Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor. He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.
“I haven’t actually been writing that long – I actually only had my first short play produced last year. But I think I’m starting to figure out what my style is, and I finally understand more clearly what writers talk about in interviews when they ‘find their voice.’ But I’m not sure where to go from here. How does one experiment with subject matter without compromising their personal voice?”
It’s always exciting to try writing in a different style, or to write about fresh subject matter you’ve never touched on before. But, if we do this consciously, does it somehow undermine our identity as writers? Are we playing with fire by altering our personal voice?
I guess first of all we have to define the personal voice. Which aspects of our writing contribute towards our identity? What makes us who we are?
At the risk of getting bogged down in uninformed pseudo-philosophy, I think the parts of our writing that feed directly from our personality are the traits that most strongly define us.
I will clumsily summarise this as our personal world view.
Our ideologies, thoughts and perceptions are inherent in our personality so they will naturally leak out whenever we try to express ourselves. I suspect, more often than not, that this happens without conscious effort or even awareness on our part.
Think of the tap in your kitchen. You can add whatever flavour of squash you like to a glass of water from that tap, and it will change the taste, smell and colour of the liquid, but nothing you add will change the specific blend of minerals that identify the tap water in your house. That water has been on a long journey to get there; it fell from the sky as rain, maybe it travelled along a river or two, was trapped in a reservoir, went through a treatment plant of some kind, and finally found its way through a maze of pipes, picking up traces of copper and limescale along the way, until you finally captured it in that glass.
My understanding of chemistry unfortunately ends at GCSE level, but I’m sure if you tried hard enough, you’d be able to alter the chemical composition of your tap water in some way to render it unrecognisable. But this would probably never happen by accident. You’d have to do it on purpose.
It might involve acid or bleach or some other heavy-duty chemical battering ram.
I doubt anyone would want to drink it afterwards.
So how do we make sure that the changes we make to our style and subject matter remain at the level of tasty, refreshing and colourful squash without any toxic chemical pollutants sneaking in?
I think the key lies in separating style from voice.
If our personal voice is our world view, the combined influence of all our life experience, then what is our style? Do we even have one? And if so, can we change it?
On a simplistic level, to me, style is the way in which we tell a story.
If I was an artist, the things I chose to paint would most likely be a reflection of my world view. Maybe I’d paint dreary scenes of office life in 21st Century London, full of hunch-backed office workers with the heads of bees lorded over by evil looking men in beekeeper suits holding AK47s and wads of cash.
The sentiment and meaning behind these paintings would be a reflection of my world view.
The method and form I chose to put across that sentiment would be my style.
I could just as easily convey the same meaning by sculpting a giant flaccid penis being strangled by a paisley tie fastened in a neat Windsor knot.
Or I could take the Tracey Emin route and just smear a photocopier with shit.
These works of art would all be in different styles, with different subject matter, but would essentially portray the same world view. They are linked by similar themes: the everyday oppression of office life; the merciless greed of the corporate capitalist model; and the time spent producing work which is ultimately worthless to the one doing it.
The style of all three is vastly different, but the personal voice remains uncompromised.
I think we can apply the same principles to writing plays. Whether you’re writing a one act comedy with raucous audience interaction, or a tense three act traditional drama, you can still tell a story using your personal voice.
In fact, I think you have to try pretty hard to do otherwise.
And this is the trap that a lot of writers fall into. They try too hard.
Experimenting with new styles is all well and good, but you have to be careful not to let the style dictate what you’re writing. Never let style or subject matter become more important than the story you want to tell. This is how you end up with Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if I took the subject matter from trashy vampire fiction and the style of a prominent historical figure’s secret diary and told a story about America’s favourite President slaying the undead?”
Not really, because the story got kind of lost somewhere between the vampires and the history.
You’ve heard the expression “All style and no substance” applied to all forms of art, from paintings to cinema to theatre to music. Don’t let the style or the subject matter overshadow the story you want to tell.
My advice is to decide what you want to say before deciding how you’re going to say it.
Give some thought to the ideas you want to express, the story you want to tell and the themes you want to explore. Then decide what style and subject matter would most effectively communicate those things to your audience.
If I wanted to tell a story about the office drones from my painting (as described above), I would think about the ideas and feelings I want the audience to leave with before choosing whether it should be a comedy or tragedy.
I would then think about the subject matter; could I tell this story in the open plan office of a high-powered recruitment agency, or would it be better suited to the small back office of a family car hire business? Should I focus on the domestic life of my bees outside of work or should all the action be between the employees?
The style is like the envelope, stamp, paper and ink that make up a letter. The words you use are the subject matter. Your personal voice is the expression of thoughts and ideas conveyed by the letter; it’s the message you’re sending.
You wouldn’t think “I need to write a letter,” then pick your paper, envelope, pen and stamp before deciding who the letter is for and why you’re sending it. The intent of the letter is the most important part.
Another problem that can compromise your personal voice when experimenting is that you won’t be as proficient as you are in your comfort zone. Just as a painter would have to learn and hone a whole new set of skills to weld a piece of modern art out of steel, you will have to equip yourself for the new style you want to try.
Writing fast-paced witty dialogue requires different skills to writing verbose monologues. Writing a murder-mystery will demand a different approach to writing a political satire. Writing a musical comedy won’t necessarily come naturally to a writer who normally does verbatim theatre.
In your question you used the word “Experiment” and I think we should all bear in mind that experiments often fail. Maybe you’ve spent time developing a particular style over the course of several plays and now you want to try something new; be prepared for it to feel like a big step backwards. You need to develop the new style in the same way, and this will take practice.
Some writers try a new style with every project, others stick with a similar style for their entire careers. There’s nothing wrong with either approach, but it does depend on how adaptable you are. If you love learning new skills and pushing yourself in different directions regularly changing up your style can be a way to keep yourself interested. If you prefer to work at one particular thing until you reach the level of absolute mastery you might not feel as comfortable experimenting.
So, when experimenting with a new style, be prepared to fail. Let the style and subject matter serve what you want to say. And don’t try too hard. It’s never cool to do something just because you think it will be cool. It has to be the best way of delivering the message you want to send.
Never be afraid to experiment. But always remember, for every genetically modified experimental super soldier like Captain America, there’s a raging ball of radioactive fury like the Hulk. Don’t give up if an experiment doesn’t pay off, just put it to one side and start again.
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