Playwriting Seminars

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CONTENT | BUSINESS | SCREENWRITING | FORMAT | STRUCTURE | WORKING

[Parts of the original edition are still available with these links.]

 

PLAYWRITING SEMINARS 2.0

A Handbook on the Art and Craft of Dramatic Writing with an Introduction to Screenwriting

The new revised and expanded paperback and e-book editions. Don't have a Kindle, but want the e-book? Get free Kindle reading apps from Amazon for iPad, PC, Mac, and Android (they work well).

The Handbook's key concepts came initially from the author's work with Lucasfilm and the BBC. It was originally developed for playwrights and screenwriters, but has since been used by writers of fiction and nonfiction books. [Genre novels and their non-fiction equivalents utilize all of the structural elements and issues of plays including point of attack, inciting incident, foreshadowing and exposition, subtext, curtain lines (chapter endings), climax and resolution, open and closed endings, and variant time structures.]

Playwriting Seminars is “a treasure-trove of information, philosophy, and inspiration” (Theatre Journal), “an absolutely essential guide to all aspects of playwriting and includes a valuable whitewater raft trip down the rapids of Hollywood screenwriting” (Magellan), and “a terrific learning environment for writers” (WebCrawler Select). It was also a recommend resource for new playwrights by New Dramatists. More on the new edition...


Order 'There's something very perverse in me that loves trying to do the impossible and put things on the stage that are very hard to stage and that maybe people haven't seen before. And I have this impulse to see how far the form can take me. Because I think of all the arts, the theatre is the most conservative, because you have that ghastly problem of having to sell all the tickets every night.'
-- Tina Howe






Info & Links for the Essential Submission Guides for Playwrights: TCG Dramatists Sourcebook & DG Resource Directory


A Note on Dual Plot Structure

The concept of dual or twin plots is one of the core understandings of Playwriting Seminars 2.0 and was first suggested by the great Shakespearean scholar A. C. Bradley. This insight has a long pedigree, but the real proof of the concept is in the practice of playwriting: It is nearly impossible to find produced plays by contemporary playwrights who don’t use this dual plot structure.

   These twins (or pairs) are called suspense and emotional plots in this Handbook since the terms capture the key differences between them, but what they are named matters far less than the impact they have on contemporary playwriting. Why playwrights use this dual plot structure may owe much more to the way human beings have always told lasting stories than to theoretical understandings. While it may be uncomfortable to acknowledge for those who like to make clear distinctions between so-called "high" and "low" art, this dual plot structure crosses media from theatre to film and genre novels, showing up in such seemingly dissimilar work at Hamlet and The Hunger Games. Plot structure is essential -- the desire for that and why people respond to it is probably built into our DNA -- but what is created on top of that plot structure out of characters and story ultimately determines the way audiences and readers will respond. Demonstrating this key part of the craft of dramatic writing is one of the goals of the new edition of Playwriting Seminars 2.0.

Parts of the Handbook

Playwriting Seminars 2.0 is intended for a range of users from students exploring the art to playwrights making the transition to screenwriting. Novelists and authors in other genres have found the first edition of this Handbook helpful in beginning to write for theatre or film as have theatre professionals working with new playwrights. While this is a professional Handbook on the playwright’s craft with a focus on the kinds of new plays most often produced by the nearly 500 regional theatres in America, authors developing genre novels and their nonfiction equivalents have found the Structure section particularly helpful.

   The Handbook is divided into six sections: Content including the importance of the playwright’s “voice,” themes, character development, and subtext; Structure including plots with supporting diagrams, uses of time, monologues, and theatrical styles; Working including editing of drafts, avoiding writer’s block, writing exercises, and dealing with critics; Format for stage plays; Business including the submission process to theatres and competitions, agents, creating a script synopsis and playwright’s bio, and self-production; and Screenwriting including craft adjustments from verbal to visual storytelling, screenplay format, writing and placing spec screenplays in Hollywood and the alternative of independent filmmaking. The Afterword contains a collection of quotes on craft from playwrights, screenwriters, theatre and film directors, and producers. This section has been popular with literary managers and offers mini-lessons in playwriting, screenwriting, and writing for television.

Plays Cited & Examples

The Handbook uses examples from many plays to help explain the techniques typical of contemporary practice. Most of these examples are drawn from the work of contemporary playwrights whose plays have demonstrated their staying power by continuing to be produced by America’s regional theatres. Some were first presented decades ago while others were first produced as recently as 2012 as I was preparing this new edition. Other examples range from what might be called the “classic classics” (Sophocles, Shakespeare, Molière, and Ibsen) to mid-century classics that have influenced the development of our contemporary theatre: Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett, to name a few. In nearly every case I have tried to select plays that are easily available in print or e-book editions. If you haven’t read the scripts, the examples drawn from these plays stand on their own in terms of underlining the principles they illustrate. Reading these plays after the discussions here will deepen your understanding of the craft.

Regional Theatres as Entry Point

Regional theatres are the primary entry point into this business of playwriting in America (a similar role is played by noncommercial theatres in the UK). They premiere nearly all new plays produced in the United States and have become the research and development arm of the commercial Broadway and Off-Broadway theatre. Regional theatres have become reasonably comfortable with their place in the commercial theatre food chain and the result is a very good deal for playwrights and the theatres that produce their plays. If all goes well, playwright and theatre share in the financial gains and if audiences don’t respond positively, the producing theatre carries all the risk. Because of their interest in discovering new plays and writers, a number of these theatres offer development programs for playwrights.

The Market for New Plays

For nearly all regional theatres, story and the structure most Western playwrights have been using for the past 2,500 years are givens. But using conventional techniques does not mean that you need to write conventional plays.

David Henry Hwang said it best: You can’t be a playwright without believing there’s an audience for adventurous work.

The theatre offers playwrights considerable opportunity for experimentation in their writing. The conventional techniques underlying your work will help keep audiences engaged with your plays no matter how unconventional they may seem to be. The compensation for accepting these proven conventions is a large market for new plays. A measure of this market in 2011: Over 300 regional theatres and 100 competitions with prizes were soliciting scripts, as well as 80 play development programs. All of these opportunities were open to new playwrights. Another 150 regional theatres were soliciting plays directly from playwrights they wanted to work with or from those represented by agents. Compared with many other art forms including screenwriting, the opportunities available for new playwrights are considerable. There are signs that these opportunities will continue to expand in the coming years: The 2009-10 season (the most recent analysis available in 2011) saw a 20% jump in audiences for play readings and workshop productions at America’s regional theatres. Many of these were presentations of new plays.

Hollywood Options

Hovering over all of this activity is the Hollywood film and television industry. Today, nearly all produced playwrights also work in feature film and television.

Best Practice: The surest route to Hollywood for playwrights starts with a regional theatre production or recognition in a major playwriting competition.

The odds of achieving recognition as a new playwright are far better than those faced by novice screenwriters hoping to sell unsolicited screenplays. Recognition as a playwright nearly always leads to invitations to write in Hollywood. And having that invitation will open doors in the film industry that would require a battering ram to get through if you just moved to Hollywood hoping to sell a spec screenplay. In August 2011, one of the thousands of overly hopeful novice screenwriters in LA dropped off his unsolicited spec script in a briefcase for a Hollywood agent and within hours it was blown up by the Beverly Hills bomb squad. That’s not the usual fate of spec screenplays, but the symbolism is worth noting.

Best Practice Notes

Best Practice notes will be found throughout Playwriting Seminars 2.0. They can be taken as “rules,” though the first rule of playwriting is that most rules are made to be broken. The notes reduce to a sound-bite my own conclusions about this craft and in nearly all cases reflect the professional practice of most playwrights and screenwriters.

Where to Start in the Handbook

If you have experience in dramatic writing or theatre production as a performer or director, you may find it more interesting to begin with Part Two on the structure of plays. Later, it may be valuable to return to Part One, especially Chapter 16 on the critical issue of subtext. If fiction is your interest, particularly genre novels and their nonfiction equivalents, Part Two (Structure) is the place to begin followed by Part Six (Screenwriting). Genre novels (crime, romance, paranormal, etc.) follow all of the structural techniques of plays, but then rely on the visual storytelling techniques of screenwriting rather than the verbal approach that dominates plays.


Playwriting Seminars 2.0

TABLE OF CONTENTS OF THE NEW PAPERBACK & E-BOOK EDITIONS

PRAISE: For the First Edition of Playwriting Seminars

CREDITS & AUTHOR: How PS2.0 Started & What Came After

USC School of Theatre

First Stage & New Dramatists

FORWARD: The Focus of Playwriting Seminars 2.0

Parts of the Handbook Plays Cited & Examples Regional Theatres as Entry Point The Market for New Plays Hollywood Options

Best Practice Notes

Where to Start in the Handbook

PROLOGUE: Starting from Scratch

The Four Bones of Playwriting A Note on Dual Plot Structure

Reading Plays

LIST OF DIAGRAMS

Structure of Two-Act PlaysHistory of the Story & Point of AttackExposition & ForeshadowingInciting IncidentSuspense & Emotional PlotsAct I High Point & Curtain LineStructure of Act IIClimax & Obligatory SceneEmotional Patterns

Act Movements of a Full-Length Play

PART ONE - CONTENT: What’s in a Play

1. VOICE: YOUR SOUND AS A WRITER

Quirks of Spoken Language LISTEN MORE Talk Less

Eavesdropping for Art

2. SUBJECTS OF PLAYS

Reading Plays & Play Readings Plays Are About Consequences

Family Problems vs. the World

Writing What You Know

Doing Research

3. USES OF TRUTH & REAL LIFE

Docudrama

Model Docudramas

4. USING THE WORK OF OTHER WRITERS 5. ADAPTING OLDER PLAYS & NOVELS

Against Adaptation Legal Cautions Keys to Adapting Older Plays

The “Suggested By” Approach

6. USING OTHER PEOPLE’S LIVES

Legal Cautions Recreating Actual People Creating Versions of Public Figures Recent “Icon” Characters

Getting Back at Your Parents

7. INCORPORATING POPULAR SONGS

Ways of Using Popular Songs

Permissions for Using Popular Songs

8. THEMES: THE MEANING IN CONTENT

Integrating Your Personal Values Some Intriguing Themes

Cautions on Writing from a Theme

9. USING AN AUTHORIAL SPOKESPERSON

Candidates for Spokesperson

10. TITLES: DESCRIPTIVE & METAPHORIC

Dangers of Descriptive Titles Obvious & Intriguing Descriptive Titles Advantages of Metaphoric Titles Inspired Metaphoric Titles Hybrid Titles Strong Hybrid Titles Using Act Titles

Notable Act Titles

11. CHARACTERS: WHAT’S MODERN IN MODERN DRAMA

The Internalized Villain

Impact on Endings

12. CREATING & NAMING CHARACTERS

Complex Characters & Internal Conflict

Meaning in Character Names

Contemporary Character Names

Names from Well Known Playwrights

13. CONFLICT: THE CHARACTER DEVELOPER

Conflict as Overcoming Obstacles Killers of Dramatic Conflict

Triangular Conflict Problems

14. THE PLAYWRIGHT’S POINT OF VIEW

The Group Character Alternative

15. LANGUAGE: FOUL & OTHERWISE

The Naughtiness Factor Clichés: The Great Ear Closers

Writing in Accents

16. SUBTEXT: WHAT CHARACTERS DON’T TELL US

A Subtext Example Characters Speaking Subtext Cutting Spoken Subtext How Spoken Subtext Kills Plays Settings as Visual Subtext

No-Subtext Plays

17. USING DRAMATIC IRONY

Irony vs. Being Stupid

Contemporary Dramatic Irony

18. SERIOUS COMEDY & THE REVERSE

Laughter is Everywhere

PART TWO – STRUCTURE: Parts of a Full-Length Play

19. THE SHAPE OF TWO-ACT PLAYS

Caution on Experimental Structures The Two-Act Play Standard

List of Structure Diagrams

20. STRUCTURE OF A TWO-ACT PLAY 21. POINT OF ATTACK: THE BEGINNING

Points of Attack in Notable Plays The Teaser Point of Attack Teaser Point of Attack Techniques

Notable Teaser Points of Attack

22. EXPOSITION & FORESHADOWING: PAST & FUTURE

Why Exposition Deliberate Elimination of Exposition Role of Foreshadowing The Key to Foreshadowing

Deliberate Withholding of Foreshadowing

23. USING NARRATORS

Narrators Have a Stake in the Outcome Key Places for Narrators

A Few Good Narrators

24. INCITING INCIDENT: LIGHTING THE FUSE OF CONFLICT

Flagging the Inciting Incident Forms of Inciting Incidents

Notable Inciting Incidents

25. PLOTS: THEY COME IN PAIRS

Suspense & Emotional Plots Emotional Plots Are Why You Write Some Notable Emotional Plots Suspense Plot Function Suspense Plot Techniques Evolving Suspense Plots Clarifying the Suspense Plot in Cat Reintroductions of the Suspense Plot “Red Herring” Suspense Plots Repetitive Activity as Suspense Plot Substitute

Notable Long Mundane Activities

26. ELEVATOR PLAYS: THE BISQUICK PLOT

Elevator Principles

Notable Plays with Elevators

27. HIGH POINT OF ACT I

Notable Act I High Points

28. CURTAIN LINES FOR ACTS & SCENES

Curtain Line Options

Some Notable Act I Curtain Lines

29. ACT II & ITS PROBLEMS

Saving Conflict for Act II Act II Realities Intermissions & Story Time Breaks

Economics of Intermissions

30. CLIMAX & THE OBLIGATORY SCENE

The Climax from Narrowing of Options Notable Climaxes Role of the Obligatory Scene The Obligatory Scene Sequence

Annotated Obligatory Scene

31. THE RESOLUTION & ENDINGS

Avoiding Tying It All Up The Last Word Open Endings Notable Open Endings Happy Endings

The Dreaded “Refrigerator Question”

32. EMOTIONAL PATTERNS

The Hollywood Cliché Pattern

Use of Patterns in Serious Comedy & Tragedy

33. LENGTH OF FULL-LENGTH PLAYS

The 90-Minute Rule Length: The “Hamlet Question” Acts and Intermissions No Intermission Plays

Three-Act Plays

34. TIME STRUCTURES

Continuous Time Examples Using Flashbacks Adding a Third Layer of Time Going into Hyper Time Notable Uses of Hyper Time

Using Formal Scenes

35. CHARACTERS: QUANTITIES & CAUTIONS

The Magic Number 10 One-Character Plays Celebrities as Characters Invisible Characters in One-Person Shows Solo Performance Kids as Characters

Animals as Characters

36. MONOLOGUES: THEY’RE MINI-PLAYS

The Monologue as Aria Keys to Writing Monologues

Length of Monologues

37. USING THEATRICAL DEVICES & STYLES

Use It & Own It for the Duration Devices Needing Early Use Contemporary Naturalism “Rules” for Using Naturalism

Representation vs. Presentation

38. WRITING ONE-ACT PLAYS

Related One-Acts Unifying Related One-Acts

Tips for Writing One-Acts

PART THREE – WORKING: The Day Job of Playwriting

39. WRITER’S BLOCK & INSPIRATION

Writing is Work Writer’s Block If Prevention Fails Technical Blocks to Writing

Getting Inspiration

40. KNOWING WHEN TO START WRITING

The “Good to Have” List Outlining: Why (and Why Not)

A Caution on Outlining

41. WRITING EXERCISES: TO DO OR NOT TO DO

Exercise 1: Getting Rid of Spoken Subtext Exercise 2: Combining Suspense & Emotional Plots

Exercise 3: Keeping a Journal

42. EDITING: THE HARD WORK OF SECOND-GUESSING

The Play in Your Head vs. on the Page

43. EDITING CHARACTERS

Characters Needing the Ax

44. EDITING STAGE DIRECTIONS

Opening Stage Directions

General Stage Directions

Character Stage Directions

45. EDITING DIALOGUE

Red Flags in Dialogue Spoken Subtext Talking-to-Yourself Lines Typical Talking-to-Yourself Lines Transition Lines Variant Lines Using Apparent Repetition Foreshadowing

Fact Checking

46. FINDING HIDDEN MONOLOGUES

Hidden Monologue Example (Still Buried) Scene Edited for Cuts Including Transition Lines

Hidden Monologue Brought to the Surface

47. TURNING FALSE MONOLOGUES INTO DIALOGUE

A False Monologue Pair

The False Monologue into Dialogue

48. EDITING STRUCTURE

Inserting Suspense Plots Beginning of the Play Beginnings of Scenes & Acts Warm Up Lines Warm-up Lines Scene Marked for Cuts Endings of Scenes and Acts Climax of the Play

Resolution of the Play

49. CRITICS & ADVICE FROM YOUR FRIENDS

Theatre Critics Self Criticism

Muffling Your Self Critic

50. WHEN TO STOP REWRITING

PART FOUR – FORMAT: What Scripts Look Like

51. PROFESSIONAL MANUSCRIPT FORMAT FOR PLAYS

Advantages of Using the Format Getting It Done for You Traditional & Modern Format

Publishing vs. Script Formats

52. PAPER, FONTS & FORMAT BY THE NUMBERS

Paper Weight & Color Font & Type Size Script Format by the Numbers

Dialogue Page I-1 of a Script in Format

53. TITLE & PRELIMINARY PAGES

Title Page & Example Character Page & Example Setting & Time Page & Example

Scene Breakdown PageQuote Page

Notable Quotes on Quote Pages

Numbering of Preliminary Pages

54. DIALOGUE PAGES

Page Numbering Act & Formal Scene Designations Opening Stage Directions Character Names Character Stage Directions Dialogue Spacing (Pause.) Stage Direction (Overlapping) Stage Direction (Continued) Character Note General Stage Directions

Act & Formal Scene Endings

55. COVERS & BINDINGS: PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

The “Never Use” Bindings List

Being Kind to Your Readers

PART FIVE – BUSINESS: Bringing Your Play to Production

56. THE BUSINESS OF PLAYWRITING

Copyright Protection for Plays

U.S. Copyright Office

57. COMPETITIONS & NEW PLAY DEVELOPMENT

A Caution on Entry Fees New Play Development Programs Negatives of Play Development

The Play Development Process

58. READING YOUR AUDIENCE

Phase 1: During the Performance The Noises of Boredom Phase 2: During the Audience Discussion

Tips for Surviving Audience Discussions

59. SUBMITTING SCRIPTS TO THEATRES & COMPETITIONS

The Script Submission Package Letter of Inquiry The SASE A Caution on Mailing Scripts in the U.S. Multiple Submissions

Record Keeping

60. WRITING THE SCRIPT SYNOPSIS

Rules for a Good Synopsis A Sample Synopsis The Dialogue Sample

SASE for the Synopsis Package

61. THE PLAYWRIGHT’S RESUME

The “Include List” for Bios

Playwright’s Bio Example

62. PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT: DRAMATISTS GUILD & TCG

The Dramatists Guild DG Annual Resource Directory Theatre Communications Group TCG Dramatists Sourcebook UK Writers’ & Artists’ Yearbook

TCG American Theatre Magazine

63. PLAYWRIGHT’S PRODUCTION TEAM

Literary Manager Dramaturg Artistic Director Director Designers

Working with the Production Team

64. AGENTS & MAKING A LIVING AT THIS

Pressures of Writing Success Agents Making a Living At This Royalties A Caution on “Collaboration” with Directors

On Taking a Writing Day Job

65. PRODUCING IT YOURSELF

Playwright-Founded Theatres Making Self-Producing Work

Beware of Hubris

PART SIX – SCREENWRITING: For Playwrights

66. REALITIES OF THE SCREENPLAY TRADE

Playwrights vs. Screenwriters Your Role in the Hollywood Machine Working Both Sides of the Theatre/Film Divide The Stage vs. Screen Story Rule

Film & Its Parent

67. VISUAL VS. VERBAL STORYTELLING

Opening of Antonioni’s The Passenger Opening of Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden

Dialogue vs. Images

68. MAKING SCREENPLAYS WORK

19 Adjustments for Screenwriting

The Rom Com Option

69. ADAPTING YOUR PLAY FOR THE SCREEN

“Opening Up” A Play Time Expansion Keeping It Your Film

Tips for Making it Work

70. READING PROFESSIONAL SCREENPLAYS

Knowing the World Beyond Film Contemporary Classic Screenplays to Read Reading vs. Seeing in Film Draft vs. Shooting Scripts

On Seeing Films

71. PROFESSIONAL FORMAT FOR SCREENPLAYS

Paper & Fonts Title & Preliminary Pages Screenplay Format by the Numbers Scene & Dialogue Pages Page 1 of a Screenplay in Format

Screenplay Covers & Bindings

72. USING SCREENWRITING SOFTWARE

Advantages of Using Software The Industry Standards

Writing for the BBC

73. WRITING FOR TELEVISION

Increasing Quality of Television Writing Making it Work

Software & Series Templates

74. THE HOLLYWOOD HUSTLE

The LA Story

12 Steps of the Hustle

75. PROFESSIONAL SUPPORT: WRITERS GUILD OF AMERICA

WGA West & East Script Registration Service

The Myth of Story Theft in Hollywood

76. THE INDIE OPTION

The Indie Road to Hollywood Features & Shorts Writing for the Indies Thinking in Indie Time x 11

Indie Screenplay Competitions

AFTERWORD – QUOTES ON CRAFT: On Writing for Theatre, Film & Television

The Collection: 475 Quotes on Craft


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Copyright © 2012 by Richard Toscan
All rights reserved.
[rtoscan@vcu.edu]
http://www.vcu.edu/arts/playwriting/