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'm currently working on three projects: a screenplay with my writing partner, a play that will (hopefully) be performed at the Columbus School for Girls, and a play for children. Two of them, the screenplay and the children's play, are a bit out of my comfort zone. I have written screenplays (my writing partner and I have written two others together), but I'm still not comfortable with them. People talk about how a play is verbal and a screenplay is visual, but is that it? For me, a screenplay feels like writing prose or a novel, but writing a play feels like, well, writing a play... Or maybe more like poetry. In a screenplay, you have to completely show every detail possible and make sure that the reader can see your characters and settings with great clarity. Writing a screenplay feels like I'm writing stage directions in an O'Neill play. I don't write O'Neill plays. So, stretching my detailed action lines and descriptions has been a great exercise. I still feel as though I'm not myself when writing a screenplay, that I'm wearing some kind of skin over my skin as I write. Maybe that will change with practice, but, for now, that's what it feels like.
The children's play comes from an experience my son had seeing Revenge of the Space Pandas by David Mamet as performed for CATCO is Kids here in Columbus. My wife and I thought that he'd enjoy it. He was almost 2 at the time and is pretty adventurous and enjoys interactive things. However, the play spooked him. The lights and sound was a bit too much for him and my wife had to leave with him. The director, the kind Joe Bishara (who directed the reading of my play Books & Bridges), found my wife and Jack in the lobby and comforted him. Joe even invited Jack into the booth to watch the show, separated by the glass.
Joe and I had lunch some time after that (Jack had turned 2) and he asked if I'd be interested in writing a play that could be possibly performed in the future by CATCO is Kids. He said that Jack's reaction to Space Pandas made him wonder if I could write a play that would be enjoyable for kids Jack's age, something that he would enjoy and not freak him the hell out (my words). So, I'm in the midst of wondering what story could I tell that this kid who loves (seriously, LOVES) Thomas the Tank Engine and Abby Cadabby and Daniel Tiger and running and jumping would enjoy. That pic is from his birthday. Thomas was actually in Ohio. On his birthday. It was amazing. It looks like we're in front of a green screen, but no, Thomas, ("Real Thomas" as Jack calls him), is really there!
Here are some things that I know the play would have to entail:
I've written a couple of children's plays before, but those were exercises. They weren't ever planned as something to be performed. Actually, I've also written some plays that were performed on Christmas Eve for family services. But this play is different. This would be a 45 minute play, not a 7-10 minute play. I'm out of my comfort zone on it, but I'm excited to try it. I have a couple of ideas, but they're not quite fully cooked.
I'm, at the moment, concentrating on the Columbus School for Girls play: Persephone (Not the title). I've laid out a lot of the plot and have even written some really awful jokes that may or may not make it to the first draft. Oh, and there's at least one Eddie Izzard reference. So far.
What are you working on right now? What are you struggling with? Are you out of your comfort zone? if you are, be brave and take some hot chocolate. It's getting cold.
Take care of yourselves and be excellent to each other.