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Tips for writing for stage. Part One: Introducing Characters

Updated: Feb 22

I’m not going to pretend to be a great writer. I’m not even going to pretend to be a good writer. But I’ve written a few plays which have, in general, been well-received. I’ve also started writing a lot of plays and given up after a few pages. Some I go back to occasionally and try to work on some more. Others I never touch again. In this series of articles, I’m going to try and explain how I feel about writing, and the rules I follow in general in order to craft a script. Of course, there are no absolute “dos” and “don’ts”, and don’t take what I write here as law, but these are thing that I feel lead to the best scripts.

I’m going to begin by looking at character introduction. This is, after all, one of the first things you have to do in any play. The first time the audience see a character is going to massively influence the way they feel about them for the rest of the show. As a writer, do we want them to see the character in a certain way? How do we want them to feel about that character, and how do we achieve that?

All of this comes with character creation. Mannerisms, the way they speak, the words they use, they all need to feel unique to this character. In a play, the audience doesn’t get a well-crafted description of their characteristics, or a lengthy paragraph discussing backstory. All of this needs to be told through actions and dialogue, and that can be hard.

So some top tips for introducing characters to our audience:

· Have them addressed by name. Obviously the writer knows the characters names, and the actors know them too, but the audience won’t. The sooner we learn their names as an audience, the better.

· Establish relationships early on. For example, if the characters are brother and sister, have some reference in the dialogue to this connection – this doesn’t have to be explicit, they don’t have to call each other “brother” and “sister”. Just some reference to “mum and dad” would be enough.

· Don’t make characters behave in a way that feels unnatural, no matter how much the plot demands it. Say we are writing a scene in which two characters are talking, and one admits to cheating on her partner. Rather than having the character just say this line because it’s necessary for the play to continue, build up to it, work out why the character has said this. Was it her intention from the start of the scene? Why? What has led up to this point? Yes, the audience won’t see it, but it will help inform the dialogue you are writing and make it feel “real”. If this isn’t her intention, why does she say it? What happens between her and the other character to make her want to reveal this piece of information? How does that level of trust grow throughout the scene? We can’t just assume the trust from the start, we need to establish it in some way – maybe reference to another time where the character proved trustworthy, for example.

· Give your character a voice, and think about your target audience. If your character uses a lot of slang, or swears a lot, how would the audience respond to that? Would it help them relate to a character? Would it make them want to distance themselves from a character?

· Picture actors reading the lines. Read them to yourself, in your head or out loud. Do they sound realistic? Do they sound genuine? If not, how can you make them more genuine? People repeat themselves a lot, they say things that don’t quite make sense, they have flaws in their arguments. Everything we say in everyday conversation is not planned, it is said on the spur of the moment. If speech feels too well-written, too edited, it can be jarring to an audience. Make it untidy, and rough around the edges.

· Never forget about the actors. Every character you create is going to be played by an actor. They are going to “own” that character, they are going to come to know that character better than you. The more you understand that character, the easier you make their job. Think about how the scenes can be interpreted – the subtext, the way characters are seen. Try to read dialogue back with no prior knowledge, no bias. How do you feel about the characters, and how does that involve your enjoyment of the play?

· Writing characters for stage is very different to writing characters for prose. In prose, there is no audience and there is no actor. Stories can be told from inside other character’s heads, making the reader feel a certain way can be a lot easier. And if the reader doesn’t feel that way, the story will continue in the same way regardless, the end result will always be the same. On stage, if the audience is not on a characters side, it is evident, and it can affect the play for better or for worse. Use the audience to your advantage. Once you have the audience in the palm of your hand, anything is possible.

Tom Morley, 2019



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