Playwriting with Tom Wells #1: Voice

By Tom Wells, associate artist

This year’s not quite going to plan in terms of Middle Child’s Writers’ Group (and other things). We can’t meet up for workshops, but we thought a few of you might have a bit of time on your hands and feel like having a go at writing something. Fingers crossed some writing exercises might help.

The aim of our Writers’ Group, and these blog posts in its place for now, is to help you write your first play. Just a short one – 5-10 minutes – but hopefully if you enjoy it you’ll have some of the tools you need for tackling bigger projects. You’ll also have something to send in to future Out Loud scratch nights, organised by Middle Child and Silent Uproar for writers in Hull and East Yorkshire, which will happen once we can all sit in the same room again. The last one was magic – I’m really looking forward to the next.

There’ll be blog posts on: Voice; Character and Monologue; Dialogue and Scenes; Making Worlds (no biggie); and Planning. The exercises are ones I’ve picked up from doing workshops over the last few years. It’s important to say at the start: there’s no one way to write a play. These are just suggestions of things that might help: take what’s useful, ignore what isn’t. Getting things right is a process, not an event, and getting things wrong is just as important. It just means you’re trying stuff. Mostly the thing to do – I think, anyway – is have a go. It won’t be perfect, but it will exist.

So. Here goes.

Exercise One

Think it’s best to start with an exercise. Dive in head first, sort of thing. Free writing, to free you up a bit. The idea is this: you get a word and then just write. And keep writing. Write any thoughts you have connected to that word and see where it takes you. Whatever comes into your head. It doesn’t have to make sense, it doesn’t have to be in sentences, and it doesn’t matter if it ends up having nothing to do with the word you were given to begin with. The important thing’s to keep going. You know, like life.

If you don’t know what to write, write about how you don’t know what to write and see what comes next. Time yourself doing it. For the first word, see if you can keep going for thirty seconds (you definitely can). The first word is: Free. Write whatever comes into your head when you think of the word Free.

Go.

For the second word, the challenge is to keep going for a minute. The second word is: Writing.

Go.
And keep going.

For the third word, the challenge is to keep going for two minutes. The third word is: Exercise.

Go.
And keep going. And keep going. And stop.

Now read over the three things you’ve written. They might not make sense, they might not be in sentences, and they might have nothing to do with the words you were given to begin with. But they will be full of interesting words and phrases and thoughts and ways of looking at things and patterns and rhythms that are uniquely yours. They are words that are channeled through your eyes and your way of seeing and thinking about and understanding the world. They’re the words that come out when you’re not trying too hard or overthinking stuff or pretending to be something you’re not, the raw material you’ll be working with as a playwright. They’re really special. They’re your voice.

Hummus on a plate

I did this exercise in the first writing workshop I ever went to. When we finished I looked at the scrappy stuff I’d written and felt a bit embarrassed. Proper writers wrote stuff about truth and justice and love and freedom, I thought. I’d done a joke about hummus. But gradually I saw that figuring out what your voice as a writer sounds like is really useful. It doesn’t limit you, but it can guide you a bit to people and subjects you can write about well, with spark and life and honesty and soul. You can still have characters who think about the big stuff, they just also think about dips.

So: have another look at what you’ve written. A proper look. Get a sense of the beginnings of your voice. Embrace it. And use it in exercise two.

Exercise Two

The second exercise is quite a lot like the first exercise, but instead of responding to a word, you are responding to a song. For the length of the song you just have to write. Keep writing. Whatever the song makes you think about, whatever comes into your head while you’re listening – write it down. Maybe it sparks a memory, maybe you just hate it, or it’s your favourite, maybe you’ve never heard it before and it makes you feel a bit far away from what the social distancing 34-year-olds of Mayfield Street are listening to on repeat on their Spotify – whatever your reactions, write them down. And keep going. For the whole song. See where it takes you. Somewhere interesting, I bet.

First song.

Second song.

Third song.

Now have a read of what you’ve written. It might not seem much for a workshop but that’s your voice in three different, unexpected contexts, getting more confident, more sure of what it is and what it sounds like. Which is a lot. Fingers crossed you’re getting a sense of the sort of writer you might be, the sort of worlds you feel comfy in or don’t feel comfy in and, on an unrelated note, the genius of Dolly Parton. Try it with other songs if it feels useful. There’s time. And it might find its way into the play you write.

Feel free to share your writing with us on social media: simply tag @middlechildhull on either Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.

EN PL