Saturday, October 31, 2009

Hey, that's a really good idea!

As a writer, I’m often approached by non-writers who tell me they have a really good story. I usually patiently nod and agree, yes, that would be a good idea. I then encourage them to get to work and start writing.

Okay, they don’t say those words exactly, they say they have a really good idea. But usually, they barely even have that. For instance, some sample dialogue:

“So you’re a writer, huh? You know what you should write about? India. Yeah, I went to India and it’s really crowded. And lots of culture. And with that movie that came out, it’s really hot right now.”


“I have a great idea for a movie—write about a guy in an office. People can relate to guys in offices.”

The problem with both of these ideas is that…well, they’re not really…good ideas.

But that’s okay.

As writers, we should write down any and all ideas and see what it blossoms into. I have a little black notebook and any time I think of something that might be interesting I write it down. It might be related to an idea for a play already, like adding a line, an activity, a song or another scene between characters. Sometimes it will be a title. I have lots of titles with no actual stories right now. I have a title in my book called “Reunion” and another called “Kitchen Sink”. I have no idea why I wrote them down, and frankly they’re not really good titles. At this point, I don’t care. Because I will also write something down that will turn into a good idea.

The trickiest part of writing a full-length play or a screenplay is recognizing the idea that lends itself to a full-length treatment. There are many plays that can only sustain about ten to fifteen minutes. They have one joke, one premise, only a few characters. The main dramatic question, will so-and-so get what he wants—is going to be answered rather quickly. If Hamlet only wanted to talk to the ghost of his dead father and the ghost only said, “hey, just wanted to say goodbye”, then it would be a short play. But no, the ghost says to Hamlet, “avenge my murder”. Well, for a Prince in Denmark, that is a bit tricky and will take some time. Hence, a good idea for a full-length.

Sometimes you think you have enough going on in your play to justify a full-length and then realize as you get half way there that you really don’t need all that time and space. I’ve been in a few situations like that and I’m usually smart enough to say, “Phew! Thanks for letting me know so now I can rewrite you and make you the best short play ever instead of a painfully long full-length."

A lot of playwrights don’t always do that. They set out to write a full-length and that’s what they’re going to get, damn the torpedoes! And the audience ends up watching plays that really should’ve been only forty-five minutes because that’s about the amount of conflict and complexity the author had put into it. If you ever see an audience looking at their watch or yawning and later talking about how there was only a few good scenes, that might be one reason why.

A play should never be padded with irrelevant scenes but should barrel down a track like a runaway train. Nothing should be extraneous. Always think "less is more".

Of course, this is the arduous task before us. And why so few write truly great plays.

But we will not be daunted!

So let’s get back to our idea…let’s say I write about a guy in an office. Well, we know this isn’t original and has been done well by many other people.

What if the guy is a zombie? Okay, that’s an interesting twist, but so what? That’s still only a sketch that will last five minutes on Saturday Night Live. How can we fill two hours of someone’s life watching a zombie in an office?

Let’s think of conflict…the zombie wants…love, of course. In this cold corporate world, who doesn’t want love? He’s in love with a co-worker who is of course, not a zombie, so he vows to win her love. Now this gets us closer to our goal as many plays and movies can be sustained with a simple “boy gets girl” story. We just need to throw some other complexities into the mix to get the ball rolling…

For instance, we need some obstacles other than that she doesn’t want to date zombies…like how about a successful non-zombie fiancée that she’s engaged to or what if she’s the boss’s daughter and the boss hates the zombie, ever determined to fire that zombie. What if the zombie is under some curse thereby if he doesn’t win the heart of his true love by midnight on Halloween, he’s going to turn to dust and die. What if his best friend is a werewolf or a vampire with a whole other subplot about how its hard to meet anybody in the city these days who aren't bigoted against his kind?

Suddenly, we’re turning an idea that was an SNL sketch into a romantic story about class and corporate culture. Now, we’re cooking. Granted, this is not the best example and feels more like “spit-balling” but now we actually have a story idea that might sustain us for the length of roughly two hours.

And zombies are hot right now, right?

Okay, it’s not Hamlet, but it would be hard to tell this story in a short play (though actually it probably could be done just as Hamlet could be told in 15 minutes, although it’s a lot funnier when its sped up that much).

So why all this big long post on having an idea that might sustain a play?

Tomorrow is November 1st and you know what that means. Time to start the National Playwriting Month! Or NaPlWriMo for all of you cool kids.
I have my idea for a play. I know what its going to be about. I have my characters and I’m pretty sure about the conflict. Now I just have to see if it will hold up for the amount of time I think it will.

And no, it doesn’t have any zombies in it…

Not yet, anyway.

So what's your big idea?

Sunday, October 25, 2009


I feel like I’ve had a long, long summer of not writing and frankly, it’s been a good break. Unlike some writers I know, I never feel guilty about not writing. I think of writing as more than just sitting at your keyboard typing away. Writing is living and witnessing and getting perspective. Writing requires rest and recharging the batteries.

Also, last year was a busy year and I was extremely pleased with the outcome of 7 Minutes to Midnight. Part of me just wanted to rest on that success for awhile.

Now the time has come to get back to another project. Maybe it has to do with the fact that the sunshine has disappeared and the rain is back. This time the project will be a play, not a screenplay. It will be funny and tragic. It may have music but I’m not sure. I have a title, but I don’t feel like sharing it right now. It has six characters and I think the journey of this process may take me into some dark territory as well as surprise me.

Isn’t that what we want with our adventures? A little bit of terror and surprise? Thrill us but make us happy, too? In that way, a good story should be like a roller coaster.

Unlike the screenplays I’ve been writing, I’ve decided to just go free-form on this first draft. No outline. No real idea where I’m heading. I used to write this way when I was first writing plays and I don't recommend it as it usually gets me into trouble. But I do know that I am more likely to surprise myself if I don't pre-plan this particular story. I can always go back and shape it by outlining it. First I want to see what might be lurking there in the back of my head. I need to just get some ideas down and see if there really is a play there.

Some writers call this type of draft their "vomit draft". You literally just type whatever you want, an effort to get everything down on paper as quickly as possible. Hopefully you are so fast that the internal editor can’t catch you, slow you down, make you stop and think about what you’re writing about. Buried amidst a ton of crappy writing will be a jewel of a phrase. Or two. And those jewels will guide you to more treasure. Little by little, the work grows.

Getting things down quickly creates pressure—it taps into that desire and passion of being a storyteller—I need to get my story out NOW! The world must know before it’s too late…Sometimes you just need to push yourself.

Which is to say that next month, November, is National Playwriting Month.

NaPlWriMo is a little like the New York City Marathon, only without all the running and the sweating.

Actually, there’s still sweating. And some blood will flow. Maybe some tears, too.

But no running.