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Playwriting with Tom Wells

Playwriting with Tom Wells #5: Planning

By | Artist Development, Playwriting with Tom Wells

By Tom Wells, associate artist

This is the fifth and final playwriting blog. I’d like to say I’ve saved the best til last, but I worry that’d be a fib. Planning doesn’t sound very exciting, because it isn’t. It is important though, and really helpful – if you put a bit of work in before you start writing you’ll save yourself lots of time once you get going, or get stuck. A good plan will mean you’ve properly thought about the story you want to tell in your play and the way you want to tell it. You can still leave room for surprises and unexpected bits – it’s absolutely fine, and fun, to adjust things as you go along – but hopefully you’ll find it reassuring for your idea to have a loose shape before you start. I do, anyway.

Exercise One

For this exercise, the challenge is to write a plan for your play which fits with the model we’ve been using to think about story structure, below. Think of the play you’re hoping to write. If it’s your first go at writing a play, aim for between five and ten minutes. Try to think how the story you’re trying to tell in your play would fit with the five bits of the structure. Don’t worry if you don’t know all the answers yet – it’s just as useful to know which parts need a bit of extra thinking about. Spend ten minutes thinking of and writing down a very loose plan which fits these five story beats:

  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.

It’s important to say: just because the plan focuses on the story of one character doesn’t mean you can only have one character in your play. It’s really possible that the main character needs to get the thing they want from another character, or their mate goes along to help them and accidentally gets in the way a bit (I have often been this friend). It’s good to focus on the main story you’ll be telling in your play though, and that probably means focusing, for now, on the journey of one character.

Exercise Two

This is a bit of good old-fashioned character building, as we did in week two. A reminder of the exercise: for each character in your play, draw a stick figure version of them. Give them names and ages. And then write things about them in the space around the drawing. Just anything that comes to you. Label them with the information. See if you can write down everything about that character you can think of. Spend a good bit of time with each character, getting to know them and writing down the interesting details of their lives. Let yourself be a bit surprised with some of the things you figure out about them. Enjoy it. See the best in them. Then take them with you into the next exercise.

Exercise Three

This will seem very familiar from last week’s post, but it’s also really useful. So: think about the world of the play. Imagine it on stage. Draw a plan of it from above. Label it with specific details.

Think about how a character might enter or leave the space and write these down. Think about the furniture or landscape, stories attached to them, or memories. Write these down too. Label it with details which add colour and life to the world. Think about some of the stories which have happened in the space, and write them on the plan. Think about the characters who belong there, and add them in too. Start to build a sense of the world of a play which might happen there. Fill the space with life, if you can.

Now, take a minute to look at your rough plan, your character sketches, and the world you’ve put together for your play. You’ve got everything you need to get going. Here’s a couple of things to think about as you’re cracking on.

H and Marcus Aurelius
H and Marcus Aurelius

The first is a bit of practical advice about putting scenes together, if the play you’re writing has more than one scene. I read something once that said in a comic, the space between two frames or images is called the gutter. In order to make sure the story is moving forward something always needs to happen in the gutter, so that by the next drawing the story has moved on and the reader has to fill in the gaps a bit, build the story themselves. They can feel the energy of that forward momentum, which makes them feel part of the story.

The same thing needs to happen in the gap between scenes in a play. The best way I’ve heard of doing this is to start each scene as late as you can, so the audience has a bit of catching up to do, a bit of figuring out from the very beginning, and then finish the scene as early as you can, so the audience is left with loose ends and questions that can only be answered in scenes that come later. Arrive late, get out early, which as an introvert is also a good strategy for parties.

Rather than telling a whole story in a scene, a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, make sure that the scene has just two of these – either a middle and an end, so the audience is watching the action unfold and, at the same time, figuring out what’s just happened, or how the characters got there; or a beginning and a middle, so the audience is left to wonder what the outcome of the scene is, something which can be answered in a later scene. Put a few of these together, different choices for each scene, and you will have an energetic, forward-moving structure for your play.

The second is a quote I like: ‘it loved to happen’. For the past ten years, I thought this was a quote by H from Steps, but a quick Google has shown it’s actually attributed to the ex-Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius. Not to worry. I think it’s a really lovely thing to think about while you’re planning your play and writing your first draft. Write something only you could, the characters and stories you think are important, the play you want to see in the world. Write something that just flipping loves to happen. I think it’ll feel magic when it does

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

Padlocks on a fence

Playwriting with Tom Wells #4: Making Worlds

By | Artist Development, Playwriting with Tom Wells

By Tom Wells, associate artist

I’m really regretting calling Post Number Four “Making Worlds” – it sounds quite up itself, my apologies – but it’s the best way I could think of summing up the next couple of exercises. Two exercises that show how important making worlds is to making plays, and two different ways you might try doing it. Fingers crossed the exercises are good and useful and make up for the grandness of the title.

Everyone is different, obvs – there’s no one way to write a play, #NotAllPlaywrights – but I find having a really solid sense of place can be very helpful when you’re first thinking of an idea. If you have a good knowledge of where the play is happening, the world it’s happening in, then your story ideas and characters, everything that goes on in the play and the people it happens to, will have a sense of truth and authenticity. Sometimes a play’s setting can even help you find the outcome of the story – some things feel like they could only happen in Hull, or Coventry, or Newcastle. If the world of the play feels robust, the audience finds it easier to trust the playwright and lose themselves a bit. So I think the best thing to do is just have a go.

Exercise One

For the first exercise, have a look at the photographs below (click to expand). Pick one which intrigues you, and try to plan a play which could happen in the world of the photograph or thereabouts. Think about the people who would feel at home in that world, or very much not at home in that world, and write the things that might happen to them. If it’s useful, use the five-part structure plan mentioned in Workshop Two as a guide for the shape of the story.

These are the photographs. They’re only from my phone though, so if you’d rather use a different one please go for it, perhaps from a magazine that you have to hand, or one of those photo books that live under coffee tables. Spend a few minutes just looking at the image you’ve chosen, and imagining the world that it is part of, the people who are part of that world and the stories they are living. Plan the play you’d write, inspired by the photograph. Give yourself ten minutes.

Hopefully this exercise gave you a bit of freedom, a spark to think of when you’re making something new. A world you hadn’t thought of making until now. Sometimes it’s good to take a surprise bit of inspiration and run with it, fill it with details and characters and what you know of life. But sometimes it’s also really helpful to look with fresh eyes at the places you know really well, to properly examine the rooms and spaces and worlds you know inside out. This is what I’d like to suggest for Exercise Two.

First though, a little story:

A few Saturdays ago, I moved my mat into the bedroom ready to do my morning pilates. I know, what a knob, but I have to do pilates twice a day cos it helps with my balance: I have MS, so I’m a bit more wobbly than most people. I get embarrassed doing it in front of people though – I really am quite wobbly – and if I’d stayed in the lounge I’d have been in full view of the lads up a ladder painting my next door neighbours’ window frames. So I went into the bedroom, shut the door, put a podcast on and fully engaged my core.

The bedroom’s very ordinary-looking. It’s got a bed, a bookcase, a window, a radiator, and a picture of some jellyfish my cousin Ellie painted. The walls are the same magnolia as absolutely every rented flat in the United Kingdom. But it’s worth mentioning at this point: my landlord is not an expert at practical things. I suspect he might’ve cut a few corners, so sometimes stuff goes wrong. For example, there’s a damp patch on the wall above the fridge that looks like Gary Lineker. If the people in the flat upstairs turn their shower up too high, my light fitting leaks. And once it turned out my loo had been accidentally plumbed into the hot water system. I found out cos the flush got stuck, and the toilet started steaming. The man who came to mend it couldn’t believe it. He asked if it would be OK to make a video for everyone back at the depot. And then Middle Child put it on YouTube.

I didn’t think about any of this though. I was concentrating on my pelvic tilt. Then I heard the post arrive.

Normally I’d just carry on with my exercises, but I was waiting for a letter from my neurologist. A few weeks earlier I’d had an MRI scan to find out if the treatment I was on for my MS was working. I hadn’t heard back yet. It’d been long enough to get a bit anxious about it so I was checking the post each day. I got up, went to the door, turned the handle. Nothing happened. Tried again. Still nothing. One more time. Nope.

The handle was broken, wasn’t opening the door any more. So I was stuck. The only other way in or out of the room was the window. It was quite high up though, especially for a fairly wobbly man, and I didn’t really want to end up locked out of my house, stood on the pavement in my bare feet, my pants and a t-shirt that said in big, friendly letters, ‘Hull’. I didn’t really know what to do, so I didn’t do anything. Finished my pilates, finished the podcast – it was Sue Perkins interviewing Mary Berry, she’s had a very interesting life – and tried the door again.

Still nothing. The door wouldn’t open, and now my phone battery was down to eight per cent. I realised I’d better ring my Mum and Dad. I hoped I’d get through to my Mum, who is quite calm in a crisis, rather than my Dad, who isn’t. In the end, I just got through to the answerphone. I left a message, doing my best to sound normal and not mentioning I’d been trapped in my bedroom for a good hour and a half at this point. Five minutes later my Dad rang back, panicking.

They came as quickly as they could. I’d bolted the front door the night before, so the spare key didn’t work. The only way in was through the window. They put their stepladder on their side, and I put a chair on my side. Neither was quite high enough. With a lot more agility than any of us realised he had, my Dad climbed in. It was a bit touch and go at one point – he got sort of stranded in the middle, and either the window or my Dad made quite a funny noise. But eventually, he was in. My Mum passed him a screwdriver and he managed to take the door handle off and let us both out. He didn’t make a big thing out of it or act heroic or anything. He just did it. That’s dads.

I went to open the front door, let my Mum in and picked up the post. There was a letter from the hospital. It said my MRI results had shown new and active lesions on my brain, so my treatment wasn’t working. I’d need to have another scan in three months to see if there was more new damage and figure out what to do next. I tried to style it out by boiling the kettle for cups of tea but still ended up sobbing a bit. My Mum and Dad did too. We had a hug, decided it wasn’t the end of the world, then drank our tea.

 

Exercise Two

I had quite a lot of time to think while I was trapped in my bedroom and I couldn’t help noticing that it would be quite a good world for a play. There were two possible entrances for characters, both of which had obstacles to using them – the door (stuck shut) and the window (slightly higher up than most stepladders). There was something the protagonist wanted (first to check the post, then to get out of the room). There was a hero (my Dad). And the world was really recognisable (just an ordinary bedroom) but also characterful (the flat had a history of dodgy maintenance issues). Basically, it had it all. It made me wonder if looking for interesting worlds to write about is a bit unnecessary. The worlds we know best and maybe take for granted can sometimes be just as interesting.

For this exercise, look at the spaces and places, the worlds you know really well. The rooms or outside spaces that are so familiar you never really think about them. Pick one, and imagine it on stage. Draw a plan of it from above. Label it with specific details. Think about how a character might enter or leave the space and write these down. Think about the furniture or landscape, stories attached to them, or memories. Write these down too. Label it with details which add colour and life to the world. Think about some of the stories which have happened in the space, and write them on the plan. Think about the characters who belong there, and add them in too. Start to build a sense of the world of a play which might happen there. Fill the space with life, if you can.

This is a really exciting part of writing a play, I think – making the world, thinking what might be in it, which characters might belong there, the stories and the histories they bring with them. Don’t worry if you can’t think of everything, just fill in the details as much as you can. Let yourself be a bit surprised sometimes. Give it plenty of time. And then looks at it. Soak it in a bit. Start to feel at home in it. Fingers crossed it’s a good place to set your first play. We’ll look at planning this next week.

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

Saucepan from Wikimedia Commons

Playwriting with Tom Wells #3: Dialogue and Scenes

By | Artist Development, Playwriting with Tom Wells, Uncategorised

By Tom Wells, associate artist

This week’s topics are Dialogue and Scenes. We’ll have a look at the way people talk to each other in real life, the way characters talk to each other on stage, and the way this can be shaped into a scene that feels sparky, energetic and alive. We’ll start gently, though, with a bit of Gogglebox.

Exercise One

Here is a clip of Giles and Mary from Gogglebox, talking about Clapping for Carers:

And here is a transcript of their conversation:

Mary shows Giles a film clip on her phone.

GILES: If I had known that I was allowed to bang a saucepan with a spoon, I would’ve definitely got a sauce-

Mary laughs.

Mary I would’ve loved to bang a saucepan.

Mary is crying a bit. She takes her glasses off, wipes her eyes.

MARY: Joseph said it was very moving.

GILES: Yeah, now, steady Mary. Steady.

MARY: It was.

GILES: Don’t… At this stage of the day don’t get upset. But if I’d known I was allowed to bang a spoon, Mary –

Mary blinks.

– against a, a copper pan, I would, just like Bez, there’s something very satisfy –

Mary laughs.

– satisfying about doing that. Especially if someone else is doing it at the other end of the village.

MARY: Yeah, yeah well we’ll do that next week, it’s going to be every week apparently.

GILES: Is it?

MARY: Yeah I think so.

GILES: What every week a…? Mary.

Mary sobs.

MARY: Yes.

 

The first exercise is to have a go at doing this yourself. Record a conversation, a real-life conversation, just a short exchange (ten lines or so) between two people, and do your best to write it down accurately. Don’t be tempted to correct it or change it to make it clearer or to give it different grammar. Just write it exactly as you hear it. If you don’t have a way of recording people at home then try doing it with a clip from Gogglebox. There’s lots to choose from on their Twitter feed.

This will take a while, but it’s really worth doing. Listen to the exchange a number of times as you go along. Pause it and restart it. Do your best to record all the little details of their speech.

Once you’ve finished, have a read. Look closely at it. Look at the pauses, the repetitions, the strange punctuation, the rhythms and the music of it, the way mistakes and mispronunciations – and silence, things unsaid – add a warmth and depth of meaning to real-life speech. Those are the things we are doing and hearing all the time, they’re the things that make dialogue feel alive and characters feel truthful when they speak. They’re the things to bear in mind when you’re writing dialogue of your own.

Exercise Two

The idea behind this exercise is to understand the difference between two people speaking to each other in real life and two people speaking in a dramatic scene. In real life, two people talking can be funny or truthful or to the point or beautifully observed, but it can often feel as if nothing is actually happening. Two people talk, but everything stays the same. Dialogue between characters on stage is quite different to this. It’s most interesting if it’s active, if it feels like there’s something at stake or something might change, if one of the characters wants something, and the other character can help them get it or get in their way. It’s useful to have a go at writing this.

So, to begin with, we’ll revisit the lucky dip objects from last week. Pick one of these:

  • 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

and give it to Character A. Imagine it is the thing that Character B needs more than anything at this moment. Have a go at writing the dialogue between the two characters as Character B tries to get the thing from Character A. Think about the sort of strategies which Character B might use to try and get it. Write an exchange where they have three separate gos. You can give them names if it makes things easier. Don’t overthink it though. Just have a go. Spend about ten minutes writing it. And, once you’re done, have a read of it.

It’s just a quick exercise, and the truth is it might not be a very realistic set-up (it’s not often a person will try three different ways of convincing someone to give them a safety pin). But hopefully, in its simple way, it shows you some of the differences between talking, which passes the time, and dialogue, which is always trying to make stuff happen. Hopefully you’ve started to feel the need for dialogue to be an active thing, to have the potential for changing the situation between characters on stage. Fingers crossed that’ll be helpful in this week’s last exercise.

 

Exercise Three

This exercise is about balance. The first thing to think about is to crafting a scene that feels alive and exciting for people to watch, with one character trying to get something from the other, while things keep getting in their way, like you did in Exercise Two. The second thing to think about is making sure the characters speak in authentic-sounding, believable dialogue, a bit like the detailed real-life transcripts you made in Exercise One. It’s worth spending a bit of time on balancing these two things. Once you crack it the writing properly sings.

Think of two characters you’re interested in writing. Think about something one character might want from the other. It might be as simple as a Kitkat, like the lucky dip objects, but it might also be something that can’t be held in their hand – forgiveness, for example, or to be listened to, or to be left alone, or a kiss. Think about the things stopping them or getting in their way. They might be obstacles caused by the other character or the outside world, but they can also come from within – it’s a very human and recognisable thing for a character to be their own worst enemy, because of stubbornness or shyness, hotheadedness or self-doubt.

Now you have a sense of the workings of the scene and who the characters are, spend a bit of time thinking about the way the characters speak to one another. Do they find it easy? Are they a bit hesitant, or do they overshare? Are they scared to ask for the thing, worrying about potential conflict? Are they a bit demanding, quick to argue, not very good at keeping calm? Do they avoid talking about the things they really want to talk about? Do they miss out words, or get them wrong, or lose momentum so their sentences trail off? Do they speak before thinking, lash out a bit, interrupt each other? What else do they do alongside talking? Picture the situation in your head.

Now, have a go at writing the scene. It doesn’t have to be long. Show one character trying to get the thing they want from the other. Try to make the dialogue sound truthful and authentic. By the end of the scene, even if it is a tiny thing, something should have changed. Compare it to the transcript you wrote of a real-life conversation. You will start to get a sense in your own writing of what it is that makes a scene dramatic.

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

Stick Figure

Playwriting with Tom Wells #2: Character and Monologue

By | Artist Development, Playwriting with Tom Wells

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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