So, you’re a pretty experienced writer by this point, eh? You’ve done prose pieces? Short stories? Maybe even a novel or two? Not bad, not bad at all.
But if that’s you, then I’ve got a new challenge for you. Try writing drama.
Of course, this challenge won’t be too hard for you, because you’ve already mastered general storytelling elements such as plot and character development. The rest of it couldn’t be too hard at all, right?
In my last post I wrote about my recent experiences with writing children’s drama for my church. This time I’d like to talk more about the major differences between drama and prose–because, believe it or not, there are many, and being good at one does not necessarily mean you’ll be good at the other. In fact, as far as I’ve seen, in famous authors and aspiring ones alike, it’s relatively uncommon for one person to be really good at both prose and drama.
And before my challenges to you start to sound like I’m bragging about being such a great writer myself, let me level with you for a minute. I’m not good at both prose and drama, either. I consider myself a pretty decent writer when it comes to narrative prose, but I’m really not so great at writing drama.
“But wait!” you may ask. “If you’re not good at writing drama, then why were you in charge of writing drama for church recently, and even of subjecting innocent children to partaking in puerile performances of your poorly-penned plays?” That’s a good question that I’ll get to a little later.
For now I want to tell you a story, dating back three years or so to my undergrad years. I was an English major with a Writing minor, and I had already taken classes on creative poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. As an elective for my minor, I decided to take a class called “Writing for the Stage.” I had written church drama several times before and also had a little prior experience writing a (probably not very good) play for my high school theater senior project. Like I alluded to above, I probably thought that, as a master of prose, I would have an easy time with drama too. But, upon getting a ways into the semester, I realized a couple of things: 1) the class was mostly full of close-knit theater majors, so an English major like me was a little out of place, and 2) drama is an entirely different animal from prose, one which is not particularly my forte.
There may be many elements that differentiate drama from prose, but I’ll tell you about the one that I think tripped me up the most. In drama, you as the author can really only speak through dialogue and action. You have to do everything you normally do in prose–develop characters, flesh out the plot, etc.–but you must do it through only dialogue and action. An outside narrator doesn’t really have much of a voice to describe with words what is happening or what a character’s inner thoughts are like. And, for a wordy author like me who is used to the freedom provided by prose, condensing so much meaning into so few words is hard to do.
For example, my play’s protagonist was a very well-developed character. At least, he was well-developed in my head. I had a pretty specific idea of his backstory, his goals and motivations, his inner thoughts and feelings, etc. And, to me, he was a very sympathetic and relatable character. But, when we peer-reviewed each other’s plays in class, most of what I knew and felt about my character didn’t come through to my readers, because I wasn’t good at conveying it through limited dialogue and action. Everyone else, for the most part, saw my protagonist as distant, flat, and unlikeable, because they didn’t know him like I did and I didn’t do a good job of showing what he was like through this medium. (In hindsight, maybe I also shouldn’t have picked a protagonist whose personality was by nature secretive and guarded. That combined with my inexperience with the medium made it doubly hard for the audience to get to know him. But I digress.)
“But wait!” you may ask. “Is all drama always so restricted in what it can show? Aren’t there some plays with narrators and characters who clearly explain themselves to the audience?” And the answer is that yes, there are. Dating back to ancient Greek drama and throughout subsequent centuries, it was very common for plays to have an outside narrator, often called the “Chorus” or some other entity. Later, in Shakespeare’s day, characters often spoke in asides or soliloquies, which was one character onstage speaking directly to the audience, often openly stating his or her own thoughts, feelings, and intentions. To me at least, that kind of direct writing seems relatively easy to do. But it’s no longer in vogue these days. In modern drama (or film, etc.), audiences don’t really take it seriously when narrators or characters explain the action to them so directly. It’s considered tongue-in-cheek or corny at best, and didactic or insulting at worst. No, the stage of today is not the place for long written descriptions of characters’ thoughts and personalities, but rather for quick dialogue and visual actions that should show what they’re like.
So, going back to my recent writings, maybe I should amend an earlier statement. It’s not that I’m horrible at all forms of drama. Like I detailed in my last post, I’m good at writing children’s drama. I’m good at writing the kind where relatively basic stock characters can speak directly to the audience and talk openly about what moral they learned today. I’m able to entertain, amuse, and educate a certain type or demographic of audience. But serious drama, for adults, with passion and pathos, nuance and skill? That’s a bit above my reach for now.
This is not to completely discount the genre or my experiences with it. Although I cringe a little when I think back to the play I wrote in stage-writing class that semester, the experience did help me to learn more about my strengths and weaknesses as a writer. And could I get better at drama if I tried? Yes, knowing what I now know about my limitations and the areas where I fell short before, I could probably get at least a little better if I worked at it more and practiced with that genre again. I just haven’t done so in a while, and I’m not nearly as comfortable in the world of drama as I am with prose.
But sometimes it’s good to get a little uncomfortable and challenge ourselves to try something different. So, if you’re used to writing prose, then I challenge you to try some drama as well. Write a short scene where all you can show between a few characters is dialogue and stage directions. Or, if coming up with one from scratch is hard, take a scene from a favorite book, or from a story you’ve written previously, and rewrite it as if for the stage. See if you can still develop the characters fully and make the plot just as clear without being obvious. Warning: you may get frustrated and find that it’s not as easy as you thought! Or you may stretch your creative horizons and learn more about your potential as a writer!