Monday, June 30, 2014

Playwriting vs Novel writing

Today I'd like to talk a bit about the differences between writing plays and writing novels. I don't think either one is easier than the other, and there are some things to keep in mind if you try to switch from writing one to the other.

Difference one: Directing

With a novel, you are the director.  When you sit down to write the story, you control everything. If you want a character to do, feel, think, or act in a certain way- they do. You push the pen (or keyboard) and the character jumps. You even control how they look, smell, talk, and so on.  A novelist is more than a director, they're the god of their world, pulling every string to weave the tapestry of their story.  Many claim they let the characters "tell them" what to do as they write, but whether consciously or not, it's still all in the author's hands.  Even an editor who steps in to mention things that need tweaking, ultimately gives it back to the author to tweak.  John Doe might need to scream, running away from a burning building in a scene, but won't until the author orders him to.

On the other hand, a playwright might have an idea of how a play should look, but ultimately they will probably not direct it.  Yes, some playwrights direct their own scripts, but eventually that script should leave the playwrights' hands.  Theatre is an organic art, created by groups instead of individuals.  A playwright creates a situation and dialogue, but it's a director who interprets that dialogue, and actors and designers who bring the interpretation to life.  One thing I constantly remind my playwriting students is to avoid drafting too many stage directions, as blocking is the job of others.  If John Doe says help, the word comes from the playwright. The choice to scream for help comes from the actor. Screaming for help while sprinting across stage comes from the director's blocking, and the burning building collapsing overhead comes from the director, designer, and stage hands.  The words belong to the playwright, but the theatrical presentation comes from a group effort, not an individual.  For many authors used to total control over a world, this is intimidating.  Novel writing involves growing a garden, picking the vegetables, and cooking a meal. Playwriting is planting seeds and watering, trusting others to harvest.

Difference two: senses

People have five senses.  One advantage of novelists is the ability to create a world that touches all five senses.  Bob walked to the store with the red awning, basking in the warm sunlight. He sat, smelling the fresh sesame bagels. Taking a bite, he heard a dog bark behind him.  Characters experience all five senses, and details incorporating all of the senses help to create a more vivid and realistic world.  Not only can all senses be described, but internal reactions can accompany a sense.  I pulled the fork to my lips and gagged, revolted at the bitter taste.  

However, all of the above is an illusion.  In reality, books only enter a reader's mind through ONE sense. Every sense mentioned above traveled to your brain through sight.  If you're listening to an audio book, you only hear the words and nothing else.  In theatre, we use a combination of visual and auditory stimulation simultaneously.  You hear and see everything happening onstage.  Experimental theatre pushes the boundaries of sensory experience even further.  Here in Washington DC, the theatre troupe "Dog and Pony" uses a blend of audience interaction, tactile objects, and a pre-show buffet styled after the production, to engage every sense. In their show Beertown, for example, the townsfolk enjoy an assortment of desserts and dishes, while talking to the dignitaries of the town (actors) about a series of objects to be voted on as part of the interactive show.  No author could fully engage his audience more thoroughly, no matter how many senses were written about.  Even in traditional theatre, the actors themselves can experience the world of the play through sight, sound, touch, and sometimes smell and taste.  In a production of Inherit the Wind, I had deliver a monologue between bites of fried chicken.  My reality of the story was heightened, in turn heightening it for the audience.     

Difference three: the bubble

The final difference I'll discuss lies in the process of creation itself.  Writing books, for most authors, is a solitary business.  There might be research or collaborative discussions in a writing group, but ultimately the author lives in a bubble, dreaming of his or her world.  Many authors cannot ave any distractions, and can only write when the walls of this bubble are thickest.

To be fair, there are some playwrights who write the same way. They sit in isolation, crafting dialogue and imagining a vision for the stage.  Yet, since theatre is an organic art, created by groups instead of individuals, many plays take shape in group settings.  If you're writing a musical, you work with a composer and librettist to craft a work.  Other pieces are based on a collaboration between you and and ensemble.  When I met Rachel, she worked at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, a space devoted to only premiering and workshopping new plays.  After every premiere, the producer, playwright, and director all came out and asked the audience what elements worked and didn't work.  In a way, the audience played a role in editing and drafting the final version of the production.  Other plays are more collaborative from the beginning.  Director/playwright Mary Zimmerman made a name for herself by watching her theatre troupe improvise based on a situation, and then crafting dialogue based on the improvisations.  In those situations the playwright has no bubble at all.

What are your thoughts?  Have you considered switching from novels to plays?

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