboard, and work your hands like a puppet. But before you can write a story, you have to figure out what that story is going to be.

Sometimes I get an inspiration from a dream. Four times, to be precise. I’ve covered two of them. In other cases, there’s a notion I want to play with, be it the theory that the Devil gets the best one-liners, the shadow government of Earth, or the Biblical Apocalypse. Doesn’t matter what, specifically, it is, some idea or notion kicks me out of my usual between-script panic of “didn’t I use to be a writer” and into the early stages of script creation.

In this case, it came from an unexpected source. Scorpio’s technical director glowered at me over beers (his default expression is a surly glower, at least with me it seems to be) and said “I want to do a farce. You should write a farce.” And I thought to myself, it has been a while since my last (and first) farce, hasn’t it? And that one turned out pretty good. The last script I wrote, which is still in development, was more serious. Well, as serious as a noir-style murder mystery featuring Alice from Wonderland, Dorothy from Oz, and Wendy from Neverland as central characters can be.

Which is pretty serious if you’re willing to put in the effort. I hear it’s quite good, someday we’ll see if audiences agree.

But a proper farce… they’re a challenge, to be sure. Can’t hide between scene changes, can’t pause for backstory (not that I ever should, it murders the pace every time), need to build the hilarity consistently, but when it all works, man but you have created something special. I have seen my share of live theatre, from smaller fringe plays to the giant spectacle musicals, but there are few I treasure quite so much as Noises Off in 2003 or The Play That Goes Wrong a year ago. So if I have another farce in me, I owe it to myself to find out.

Refinement

I have never really gone right from inspiration to hammering out a draft. I need to ponder and polish the idea, make sure it has legs. Figure out the basic shape of the story, and see if it still inspires me to write it. I’ve had a few ideas die on this particular vine. Original Prankster, about a prankster god who… would have done stuff, I’m not sure I ever got that far, had what I thought was a clever title but zero story worth telling. Johnny Black, in which a hitman would have had to tell his childhood best friend what he did for a living, sprung from a particularly badass line the Video Vulture said in a rehearsal, but I never managed more than ten pages without getting bored of it, and besides which John Cusak did that idea fifty times better in Grosse Pointe Blank. Star-crossed would have involved a writer battling against an anthropomorphism of the narrative convention of star-crossed romance itself, but it was suggested I might want to ease the throttle a little on all of the meta-stories.

In this case, it’s all well and good to say “I want to write a farce,” but before you can put metaphorical pen to hypothetical paper, you need a little more than that. You need to do the legwork on the key elements of the story:

  • What is the setting? Where do we start? What does an average day for our central characters look like? For instance, Noises Off is a touring farce in its final rehearsals, and Rumors by Neil Simon is a group of wealthy New Yorkers attending what should be a birthday party for the Deputy Mayor.
  • What new element breaks the status quo? Something needs to happen early on that alerts the main characters’ lives forever. In Funny Money, it’s Henry accidentally swapping his work briefcase for one filled with money.
  • What’s to be gained, and what’s at risk? Farces are driven by people needing to commit outrageous acts to keep a secret. Outrageously hilarious, for preference, otherwise you’re not a farce, you’re Breaking Bad. They do this either because they have something incredible to gain, or are facing a large enough danger that they have to keep digging in to their ridiculous lies and deceits. In Rumors, they go from “We must shield our friend from scandal” to “Now we might actually all go to jail.” In Funny Money, it’s a matter of “If we take this money and run, we’re set for life. If we don’t run fast enough, bad people will come looking for it.”
  • How does everything resolve? You need an ending, and since this is a comedy, it probably shouldn’t be a Hamlet-esque bloodbath. People are not prepared for that.

My last farce, Dying on Stage, was set backstage of a comedy/variety show. The status quo was shifted by two things: first, legendary star of stage and screen Gareth Gardner has agreed to do the show, giving them a sold-out house and a chance to turn around their ailing fortunes, and second, someone starts killing members of the company. But since a scandal would sink them right when they’re about to break out, they try to keep everything hidden from both the audience and Gareth. And there it all is: a setting established, a crucial change to the status introduced, and huge stakes set to compel the characters to do hilarious things.

Or, as I’ve said in the past, establish premise (“This is our struggling variety show!), hijinks ensue (“Someone in the company is a killer!”), with sexy results (“We need to cover up murders to save our company!”). So before I can start hammering out a new farce, I need to establish as much of that as I can.

Do we have a plot yet?

And here’s where I’m at. I can’t tell you everything, some details will shift and others I’m going to want to keep under wraps, but clearly I should share some details or why am I even writing this.

  • The setting: an event management company, run by a duo and… some employees. We’ll see how many characters I need. At least one. I considered an event venue, but ultimately thought it left too little room for the proper stakes.
  • The new element: due to a miscommunication, they’re running two events simultaneously in one venue: a high-profile wedding and a sci-fi convention. Both of these could lead to huge business, but something occurs that puts both events, and our event planners, at risk (I know what it is, and it was the key to getting this idea out of first gear, but you’ll have to wait and see).
  • The stakes: high. And that was key. “The events might go wrong and the company will get bad reviews online” wasn’t nearly enough stakes, so I found a way to ratchet them up, and now I’m confident we’ve got a plot. Throw in a bride having a panic attack, a best man who’d rather be at the sci-fi con, and shenanigans involving celebrity guests, and we’ve got ourselves a farce.

Once the final pieces of the plot puzzle fell into place, I was convinced I had my story, and was ready to tear into it. Then I had a mortality-based panic attack and lost my mojo for the night, but soon… soon I’ll get into this.

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