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

Overview

An accessible, contemporary guide to the art of dramatic writing

During the ten years that Stuart Spencer has taught playwriting, he has struggled to find an effective playwriting handbook for his courses. Although most of the currently popular handbooks have good ideas in them, they all suffer from the same problems: they're poorly organized; are composed mostly of quirky, idiosyncratic advice on how specific playwrights have gone about writing their own work; and are full of ...

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

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Overview

An accessible, contemporary guide to the art of dramatic writing

During the ten years that Stuart Spencer has taught playwriting, he has struggled to find an effective playwriting handbook for his courses. Although most of the currently popular handbooks have good ideas in them, they all suffer from the same problems: they're poorly organized; are composed mostly of quirky, idiosyncratic advice on how specific playwrights have gone about writing their own work; and are full of abstract theorizing on the nature of art. As a result, they fail to offer any concrete information on how to construct a well-written play or any useful guidelines and exercises. Moreover, few of these books are actually written by working playwrights. Out of frustration, Spencer wrote his own book. The result, The Playwright's Guidebook, is a clear, concise, and engaging handbook. Spencer addresses the important principles of structure, includes insightful writing exercises that build upon one another, explores the creative process, and troubleshoots recurrent problems that playwrights actually face.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Stuart Spencer's meticulous handbook does something I had thought was almost impossible: it describes, clarifies and analyzes the mysterious process of building a play. And moreover, he does so with the grace and respect of a first-rate teacher for the intelligence and potential of his students. There is no ideology, no formula for instant success here. Just the distilled experience of a real practitioner generous enough to share, and reliable enough to be trusted."

—Jon Robin Baitz, author of Ten Unknowns and Substance of Fire

"Stuart Spencer's The Playwright's Guidebook is indispensable. Clearly and thoroughly, Mr. Spencer—a playwright himself—leads all playwrights (not only the beginner) through the travails of creation and the jungle of production. He is to be congratulated."

—Edward Albee

"Eureka! A clearly written, well-structured, intelligent how-to book about playwrighting. Like the good teacher and good writer that he is, Stuart Spencer guides rather than browbeats. Should be next to the laptop of any aspiring, or working, playwright."

—Warren Leight, author of Side Man

"If you want to be a playwright, here's your bible."

—David Lindsay-Abaire, author of Fuddy Meers and Wonder of the World

"At last! A straight-from-the-shoulder approach to playwrighting that finally blows the dust off much of the mystique surrounding this craft. Stuart Spencer writes with wit, insight, clarity, brilliant first-hand knowledge, and yes, finally, offers genuine help! Refreshing and beautifully organized, this book is long overdue."

—Jack O'Brien, Artistic Director, The Globe Theatres, San Diego

"A sensible, lucid, thorough and tremendously helpful journey into the always mysterious realities of playwrighting."

—Romulus Linney, author of The Sorrows of Frederick, Holy Ghosts, and Tennessee

"Mr. Spencer's guidebook is full of solid, straightforward advice in a conversational voice that takes the mystery out of how plays are wrought, not written."

—Michael Weller, author of Moon Children and Loose Ends

Publishers Weekly
A practical compendium based on author Stuart Spencer's experience crafting plays (Resident Alien; The Rothko Room; etc.) and teaching at Sarah Lawrence College, The Playwright's Guidebook offers counsel on issues like structure, conflict, character and problem-solving. This contemporary guide fills the gaps left open by many books, supplying organized and realistic advice for would-be playwrights. As Spencer says, "A play is more wrought than written. A playwright constructs a play as a wheelwright once constructed a wheel: a general shape is laid out, and then hammered, bent, nailed, reshaped, hammered again and again, until finally a functionaly and artful product has emerged." Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Edward Albee
"Stuart Spencer's The Playwright's Guidebook is indispensable. Clearly and thoroughly, Mr. Spencer—a playwright himself—leads all playwrights (not only the beginner) through the travails of creation and the jungle of production. He is to be congratulated."
Michael Weller
"Mr. Spencer's guidebook is full of solid, straightforward advice in a conversational voice that takes the mystery out of how plays are wrought, not written."
—Michael Weller, author of Moon Children and Loose Ends
Romulus Linney
"A sensible, lucid, thorough and tremendously helpful journey into the always mysterious realities of playwrighting."
—Romulus Linney, author of The Sorrows of Frederick, Holy Ghosts, and Tennessee
Jack O'Brien
"At last! A straight-from-the-shoulder approach to playwrighting that finally blows the dust off much of the mystique surrounding this craft. Stuart Spencer writes with wit, insight, clarity, brilliant first-hand knowledge, and yes, finally, offers genuine help! Refreshing and beautifully organized, this book is long overdue."
—Jack O'Brien, Artistic Director, The Globe Theatres, San Diego
Warren Leight
"Eureka! A clearly written, well-structured, intelligent how-to book about playwrighting. Like the good teacher and good writer that he is, Stuart Spencer guides rather than browbeats. Should be next to the laptop of any aspiring, or working, playwright."
—Warren Leight, author of Side Man
Jon Robin Baitz
"Stuart Spencer's meticulous handbook does something I had thought was almost impossible: it describes, clarifies and analyzes the mysterious process of building a play. And moreover, he does so with the grace and respect of a first-rate teacher for the intelligence and potential of his students. There is no ideology, no formula for instant success here. Just the distilled experience of a real practitioner generous enough to share, and reliable enough to be trusted."
—Jon Robin Baitz, author of Ten Unknowns and Substance of Fire
David Lindsay-Abaire
"If you want to be a playwright, here's your bible."
—David Lindsay-Abaire, author of Fuddy Meers and Wonder of the World
Library Journal
Spencer has written many plays (Resident Alien is his most recent) and has taught playwriting at Sarah Lawrence College for the last ten years. Frustrated by not being able to find a playwriting handbook that addressed key issues and also included useful exercises, he decided to better his craft by writing his own how-to. The result is this succinct but insightful manual. In Part 1, Spencer lays out the "rules" of playwriting with the caveat that they are not written in stone but still need to be studied and understood, especially by new writers. Part 2 covers the creative process, describing how to define an idea and use gut instincts to write what you need to say. Part 3 deals with problems and tips on how and when to rewrite (e.g., how to create "cut lines" files). Finally, Part 4 is loaded with advice on what to read and how to write cover letters and contact literary agents. Well structured and easy to read and use, this book will be helpful to aspiring playwrights. Public and academic libraries should consider adding it to their collections. Lisa J. Cihlar, Monroe P.L., WI Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780571199914
  • Publisher: Faber and Faber
  • Publication date: 3/29/2002
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 272
  • Sales rank: 545,167
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.25 (h) x 1.05 (d)

Meet the Author

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.

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Read an Excerpt

The Playwright's Guidebook

PART ONE

STRUCTURE

PROLOGUE: THE TOOLS

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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Table of Contents

Foreword
Introduction: How We Tell Stories 3
Pt. 1 Structure
Prologue: The Tools 21
1 What Is Structure? 24
2 Action 35
3 Motivation and Subtext 48
4 Conflict 57
5 High Stakes and High Hopes 73
6 Event 84
7 Beats, Scenes, Acts 96
Pt. 2 The Creative Process
Prologue: Dramatic Elements 111
8 Theater and Drama 114
9 The Impulse 126
10 Character 170
11 The Journey of the Play 204
Pt. 3 Dealing with Problems
12 Rewriting 223
13 Exposition 249
14 When All Else Fails (Things to Try When You're Stuck) 265
Pt. 4 Some Advice
15 General Advice 287
16 Practical Advice 296
Pt. 5 Appendixes
App. A: Required Reading 323
App. B: Recommended Reading 324
App. C: Additional Images 331
App. D: Extended Exercises 359
Glossary 361
Acknowledgments 365
Index 367
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