I love the movie The Dark Knight for many reasons. The scene above is a big reason why. The Joker, having orchestrated a complex sequence of events causing death and mayhem asks the newly deformed Harvey Dent, "Do I really look like a guy with a plan?"
The answer is: "No, you don't look like a man with a plan... But you do have one."
Do we playwrights have a plan when we write? Should we? Should we have a very clear outline of the entire play before beginning the process of writing?
I know that I hate outlines. I find them constricting and bothersome and cumbersome. Having said that, I just wrote two projects directly from meticulously planned outlines in the past couple months...
In my previous post, I talked about having a hard time writing screenplays. I have since learned why. Writing a screenplay is closer in style to novel writing than playwriting. It's scene and character descriptions that I'm not used to spelling out. I prefer more of a "They fight" style stage direction, leaving space in the specifics for the directors and actors and designers to figure out. But this is a post about outlines, so I'll leave that conversation for another day.
The screenplay was one that I'm currently writing with my partner who lives in LA. We've written several other screenplays together long distance. We worked separately from loose outlines that we'd come up with together and then joined the scenes together in a mishmash manner over email as we navigate the world of "day jobs" and writing in our proverbial "spare time." It took months and months and months to finish a script, mostly because whenever we'd set out to get work done on our own, life got in the way and there'd be a delay. It wasn't the writing that took forever, it was the not writing.
This year, I received a fellowship that allowed me to take some time off from my day job specifically for writing, and I decided that I would use part of the money to go to LA for a week to write a new screenplay with Ryan. My thinking was that if we could have one week together in the same room, we could get a ton of work done. But I knew that if we were going to get the work done, we had to have a plan.
My first day out there, we spent hours poring over our story, crafting an outline that we both agreed upon. We left no detail out, trying to get each scene and plot point as clear as possible. Then, over many pots of tea (Ryan is a tea drinker. I prefer coffee, but when in Rome...), we divvied up the scenes and wrote on our own, going methodically through the outline. After 2 1/2 days of writing, we actually came up with a first draft of the script. Then, came the rewriting. We revisited our outline and looked at the script we had written and refocused our outline and, once again, divvied out scenes to revise and add and refine.
In this situation, working from an outline made perfect sense. We both needed to know exactly where we were going with the story, especially if we were going to be working on different parts of the script at the same time. If I was working on the opening scenes, I had to be sure that they'd fit with the later scenes that Ryan was working on and then with the scenes that I, myself, would work on later.
Last week, I planned another week off for writing (thanks once again to the fellowship) to work on my untitled play based on the myth of Persephone. I knew that since I'd have a week entirely devoted to writing, I had to make it count. Having come out of my LA experience with two drafts of a screenplay in less than 5 days, I knew I could write the play, I just needed to have... a plan.
I outlined the story of Persephone in the weeks leading up to last week, so that when Monday came around, I hit the ground running. It helped that Persephone is an adaptation of an existing story, so the foundation of the story was already there. However, my playing with the story adds a new timeline, even though the main thrust of the story is mostly intact. (Eurydice is also entwined in my version, making it more complicated and interesting to me).
I worked chronologically and methodically through my outline, writing every scene in order. I didn't have the stamina that I had with Ryan. I don't know if feeding off of Ryan's energy (and tea) made all the difference, but I found it very difficult to look at my outline and write the scene that would come next. It was slow going and felt unnatural and somewhat artificial to me. But after 5 days, I came away with a first draft of the play, handwritten in my journal. I usually write my first drafts longhand and create a second draft as I transcribe the text to my computer. This second draft is what I'm currently slogging through this week. I hate transcription...
What I found in both instances was that having the outline was effective in getting the drafts written quickly. However, I also found that I felt rushed in my writing. Part of it was the feeling of "I only have a week and if I don't finish this play (or screenplay) by the end of the week, then this week will be a failure." Part of it was the feeling of needing to get through it, to hurry up and get to the end of the story and write the last scene. I knew where the story was going, I just needed to hurry up and get there!
So, the process of the screenplay and Persephone was as follows:
Now, let me show you the process that I'm more accustomed to:
It's a long process. It's not pretty. It's probably not ideal, but it's ripe for discovery. Books & Bridges went through this process and took several years to get a draft written. I like that process. I like the messiness of it. But I also liked having something to show for myself after a week of plugging away with Ryan in his dining room in LA or on my own in the coffee house in Columbus.
The new draft of Persephone that I'm currently writing as I move from the handwritten, mostly readable, text in my journal to my computer is starting to deviate from the outline. I'm using the scenes I've written, but changing the order of them. I'm noticing that my outline was flawed in structure, but the scenes still work. So far. It's very slow, especially since my day job has ruined my typing speeds because I type on touchscreens all day. But the work is getting done. I'll have a second draft of Persephone by my personal due date of November 15th and I have my outline to thank.
What about you? How much do you plan? Do you write like driving in the darkness, writing only as far as your headlights can see? Or do you meticulously plan out your story in outline form before putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard?
No matter how you do it, get the work done. And, as always, be excellent to each other.
I've been at work in the research for my play about Persephone lately. I've been drawing diagrams, searching for a theme song (It's just something I do. And it usually changes once I realize what the play is really about.), and coming up with character surrogates. What I mean by character surrogates is a person or other character from something else that can act as an engine for the characters in my play. Sometimes this is someone I may know, sometimes it's a character from a movie. Right now, Persephone's surrogate is Walter White from Breaking Bad. It sounds odd, but makes perfect sense for the play that's growing in my mind. I don't know which god or goddess is Jesse Pinkman though...
In addition to this, I had a wonderful conversation with a Columbus dramaturg about my play Woman Studies that I'm still developing. We met for 2 hours and it left me very inspired and ready to get to work. The play itself started from an article I read about a Latina arguing against the Republican "War on Women," primarily their obsession with reproductive rights, focusing specifically on contraception and abortion. I didn't want to write a political play; it's just not my bag, but when the political fuses itself to the needs and wants of characters, then it becomes part of the character struggle and not a struggle about the political as something separate. There were two scenes that my new dramaturg friend pointed out in which the politics were not infused within the characters. The worst is the infamous Scene 17. I'm forever going to use "Scene 17" as a code when I have a scene that is heavy-handed, too on-the-nose, and inorganic. It was a necessary scene to write as she and another one of my dramaturg friends noted later; it possessed the kernels of ideas that the characters are dealing with and was important to explore. I have a lot of great notes from the conversation and look forward to the next rewrite (coming soon!).
There was a really interesting question that she asked, one that I've asked myself multiple times about the play and a whole host of other questions that arise from it. She asked me why the main character was Latina. Does she have to be? Or was she Latina merely because of the original source of inspiration? It's a perfectly valid question. Victoria, the main character, and her sister are the only characters with a specified race; everyone else's race is undefined and could really be any race. So, why is Victoria Latina?
Part of it has to do with the sex and politics in the play. What I've noticed in society is that there are two extreme stereotypes of Latinas: one as the "hot," exotic, overly sexed temptress, and the other as a welfare mother with multiple children. Part of the play is playing against and with the stereotypes in the characters, bending and subverting them.
But then what makes a character Latina? By that I mean what are the defining factors that would make her Latina in the eyes of the audience? What would make her "Latina enough?" This is a question I keep asking myself as a Latino writer and keep wrestling with. Does Victoria have to speak with an accent? Does she have to toss in a word of Spanish? Does she have to be brown? If she is brown, what shade? Where does she have to be from? Is she second generation or first generation? Does any of that matter when it comes down to it? My decision, and it was a very tough and deliberate choice, was to have Victoria speak like any of my other characters, to let her not speak a word of Spanish to "identify" her as Latina. I would treat her like any other character, which sounds odd because isn't that what I should be doing anyway, even if she's Latina?
Here's the thing, I've written several plays with main Latino/a characters (4 including Woman Studies). Each one of those plays has been inspired loosely by family, by people I grew up with, by the environment of Albuquerque, NM. What would happen if I looked at a Latina from Iowa? A Latina who didn't come out of the same environment as all my other characters? What if she was like me? What if she was Latino by her family, by her skin, by her upbringing, but not necessarily by her day to day conversations. Honestly, this is a strange concept to speak about, I'm trying not to offend or confuse the issue here or to make me come across as not proud of my heritage or whatever (I made that mistake once by a poor choice of phrase and was unfairly taken to task).
My new dramaturg friend's question is completely valid only because she found that based on her reading of the play, Victoria could be of any race. And that's true besides the character description before the play that says "Latina" after her age. So, if Victoria sounds like she could be of any race, not saying that she's generic by any means, but if she doesn't have something that is distinctly Latina in her language or her experience, is she Latina enough? When I define a race for a particular character, it has weight, it has responsibility. I just hope that the play works and that Victoria is a fully-formed character. That's my main concern. If I do justice to Victoria as a character, I think that's enough.
What about you? Do any of you struggle with race of your characters and the weight that comes with that? How do you handle it? I'd love to hear about it.
I wish you well with your work, my fellow theatre-makers.
Be excellent to each other.
I'm starting up on a new project with a writing partner: our third screenplay together. This is in addition to the rewrites I'm doing on my two latest plays in order to prep them for sending out next year! The few submissions I did recently have whetted my appetite.
But back to the original thought: the screenplay. When working on a project with a collaborator, it's best to stay on the same page, to know the characters in the same ways, to hear the same voices, and to know where things are headed. Outlines are de rigueur, mandatory. Me? I'm not so much an outline kind of guy. I do outline, but not until I've gotten deeper into the script.
I start my outline with three words:
I stole this from Christopher Nolan's film, The Prestige: the magician movie that really rocks. One of the characters describes the 3 act structure of a magic trick:
Every great magic trick consists of three parts or acts. The first part is called "The Pledge". The magician shows you something ordinary: a deck of cards, a bird or a man. He shows you this object. Perhaps he asks you to inspect it to see if it is indeed real, unaltered, normal. But of course... it probably isn't. The second act is called "The Turn". The magician takes the ordinary something and makes it do something extraordinary. Now you're looking for the secret... but you won't find it, because of course you're not really looking. You don't really want to know. You want to be fooled. But you wouldn't clap yet. Because making something disappear isn't enough; you have to bring it back. That's why every magic trick has a third act, the hardest part, the part we call "The Prestige."
The Prestige could be equated with the concept of the "Perception Shift" in theatre parlance, which is the new understanding of the play that happens in the back of the audience's mind. Where they understand what you've been doing the whole time, but in a new way. Far Away is the best example of this for me. Whenever I get stuck, I think about Far Away.
But again, I don't really do outlines until I'm in the play. For me, outlines are about rewriting, not for pre-writing. I write all the scenes I can, in whatever order I want; Joss Whedon calls it eating your dessert first. I call it the way I've always done it.
Once I get somewhere around "halfway" (I never know what length of play I'm writing), I go to my dry erase board. I list every scene that I've written, finding the order that they should go in. Sometimes it's chronological, sometimes not. This helps me look at the flow of things and find holes. What does it mean that this scene follows that scene? What would that look like? What does that mean? Do I need something else? Is it a scene or simply an added moment or image?
When I first write the scenes, I sometimes envision them in their true environments, for example, if a scene takes place on the grass at a college, I see an actual college with grass. When I start to outline, I see the scenes on a stage with lights and set and sound and audience. I see how that new theatrical space (usually a black box space, interestingly enough) influences what I've written. Is it theatrical? Does it need to change? I never ask "Is it produceable?" Maybe I should, but I don't find that particularly helpful.
How and when do you outline? Do you start with an outline? Or do you write like driving in the dark, seeing just as far as the headlights? Do you eat your dessert first?