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Moss Hart once said that you never really learn how to write a play; you only learn how to write this play. Crafted with that adage in mind, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion is designed to help writers explore their own ideas in order to develop the script in front of them. No ordinary guide to plotting, this handbook starts with the principle that character is key. “The character is not something added to the scene or to the story,” writes author Will Dunne. “Rather, the ...
Moss Hart once said that you never really learn how to write a play; you only learn how to write this play. Crafted with that adage in mind, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion is designed to help writers explore their own ideas in order to develop the script in front of them. No ordinary guide to plotting, this handbook starts with the principle that character is key. “The character is not something added to the scene or to the story,” writes author Will Dunne. “Rather, the character is the scene. The character is the story.”
Having spent decades working with dramatists to refine and expand their existing plays and screenplays, Dunne effortlessly blends condensed dramatic theory with specific action steps—over sixty workshop-tested exercises that can be adapted to virtually any individual writing process and dramatic script. Dunne’s in-depth method is both instinctual and intellectual, allowing writers to discover new actions for their characters and new directions for their stories.
Dunne’s own experience is a crucial element of this guide. His plays have been selected by the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center for three U.S. National Playwrights Conferences and have earned numerous honors, including a Charles MacArthur Fellowship, four Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, and two Drama-Logue Playwriting Awards. Thousands of individuals have already benefited from his workshops, and The Dramatic Writer’s Companion promises to bring his remarkable creative method to an even wider audience.
— July Samelson
Character is the heart and soul of story. This section can help you flesh out your characters as you prepare to write, make ongoing discoveries about them as your story unfolds, and focus on what matters most. Use these exercises any time. You can always benefit from knowing more about your characters, especially if you begin to lose interest in them, get stuck in a scene, or feel unsure about the direction in which your story should proceed.
BASIC CHARACTER BUILDER
THE QUICK VERSION
Start to flesh out a character
BEST TIME FOR THIS
During early story development or any time you add a new character
CHARACTER: A MIX OF PHYSICAL, PSYCHOLOGICAL, AND SOCIAL TRAITS
You won't understand what your story is about until you understand who your characters are. Dramatist Henrik Ibsen felt he could not begin writing a play until he knew the characters inside out-as if he had lived with them for a month. To know a character is to know the complex blend of physical, psychological, and social traits that make him or her unique. The most important of these traits will be revealed to us through the character's actionsunder the increasing pressure of story events.
Great stories create extreme circumstances where characters are tested-and usually changed-and where they may do things, for better or for worse, that they never thought possible. To write such stories, you need to know your characters well enough to understand where in life they have come from, how they usually behave day-to-day, in what unexpected ways they might act under stress, and in what ways they would never under any circumstances behave.
ABOUT THE EXERCISE
Try this first with your main character. You can repeat it later with other principle characters in less detail. Don't overdevelop minor characters. They may steal the show if, after they come and go, we are waiting for them to return.
You don't need to write volumes as you answer the exercise questions. It's more about making choices and knowing what they are. For best results:
Set up a personal palette. For each character you build, choose one or two people whom you can use-in combination with yourself-as a source of information. Pick people who trigger strong positive or negative feelings. Give the character a name that embodies your choices and has special meaning for you.
Look for what matters most. The importance of each question will depend on the unique character you are developing. Try to find character facts that may influence story events. Don't waste time on details that will have no impact.
Focus on when the story begins. The character will undergo changes as the dramatic journey unfolds. The exercise is designed to help you flesh out who the character is before those changes begin to occur.
* YOUR CHARACTER'S PHYSICAL LIFE
Remember that "now" and "today" refer to when the story begins.
1. When was the character born and what is the character's age now?
2. Think about his or her other vital stats, such as gender, ethnicity, height, and weight. Which of these, if any, might matter in the story?
3. How would most people describe the character's physical appearance?
4. Good or bad, what is the character's most striking physical feature?
5. How would you describe the character's strength, endurance, and coordination when it comes to physical activity and sports?
6. What is the character's favorite sport or physical activity?
7. How is the character's health now, and what has most contributed to this?
8. Is the character on any medication now? If so, what is it, why is the character taking it, and how does it affect his or her behavior?
9. What significant diseases, if any, has the character had in the past and what impact does this medical history have on the character now?
10. Has the character ever sustained a serious physical injury? If so, what happened and how has this affected the character?
11. Does the character have any permanent physical defects, such as nearsightedness, or temporary ones, such as a broken leg? If so, what are they?
12. Of the character's most defining traits, which ones run in the family?
13. Does the character use nicotine, alcohol, or recreational drugs? If so, what is used in what quantities and how important is this in the character's daily life?
14. What is the character's greatest physical asset?
15. What is the character's greatest physical weakness or liability?
* YOUR CHARACTER'S INNER LIFE
1. What is the character's IQ and how has this affected the character?
2. How would you describe the character's imagination?
3. How does the character rate in terms of common sense and sound judgment?
4. How would you describe the character's outlook on life?
5. Does the character tend to be dominant or submissive with others, and why?
6. How does the character usually approach major problems?
7. What is the character's greatest talent?
8. What is the character's greatest lack of talent?
9. What is the character's biggest success in life so far?
10. What is the character's biggest failure in life so far?
11. Up to now, what has been the character's main ambition?
12. What is the character's biggest delusion?
13. In order of importance, identify the character's three greatest fears.
14. In order of importance, name three things that make the character really angry.
15. What would make the character feel embarrassed, ashamed, or guilty?
16. How would you describe the character's moral standards?
17. What are three things that your character most values?
18. What are three things that your character least values?
19. What is the character's greatest virtue?
20. What is the character's greatest vice?
21. What are the spiritual and religious beliefs of the character?
22. Identify something unusual that the character might do-but only if most people would not know about it.
23. Name three things the character would never, ever do.
24. What is the character's biggest secret and why has this stayed hidden?
25. What turns the character on sexually?
26. What is the character's greatest psychological strength?
27. What is the character's greatest psychological weakness?
* YOUR CHARACTER'S LIFE WITH OTHERS
1. Where did the character grow up and in what kind of home?
2. What was the character's social class and how did this affect the character?
3. During the character's early years, who was in the family and how did the character fit in with them?
4. What did the character's parents do for a living and how much did they earn?
5. What was the greatest strength and weakness of the character's father?
6. What was the greatest strength and weakness of the character's mother?
7. In a nutshell, how would you describe the character's childhood?
8. Inside or outside the family, positive or negative, who had the greatest impact on the character as a child and how would you describe this influence?
9. What kind of schools did the character attend and how well did he or she do?
10. What were the character's best and worst subjects in school?
11. How popular was the character through childhood and teenage years?
12. How actively did the character participate in social organizations at school?
13. Inside or outside the family, positive or negative, who had the greatest impact on the character as a teenager and how would you describe this influence?
14. Who was the character's first love, how did this relationship get started, and-if the character is no longer in that relationship-what ended it?
15. What was the character's first real job, why did the character get hired, and-if the character is no longer at that job-what caused it to end?
16. What does the character do now for a living, how much does he or she earn, and how well suited is the character to this line of work?
17. What is the character's social class and marital status now?
18. Where does the character live now and with whom (if anyone)?
19. How would you describe the character's home life now?
20. How has the character's sex life been lately?
21. Publicly or secretly, whom does the character find most sexually attractive?
22. Who is the character's best friend today, and why?
23. Who is the character's worst enemy today, and why?
24. Does the character have any hobbies now and, if so, what?
25. Other than hobbies, what does the character usually do for fun?
26. What is the last book that the character read?
27. What is the last film, if any, that the character saw?
28. When is the last time the character went to a party, whose party was it, and what kind of time did the character have there?
29. Whether spouse, lover, best friend, coworker, family member, or mentor, who is the most significant other person in the character's life today, and why?
30. What is the happiest moment the character has shared with that person?
31. What is the unhappiest moment the character has shared with that person?
32. How would you describe the character's politics?
33. How would you describe the character's position or role in society today?
34. If the character could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
35. Positive or negative, what were three of the most significant turning points in the character's life and how has each affected the character whom we first meet?
You've begun to create a unique identity by making specific choices about the character's physical life, inner life, and life with others. As you develop your story, continue asking questions like these so that your character can keep growing. Look for answers that are relevant to the dramatic journey and can help you better understand how this character will feel and act as the journey unfolds.
Other exercises in this section can help you flesh out specific aspects of your character-such as belief system, home life, and work life-in more depth. In some cases, you may be asked similar questions about the same character and find yourself wanting to give different answers. Know that your character is dynamic and will continue to evolve in new and often unexpected ways as you write and rewrite your story.
WHAT THE CHARACTER BELIEVES
THE QUICK VERSION
Learn more about your character by fleshing out his or her personal credo
BEST TIME FOR THIS
Any time you need to know a character better
THE CHARACTER'S CREDO: A DEEP SOURCE OF ACTION
To figure out the events of your story, you need to understand your character's belief system. This includes how your character sees the world, what your character values and doesn't value, what pushes your character's buttons, and why your character is likely to behave a certain way under certain circumstances.
ABOUT THE EXERCISE
Choose a character whom you wish to explore in more depth and imagine him or her around the time the story begins. Then use free associations to answer the following exercise questions from this character's perspective and in this character's voice, as if you were writing dialogue. Tell the truth as best you can. "Truth" here is whatever you, the character, believe is true when the story begins.
YOUR CHARACTER'S BELIEF SYSTEM
When the story begins, how do you, the character, feel about the following twenty topics? For each one, try to say as much as you can in one minute of fast writing.
Money Sin Violence Beauty Children Success Marriage Death Church Family Drugs Friendship Technology Politics Justice Failure Freedom Love Sex God
A DEEPER LOOK AT THREE KEY BELIEFS
To you, the character, when the story begins:
1. Review your quick responses to the twenty exercise topics. Choose any three topics to explore in more detail.
2. For each topic you chose, take five more minutes to continue where you left off and express your unique point of view. Remember that there is no right or wrong way to do this. Just be specific and stay true to what you, the character, believe. Try to include specific examples from your life to support your beliefs.
Your character's belief system is a key component of who the character is and what makes the character tick. This system is based on what the character has experienced in life, what the character has been taught by others, and how the character feels and thinks as a result of all this.
Like people, no two characters have identical belief systems. Each therefore will act in a unique way, especially under stress when true values tend to show themselves-whether the character likes it or not.
WHERE THE CHARACTER LIVES
THE QUICK VERSION
Find important clues to your character's identity by exploring his or her home
BEST TIME FOR THIS
Any time you need to know a character better
YOUR CHARACTER'S HOME: A GOLD MINE OF PERSONAL INFORMATION
The more you know your characters, the more your story will write itself. This exercise helps you flesh out your principle characters by exploring their most personal domains: their homes. Whether or not these dwellings figure directly into the story action, they are telling places that can reveal a lot about who your characters really are.
ABOUT THE EXERCISE
Choose a character whom you wish to explore in more depth and imagine him or her around the time the story begins. Then answer the exercise questions from this character's perspective and in this character's voice, as if you were writing dialogue. Tell the truth as best you can. "Truth" here is whatever you, the character, believe is true when the story begins.
* YOUR CHARACTER'S HOME LIFE
To you, the character: when the story begins:
1. Where is your home located? If you were to get mail there, what information would be on it: your name and full mailing address.
2. What type of place is it-for example, house, apartment, trailer, hotel room, palace, cave, tent, forest, or space station-and how long have you lived there?
3. Identify the different rooms or distinct areas of your home-for example, living room, kitchenette, bathroom, patio.
4. How would you describe your neighborhood or immediate surroundings?
5. What is your financial relationship to your home-for example, do you own, rent, or stay there for free?
If you pay, what's the monthly cost and how easily do you manage this?
If it's "free," what are you expected to provide instead of money?
6. Who else, if anyone, lives with you? Write each one's name and relationship-for example, lover, husband, or cellmate. If you have pets, include them, too.
7. Briefly describe your home relationships:
If you live alone, how do you like being by yourself?
If you live with others, how well do you get along?
8. Briefly describe how your home usually looks-for example, neat or messy, immaculate or filthy, cluttered or sparse, fixed up or run down.
9. Which is your favorite room or area at home, and why?
10. What room or area of your home do you like least, and why?
11. Name three of your favorite possessions at home. Tell what each one is, where you keep it, and why you like it so much.
12. Name three of the possessions that you most want to get rid of someday. Tell what each one is, where you keep it, and why you dislike it.
13. What was the most memorable intimate encounter you've ever had in your home? Include when this happened and who was involved.
14. Aside from that, what's one of the happiest experiences you've ever had in your home? Include when this happened and who was involved.
15. What was the most memorable violent, criminal, or terrible act in your home? Include when this happened and who was involved.
16. Aside from that, what's one of the most frightening experiences you've ever had in your home? Include when this happened and who was involved.
17. What's one of the saddest experiences you've ever had in your home? Include when this happened and who was involved.
18. Name an object in your home-a physical item-that you keep secret from most people. Include where you have it now and why it's hidden.
19. Name something you do-or have done-in your home that most people don't know about. Tell who else, if anyone, was involved, and why it's a secret.
20. Summing it all up, how do you feel about your home?
If you're happy living there, what do you most enjoy about it?
If you're unhappy there, what's wrong and where would you rather live?
Excerpted from The Dramatic Writer's Companion by WILL DUNNE Copyright © 2009 by Will Dunne . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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About This Guide
Exercises at a Glance
Developing Your Character
Stage 1: Fleshing Out the Bones
Stage 2: Getting to Know the Character Better
Stage 3: Understanding Who the Character Really Is
Causing a Scene
Stage 1: Making Things Happen
Stage 2: Refining the Action
Stage 3: Refining the Dialogue
Building Your Story
Stage 1: Triggering the Chain of Events
Stage 2: Developing the Throughline
Stage 3: Seeing the Big Picture
Fixing Common Script Problems
Posted June 10, 2012
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