Contemporary Writing Techniques I Want To Promote Part II

Ed Ramsey

As in the first of these two posts, the objective here is to share thoughts and ideas about playwrighting that may not be as popular as they should be, I hope you enjoy! 

4. Quick-changing set pieces

These have tremendous advantages and again are used already very widely. Having simplistic but multi-dimensional set pieces, for instance blocks that fold out or have different colours on various sides, can make a piece of theatre both more slick-looking and more emphatic. If there are fewer things to look at in a set, those things become instantly more important because they draw more focus. In a grandiose Edward Gordon Craig inspired set, there'll be loads to take in, to the point where the design means something as a whole, and creates a strong impression, but has less specificity in memory. If all one sees on stage is a keyboard, its meaning and implications run with the story and character and serve to empower them. 

This is not to belittle bigger sets, they have just as much meaning both from a conscious and subconscious audience perspective. But if the production is smaller budgeted, versatile set pieces are definitely the way to go. I once saw a production which used a wall of blocks which folded out and had a frame behind so the cast could climb up and down, it was even used as a vertical bed to give the audience a bird's eye view. That was a 'wow' moment for me. 

5. Not deciding on the setting until you're half way through

This is a weird one, and of course very much depends on how you write. However, on occasion I have found it intriguing to start writing a play without any decisions having been made about setting. I found when I did this that as long as I built characters and had things I wanted those characters to say, the setting came to me about half way through completely naturally. I didn't need to sit and contemplate for hours, or wait a few weeks until my 'writer's brain' had made the decision. I had written about half of the play when it struck me, and it felt completely right. I'm not saying that plays are better when this is done, but if you're having trouble with setting, it's something worth trying out. 

6. Not deciding on one underlying theme or message until half way through

If the last one was weird, this one's more so. But the emphasis needs to be on the 'one', as I believe that it takes more effort to write a play with one theme, than it does to write a play with five or even ten; because if you focus on characters and story rather than themes and messages, the former will drive the latter and they'll come naturally. Again, I found that if I didn't think too much about what my main theme would be until about half way through, it felt more right and more exciting than if I had decided it before I started. What's more, doing this lets you get the first draft out quicker because you're not held back by the aspects which in my experience take the longest to decide if you try to do so in one sitting. 

7. No singular protagonist and no villain

I always disliked the use of the word villain when 'antagonist' fit better. For example, "Iago is the villain in Othello" doesn't sit well with me, but replace "villain" with "antagonist" and I'm much more comfortable. My main reason for this is that when I hear 'villain' I think 'motiveless malignity', I think 'evil for the sake of being evil' or 'evil because the writer said so end of story'. But when I hear 'antagonist' there's more ambiguity, because all an antagonist does is work against the protagonist, they can have many motives or only one or two. In this world I do not believe there are villains, I believe there are antagonists. So first of all I don't use villains, but I'm not going to hold anyone back from doing so if they wish.

However, I would argue that it's not healthy to decide on one protagonist. If I had to sum up these ideas with one piece of advice for any up and coming playwrights out there such as myself, I would say this: make as few decisions early on as possible, always make sure your mind is open to your play changing- whether it be one line being rephrased or the entire play being rethought.