David on Playwriting

March 17th, 2011 0 comments

Every year for several years, I coordinated a course for the University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies Creative Writing Department. It was really named “Dramatic Writing I,” but we used to call it “The All-Star Playwriting Class,” because I invited a different guest each week to talk about an aspect of playwriting. It was fun for the students to meet different playwrights and find out how each approached his or her work, and it was great fun for me, too. Perhaps the main lesson we all took away is that there are many ways to write plays, and one has to carve out one’s own particular way.

David, of course, was always one of the guests, sometimes on his own, and sometimes with Hrant Alianak. (The two of them had worked out an entertaining lecture that encompassed a bit of Canadian theatre history, a few hilarious theatre stories, and some how-to instructions, peppered with readings from their plays.) David got awfully nervous about doing those sort of things, but he was really very good at it.

The other day I was getting ready to go to the class I now teach when I found some notes I took one night when David was speaking at the All-Star course. I will quote some of them here, as I think the things he had to say are incredibly clear and helpful.

Some advice from David French:

You are a playwright. You build a play. It’s a craft. Like an iceberg, most of the play (the structure) is invisible.

A play is about a protagonist (only one) who wants something badly, and wants it soon. The climax of the play is when the protagonist either gets or doesn’t get what he wants. The other characters in the play either help or hinder the protagonist in his quest. The more conflict, the better. People are either literally or metaphorically fighting for their lives. The antagonist(s) should have as much at stake as the protagonist.

A play begins long before the curtain rises. The play should open with a catalyst to trigger action. Often a protagonist is at a turning point in his life; he has just made or makes a decision.

A play, like a shark, must move forward, or die.

Characters should not talk about what they feel. This is expressed through what they want and how they go about getting it. Always dramatize rather than tell. Don’t tell us that the character is jealous; show him climbing a tree to spy on his girlfriend.

Plot has to arise organically from character.

When characters exit or enter a scene, they must have a legitimate reason for doing so. In fact, make sure each character has a legitimate reason for being in the play in the first place.

Don’t overwrite — the audience is ahead of you. They’re smarter than you are; they already know.

Every good play has suspense — what will happen next?

Don’t be afraid to cut scenes or dialogue if they don’t move the action ahead.

Be careful not to write lines that are impossible for actors to say.

David often used to talk, too, about how writing was really rewriting. He worked hard to get each scene right, each line, each word. He was also adamant about owning the play you wrote — that you can listen to good advice from directors or actors, but that ultimately, it is your name that’s on the play, and you must be true to your own vision.

David was always true to his.

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