How to Write a Play: Writers’ Block

Don't sweat over an empty page. Some tricks and tips to get your play underway.

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Follows: How to Write a Play: Characters

Writers’ block. It sounds like an anvil upon which a writer might hammer out a novel, poem or, for the purposes of this essay, play. But how can the flummoxed playwright overcome it?

I have some suggestions.

The first involves graft, and perhaps a fair amount of it. Simply take a piece of blank paper and – given its very blankness is quite possibly the problem here – you render it blank no more. You write on it.

Fine, you say, but what do I write? That doesn’t matter. You can write the most lip-tighteningly unbearable tree sap. It’s really not important. Nobody sees what you don’t show them. The thing is, if you really are any kind of writer, the initial junk you write will serve merely as an impetus, like a parent giving a child’s swing a few pushes to get it underway. Before you know it you have found your stride.

If you have to, adopt this at the start of each session. But I really think that once you have found that stride, you won’t have too much difficulty in regaining it.

But if you do, here’s another suggestion which may help you.

The word inspiration, which, presumably, is the thing you’re lacking, comes from the Latin word “inspirare”, to inhale, and that’s what you do. You inhale. Books, films, plays (of course), and life itself. Often, watching other people’s stuff you will feel like electricity coursing through your mains and the ideas will snap and crackle. Doesn’t matter if they’re lifted. Adapt them. Keep a notebook handy as you do this because, especially when you’re thrumming, the ideas won’t remain long after their initial flash across the screens of your imagination.

As I mentioned, don’t be afraid to borrow. If Shakespeare can we all can. Hitch your play to someone else’s story if you like. The chances are that once the creative juices are flowing you’ll find something of your own, and can then edit out anything too obvious. As I said, no one sees anything you don’t show them.

Above all else drink in your environment. They say write what you know, and you know what’s around you. Make references to things you see, and especially things you hear. A phrase or word someone uses, a joke or synonym that you catch: it’s all colour and will, likely as not, illicit something from your own well.

Make lists of things you’d like your characters to say, things that come to you at night or in the bath: it can start you going again if you stumble. Never stare at an empty page and sweat.

Mr Todd is a published playwright and Director of Hags Ahoy Theatre Company.

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