The Playwright's Guidebook An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing

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  • Edition: 1st
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2002-03-29
  • Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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During the more than ten years that Stuart Spencer has taught playwriting, he has struggled to find an effective handbook for his courses. Although most of the currently popular guides contain useful ideas, they all suffer from the same problems: poor organization; quirky, idiosyncratic advice; and abstract theorizing on the nature of art. As a result, they fail to offer any concrete information or useful guidelines on how to construct a well-written play. Out of frustration, Spencer wrote his own. The result, The Playwright's Guidebook, is a concise and engaging handbook full of the kind of wisdom that comes naturally with experience. Spencer presents a coherent way of thinking about playwriting that addresses the important principles of structure, includes invaluable writing exercises that build upon one another, explores the creative process, and troubleshoots recurrent problems that many playwrights face.

Author Biography

Stuart Spencer's most recent play, Resident Alien, has been produced around the country and been optioned for film. He teaches playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College.

Table of Contents

Foreword ix
Introduction: How We Tell Stories 3(18)
Part One: Structure
Prologue The Tools
What Is Structure?
Exercise I: The Action Scene
Motivation and Subtext
Exercise 2: The Conflict Scene
High Stakes and High Hopes
Exercise 3: The Event Scene
Beats, Scenes, Acts
Exercise 4: The Beat Scene
Part Two: The Creative Process
Prologue Dramatic Elements
Theater and Drama
Exercise 5
The Impulse
Exercise 6: Writing from an Image
Exercise 7
The Journey of the Play
Exercise 8
Part Three: Dealing With Problems
Exercise 9
Exercise 10
When All Else Fails (Things to Try When You're Stuck)
Part Four: Some Advice
General Advice
Exercise 11
Practical Advice
Part Five: Appendixes
Appendix A: Required Reading
Appendix B: Recommended Reading
Appendix C: Additional Images
Appendix D: Extended Exercises
Glossary 361(4)
Acknowledgments 365(2)
Index 367


The Playwright's Guidebook
THE TOOLS we're about to discuss provide you with the means to begin writing your play. Even the expert use of these tools will not solve all your writing problems, but they can offer you a sense of craft. Then you can apply that craft to begin the infinitely more difficult job of actually saying what you're trying to say.
It's important to remember as you're reading and working on the exercises in Part One that these ideas really are tools, not rules. There may be the laws of drama I mentioned in the Introduction, but you're better off not thinking of them as that.
Many great plays do not use the tools I'm presenting here, or if so, they use them in such idiosyncratic fashion that they are almost impossible to identify. For example, one is hard pressed to find a clear action for Lear in King Lear. Even if one does find action and conflict in Waiting for Godot, anevent for the play is very elusive. In fact, that's the point of Beckett's play--that there is no event. The contemporary work of playwrights such as Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson also lack any of my tools, yet many people--myself included--find their work fascinating and rewarding.
An audience goes to the theater to be entertained, informed, excited, provoked. People go because they are interested in your play, for whatever reason and on whatever level that may be. And your job is to keep them interested. If you have done that, then you have accomplished your task, no matter how little you may have used the tools I will tell you about.
Conversely, no matter how brilliantly you may have structured your play, if it can't capture an audience's interest, then you've failed.
Some students ask if they should think of these structural tools as a blueprint. My reply is an emphatic no. A blueprint suggests a preconceived plan, a rigid form into which you have to make your own ideas fit. It suggests also that the idea work has already been done and that all you need to do is follow instructions. Nothing could be further from the truth.
It bears repeating that the ideas described in Part One should be thought of as the tools that will come in handy while you are constructing your play. But it is your own play you are constructing, according to your own plan.
It's as though you have begun to build your dream house. It's conceivable (if highly unlikely) that you might even do the work without any tools at all. If you're like most people, you'll want a hammer, some nails, a saw, and so on. Soon you'll have them. And like building a house, the blueprint ofyour play may very likely change, grow, and evolve as you create it.
Other students approach me in the middle of learning some of the tools in Part One and say that they really don't want to use the tools they've been shown. They have a vague feeling of discomfort and suspect that there is something banal about them. They're afraid the tools will drain their work of creativity and that if they employ them, it will be embarrassingly obvious to the audience, who will see the play's scaffolding.
This apprehension about craft is peculiar to our modern age in which we value creativity over artifice, not realizing they are two sides of the same coin. Still, it's an understandable concern. Certainly none of us wants our audiences to see the scaffolding. But that's no reason not to have it. It's only a good reason to make sure that it isn't visible. Good scaffolding is by definition invisible--it's intrinsic to the play you are writing. You'll see, in the course of using this book, that structure is not something that must be artificially imposed onto your play. It is part of your play, the foundation of it. You know you've struck gold when what you are trying to say and the way you are trying to say it, are one.
Copyright © 2002 by Stuart Spencer

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