Saturday, August 18, 2012

Characters vs plot, or the art of listening

I'm approaching the writing of this play completely differently from how I wrote my last play.  With my last play, I had no idea what the story was I was going to tell -  I just let my characters "speak" to me, intuiting how each scene flowed to the next, discovering the story and the plot as I went along.  When I finally wrote to the end, I then went back and made adjustments to give it more structure.  I thought this would be how I would always write plays, as I love the discovery process and the feeling of just being in the flow.

But with this play, I know the story I want to tell, and I had an outline for the whole play several weeks ago.  So now the process of writing is giving those plot points dialogue, rather than writing dialogue to discover the plot points.  While this process definitely has its advantages, I'm also discovering it has its own pitfalls, or at least one major pitfall for me:

When I write from the characters first, and not from the plot, I am writing from what they want, what they need, and then discovering how they act because of that.  When I know how they already act, I don't automatically get in touch with why they act that way, and the dialogue ends up being stilted and a clumsy way of telling the story.  The characters can feel shallow, like cardboard cutouts of people instead of real people.

I first became aware of this problem when I was stuck in the middle of the first scene and realized it was because I didn't really know what the emotional need was for each character.  While thinking about their needs definitely helped, and I did get through that first scene, I still wasn't quite happy with it.  And I find that as I go forward into other scenes, I am running up against the same problem again: I am too focused on the plot points and not enough on what is really driving the characters to act the way they do.

The root of the problem is that I don't know my characters well enough.  When I write without a story line, I have nothing to go on except who my characters are.  I have to wait and listen to them to tell me what they are going to do, and in so doing, I discover more about them.  It feels as if they are already fully formed people I am simply uncovering.  But when I write from the plot first, it's easy to skip over that listening/discovering phase.  I mean, heck, if I already know what they do, then I must know who they are, right?

I need to spend some time really listening to my characters, the way I did in my first play.  A great way to do this is through free writing, where I write as if I am the charcter writing in a journal, telling my/her story.  I started with Rosie, my main character, and I've already discovered a couple of major things about her that will have a huge impact on the first two scenes (though, in the interests of moving forward, for now I am simply going to make note of them and wait til later to actually rewrite them).  I can't wait to hear what else she has to tell me.
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