Now I’ve only had one play performed so far in my career, and it was a short monologue, but even doing that I picked up one very important thing and is that scriptwriting is a collaborative effort. When writing a play it does not go straight from the writer to the audience as a prose or poetry piece does it goes through directors and actors and so on first.
In writing my first play I learnt you have to trust the actors. In fact I went so far as saying the actress could put the character crying when she pleased because she would likely know as she was in character better where to put it then I would as the writer writing it. Which isn’t to say I doubted my own abilities as a writer but when we write we are inherently making something artificial seem natural whereas, I hope, when an actor acts they are in the moment and it ceases to be artificial if that makes any sense. I have to say the actress, whose name I forgotten and I can’t find the details in my manic office at present, was amazing. I might possibly have gushed a little about her after the performance because she hit those crying moments far better than if I had written them in for her.
Now it’s probably important to observe that when I was asked I didn’t immediately go ‘yes, yes, she should choose the moments’, it was my first performed play after all and we don’t pop into existence all knowing about everything. I did puzzle over it trying to work out where those moments would go but inserting a few sobs seemed to enhance the inherent artificiality of the fiction rather than enhance the emotion. Having tried that once if I’m ever lucky enough to be in a position to have something performed again then I shall certainly give the actor the freedom to feel out the moment.
Discussing inserting stage directions seems to bring me nicely onto the subject of stage directions as a whole. Having spoken to actors and directors and read around the subject there seems to be a consensus that sometimes there’s simply too much stage direction. Now I’m not suggesting you cut all the stage directions out, simply consider if they’re necessary, like any piece of prose.
As an example, apparently a common mistake that appears in film or television scripts is an excessive amount of direction about how the camera moves. We’d all seen CAMERA PANS LEFT or CAMERA PANS RIGHT, but that is really the choice of the director and breaks up the flow of the story you’re trying to tell.
I was confused about this idea too but discovered that overwriting directions is not the same as having a strong visual image and shouldn’t be discouraged. I was lucky to have a good screenwriting tutor and when I went to them and said I was confused by this idea but in Chance Meetings I had this really strong image of Emma sitting in a furniture store with her feet on a coffee table my tutor told me this is the sort of direction people look for. Sitting in a shop with your feet on a table is statement of confidence, owning the space, and probably rudeness as well. It shows everyone involved who that character is without telling them in a long piece of direction.
My tutor always emphasised the visual nature of theatre and screen but I think finding that balance between giving strong visual imagery and too much instruction is probably a skill that develops over time rather than something immediate. Somehow I suspect that if you write a really good story in a play or screenplay but you’ve got a bit too much direction in it nobody is going to mind. Now, obviously, I’m more novel orientated than being a playwright so my advice would be take a look at Syd Field’s Definite Guide to Screen Writing or How Plays Work by David Edgar (precise references can be found in my bibliography), I found both books very helpful when it came to writing plays and screenplays.
Personally, when writing the first draft of your play I’d put all these things aside and simply write it and find the story. All the technical stuff can be worked out later once you’ve got the all-important story on the page because all the balance in directions or trust in actors won’t do any good if the story is there.
For more writing advice see my archive page.