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Playwriting with Tom Wells

Stick Figure

Playwriting with Tom Wells #2: Character and Monologue

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By Tom Wells, associate artist

Hope everyone enjoyed last week’s writing tasks. This week we’re asking a bit more of you. By the end of this workshop, you’ll be ready to have a go at writing a monologue. A beautiful character portrait and a proper story. That’s the goal. But to give you something to get started with, I think it’s a good idea to do a bit of free writing. Like last week, I know, but it’s the best way I can come up with of shaking off things you’re preoccupied with and getting in the right headspace for making stuff up. So. Here goes:

Exercise One

A little reminder of the exercise: 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 is to keep going. If you don’t know what to write, write about how you don’t know what to write and just see what follows on from that. Something interesting, something funny, something unexpected – anything’s fine. Time yourself doing it. For the first word, keep going for thirty seconds. The first word is: make. Write whatever comes into your head when you think of the word make.

Go.

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

Go.
And keep going.

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

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

Exercise Two

When I was growing up, my Mum often described stuff as ‘character-building’. Gale-force winds, maths, glandular fever. Things to experience so that afterwards you’re a better-rounded person, with funny stories to tell and a bit more empathy. I think it was good practice for being a playwright too. Character building is a big part of your job.

When you’re building a character it is useful to know as much about that character as you can – their daily lives, their memories, what they sound like and look like and the gestures they make when they’re talking, or not talking, their struggles, their hopes, their favourite phrases, their favourite socks, their childhood toys, their scars and how they got them, and (most importantly) their name.

Stick Figure

Self Portrait, 2020 by Jamie Potter

This next exercise is about getting to know a character. The sort of person who would say the thing that leapt out at you from your free writing, the thing you’ve written at the top of your piece of paper.

Draw a stick figure version of them. Give them a name, an age. And then write things about them in the space around the drawing. Just anything that comes to you. And label them with the information.

So, for example, if they have a wonky nose or a scar on their chin, write about it, about how they got it, if there’s a story, or what it means for them in the world, if they’re self-conscious about it when they meet new people, or if they’re proud of it maybe. If they’ve got a cardi they always wear, describe it. Or a gesture they always make, or a thing they always say. See if you can write down everything about that character you can think of.

Spend a good bit of time with them – ten minutes, say – getting to know them and writing down the interesting details of their lives. Have a good look at the portrait you’ve drawn of them. And then take this character into the next task.

Exercise Three

You’ve got your character, and spent a bit of time getting to know them. There’s two more things to mention at the start of this exercise.

The first is a straightforward story structure. There’s lots of different models for story structure, and all of them are good to follow and think about and find out about from different playwrights and plays and guides to writing. The one we’re going to base this task on has five different bits, as follows:

  1. A character wants something, and sets out to get it;
  2. Things go well – the character manages to get a bit nearer to the thing they want;
  3. Things start to go badly – the character comes up against obstacles, but keeps going;
  4. Things go very wrong for the character – it looks like the thing they wanted is out of reach, unachievable;
  5. Some kind of resolution: maybe the character gets the thing they wanted; maybe the character doesn’t, and has to give up; maybe they get something different, something they need.

This will hopefully help you to give a shape to your monologue.

The second thing to mention is choosing something your character wants. If we were all together in a workshop, we’d do a lucky dip and you’d all choose something from a bag without looking. But, since we’re not, here are a few of the items you might’ve picked:

  • a key
  • a phone
  • some chilli flakes
  • a pound coin
  • a box of juice
  • some painkillers
  • a screwdriver
  • a stamp
  • a condom
  • a safety pin
  • a Kitkat

Choose one of these things, and imagine a scenario where it is the most important thing your character needs. Then, using the story structure mentioned above for help, write a monologue. Imagine the character you built in Exercise Two sets out to get the thing you chose in Exercise Three.

Write it from the character’s point of view, in their voice and, to make it feel like it is happening as we see it, write it in the present tense. Don’t worry about getting it wrong, just try it. Give yourself fifteen minutes for this task. Once you’re done, read it through and feel a bit proud.

Homework

The monologues you end up writing for Exercise Three will probably be a mixture of brilliant bits and messy bits. It’s your first draft of your first go, under time pressure, with things that were out of your control, and you’re only just getting to know the character, just starting to hear their voice a bit. But hopefully now you’ve had a go with a quickly-made-up character and a lucky dip thing-they-want, you’ve got the skills to write something a bit more considered. If you fancy doing a bit of homework, this might be a good task:

Think about a character you’re really drawn to writing. Do a portrait of them – just a stick drawing, but labelled with their quirks and memories and appearance and gestures and phrases they use a lot. Spend a bit of time getting to know them. Try to hear the way they sound, the words and phrases they use, the rhythms of their speech.

Now think of the thing they want most, more than anything else, in the moment that your monologue will start. It might be something grand and abstract, like love, or justice, or freedom. It might be something a bit more everyday, like a yogurt. But make sure it comes from what you know about the character. And then, following the story structure given above as a guide, imagine the character setting out to try and get the thing they want the most in the world at that moment. What things might get in the way? Do they manage in the end? Have a go at writing this monologue.

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

Playwright Tom Wells

Playwriting with Tom Wells #1: Voice

By | Artist Development, Playwriting with Tom Wells

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.

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