How’s it going, Bruntwood peeps? I reckon I’m just over halfway through my first draft, chipping away at it for half an hour to an hour every day. Meeting up with some fellow playwrights last night, we discussed the extent to which we plan – or don’t plan – our work before we start writing. Okay. I’ve read all the stuff. I know all the advice that tells you that you MUST plan your play to the nth degree before you write a word of dialogue. Because dialogue is the easy bit, the lovely bit, and dialogue has a habit of running away with you in a completely different direction and seductively tying you up in knots which you can’t then undo because it sounds so good when you read through it. So there you are, trapped in the Red Room of playwriting, surrounded by interesting-looking objects that you hadn’t exactly planned on being in your play, meanwhile your characters are lining up to spank you and your narrative has run off with the blindfold and is sitting sulking in a cupboard somewhere and refusing to come out and play.
I know all this.
I know that officially dialogue should be the last thing that you write, that you need all the beats planned out first, so that you’re in control of your material. That if you don’t do this, then you’re writing pretty but pointless dialogue and meandering all over the place while you try and work out what the point is and why the hell you’re even bothering.
I know this.
And so every time I approach a new play, I sit down and get all serious and start working on The Plan. And every time, The Plan remains a stubbornly blank page, while tumbleweeds blow through my mind. But a hint of dialogue will lurk somewhere in my brain, and if I write it down then another bit of dialogue will turn up, and another, and some stage actions and images… and so the first draft begins to take the shape. And that draft will contain surprises that I could never have imagined if I’d tried to plan it logically. That’s why they’re a surprise.
I’ve got to a point where I’m labelling my first draft the Jazz Draft. I’m improvising here. I’m throwing everything at it and seeing what happens. Some bits will work, some bits would work a lot better if I moved them to a different scene, some bits would work best if I cut them out altogether. Some bits have evidently crept in from an entirely different play, possibly one that’s being written by someone else. I’ve reached a point where I’d be happy to write SOMETHING NEEDS TO HAPPEN HERE in the middle of a scene, before moving on to the next bit and not worrying about it too much. Something will turn up. But it very much feels as if my creative brain completely and utterly refuses to get on the bus until the bus is moving. I have to just leap into the driver’s seat and make that thing go. Otherwise we’re stood there at the bus stop, staring at a blank timetable that should have a lot of information written on it, but doesn’t. We’d be stood there forever, staring at it, willing those words to appear.
It means that a lot of what I write might go to waste. It means I have to be ruthless during the re-write. That in fact the re-write very much is a re-write – setting everything aside and starting over, now that I have a firmer idea of what needs to happen. It’s a do-over rather than a tweak. It’s probably a lot more work this way, but I’m okay with that. Perhaps I’m picking out the sofa cushions before I’ve worked out what colour to paint the walls, but it feels as if the paint colours don’t suggest themselves until the cushions are in place. There is only magnolia in my planning mind.
One of the other playwrights last night looked as if she wanted to leap over the table and hug me for admitting my inability to plan what I write. Oh my God, you too?! Her relief was palpable. It feels unprofessional somehow to admit that you can’t plan your work, it sounds ridiculous. But there it is. I can’t. If I try to plot out story beats, there’s nothing there. It only happens when I’m actually writing, and then the connections and possibilities and pathways start to appear, sometimes dizzying in their potential. Decisions have to be made, and sometimes it feels as if I’m free-falling without a parachute. It’s okay though. Parachutes are for the second draft. Control can be regained later on. I’ve learned that if I trust my process, a logic will emerge.
I’ve likened it to taking a road trip. I know I’m starting somewhere near Land’s End, and I’m fairly sure I’m going to end up outside York Minster. I’ve a gut feeling that I’m going to stop for elevenses in Exeter, that I’ll probably have to pull over in a layby and have a quick pee behind the hedge somewhere near Swindon and dinner is likely to be from a burger bar in Sheffield. I don’t have a map, but I roughly know where the major towns are en route and I’m hoping there’ll be enough road signs to point in the right direction along the way. There may well be some wrong turnings, leading to some spectacular U-turns. I might find myself on a beach in Weston Super Mare, enjoying an ice cream, and question if that’s actually going to get me to my destination. Or, like Richard III, I might inexplicably wind up in Lincoln Cathedral instead. I might realise that Lincoln is exactly where I need to be, who knows? I don’t head out entirely unprepared – I’ll have picked out a few landmarks along the way, and maybe put together a mix tape for the journey. I’ll have read up about my stopping points, researched what I can. I know who is in the car with me, and who I’m picking up along the way. But I don’t really know what’s going to happen until I start driving.
The play, for me, needs that journey. But it also needs me to then sift through all the bits and pieces that happened on the journey, and throw out the things I don’t need – the half-sucked polo mint that fell onto the floor and rolled under the driver’s seat. The receipt for the latte I bought to keep me awake in Hull (Hull? What the hell was I doing in Hull?) and promptly spilled all over the passenger seat. The dent from the prang with the white van man. The hitch-hiker who turned out to be the most boring person in the Universe, ever. That’s where the planners would have an advantage – no fluff-covered sticky sweets under their seats that they’re left trying to prise out with a stick during their second draft. No dents in their bodywork. No hitch-hikers brutally killed off and kicked out of the car mid-draft. But I sometimes wonder if there’s a risk that in plotting the route so efficiently they never find themselves somewhere unexpected, staring in wonder at the bones of a dead King.
Over to you. Do you plan? Can you plan? Can you fill us non-planners in on how you do it? Or do you prefer to meander, with no more forethought than a boiled egg wrapped up in your knapsack, until the story reveals itself?