Pursued By A Bear: “I have no idea how to structure a play”

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’ve got an idea for a play but I’m really struggling with structure. Do you have any tips for structuring a story? Should I just write and see what happens or should I plan it all out first?”

When I was a little kid I used to love playing with Lego. This was before all the Star Wars and superhero crap they have now, I’m talking about the basic stuff, when you just got a big red bucket of bricks in a variety of colours and sizes. I could sit on the floor for hours, building enormous superstructures the like of which the human race had never seen.

My Lego creations rarely served any specific purpose. It was often difficult to say what they were. But there was a lot of beauty there; the simple beauty of a child’s imagination. No artifice, no planning. This Lego was pure stream of consciousness from start to end.

When I began, I didn’t know what I wanted each construction to be, what it would do, or where it would go. I just enjoyed the act of putting the pieces together, in the order that felt right at the time.

People generally fell into two camps when witnessing one of my Lego creations: the first would love it for what it was; and the second would say “It looks nice, but is it a house or a boat? And why is there a palm tree on the roof?”

As I got a bit older I graduated from Lego to Meccano, and it all changed overnight.

With Meccano, everything had a designated purpose. If there was a picture of a car on the box, that was literally the only thing you could possibly hope to build. Meccano required competence and planning. You had to make sure you had all your little nuts and bolts in a row before you started.

Because if you missed even a single tiny piece out, the whole thing would fall apart.

The reaction to one of my Meccano creations would generally be along the lines of “That truck won’t get very far with one square wheel.”

I soon gave up on Meccano and played Street Fighter instead.

I suppose what I’m getting at is that with everything in life, the process and the parts are what make the end product what it is. Some people prefer the beauty of simplicity, others lean towards the more complex nature of sophisticated constructs. Most people probably like a bit of both.

Although we often like to think of art as something that transcends conscious thought, something gifted to us by divine intervention, works of art are still always formed of specific parts put together through a specific process (however abstract the parts and process might be).

Anything you change about the parts or the process will alter the end result. In that sense, I think planning more or planning less will never be right or wrong, it will simply result in a different play.

James Ellroy is one of my favourite authors, I love the complexity of his plotlines, often spanning years and featuring dozens of well-drawn characters. After reading L.A. Confidential, The Big Nowhere and American Tabloid, I started seeking out interviews in an effort to understand how he juggles so many threads simultaneously.

Ellroy says it took him eight months to write the outline for his novel Blood’s A Rover. This included a profile of every character, a detailed summary of every chapter and a synopsis of the overall story.

I recently read an interview with Christian Bale about his role in Terrence Malick’s new film Knight of Cups. Bale said that he was never given a script. He didn’t really know what the film was about. Malick would take Bale to a location and basically tell him; “Go and talk to that guy over there.”

Bale didn’t even know if “that guy” was an actor or not (many of the cast weren’t). He had to go in totally blind and improvise the scene.

Malick’s entire process is the antithesis of planning and structure.

Both Ellroy and Malick have enjoyed decades of critical success. I’m sure both of them evolved their particular methods over a number of years, and they’re probably still evolving now. But if you asked them both this question about structure you’d presumably get two very different answers.

My own method of structuring a story is definitely still evolving. I have to confess I’ve never felt entirely comfortable with the amount of planning I’ve done for any project. Sometimes I try the Ellroy approach; noting down every detail exhaustively until I’ve written the whole play in bullet points. At other times I’ve tried the Malick technique; starting a new play with nothing but my protagonist’s name at the top of a blank page.

I’ve found with the Ellroy approach I can sometimes get lost in the planning, agonising over ultimately inconsequential details and never getting to the writing stage. My hard drive is full to the brim with lengthy synopses for novels I never quite mustered up the passion to start writing.

When I do succeed in going from the detailed planning stage to actually starting the thing, it almost always deviates from the plan a few scenes in when I decide it would be cool for something else to happen. This doesn’t mean the plan is worthless though; I don’t think there’s anything wrong with using it as a jumping-off point to get the process started. Unlike Meccano, deviating from the instructions halfway through a play doesn’t necessarily end in utter disaster.

I’ve used the Malick technique with similarly varying success. Sometimes I’ll just start writing a play around a very simple idea or a particular scene, with no idea where it might lead. This can be a really exciting and rewarding way to work but I find that you have to be willing to drop your inhibitions and write whatever comes into your head. Much like piling those Lego bricks one on top of the other purely because it feels like they should go there.

Sometimes, when working with no plan whatsoever, I find my inspiration dries up after a few scenes. Without any kind of direction in mind it can be difficult to sustain the creative momentum.

Reading Ellroy’s novels and watching Malick’s films, it’s apparent that these two processes lead to wildly different results. Ellroy’s tightly plotted books weave together intricate narratives with multiple subplots and complex twists, whereas Malick’s films wander serenely from one loosely defined episode to the next, connected by an overall theme such as the horrors of war.

So, at the risk of repeating myself, making changes to the creative process leads to a huge difference in the outcome. In this sense the best advice I can give you is to attempt to figure out what you want the play to be, and then decide which process is going to get you there.

It can be helpful to decide some elements in a sort of pre-planning stage whereby you plan how much planning you need to do.

So let’s say you want to write a political play about the foreign policy of the Blair government. Straight away you might realise this is going to require a large number of characters; prominent members of the cabinet, the opposition, the press, family members etc.

You might also know you want to touch on the Iraq war, Afghanistan and the UK’s “special relationship” with the US. Then there are the rivalries and alliances between members of the cabinet. Then maybe your protagonist is also experiencing a crisis in their home life which might seep over into the professional arena, just to add a bit of extra drama.

This is already looking like quite a few balls to juggle. There’s a lot of factual information involved which you’ll have to keep consistent. For a project like this I would absolutely recommend planning things thoroughly.

Character profiles will help you keep track of what each character’s job is, what their motivations are and who they like and dislike.

Scene summaries will get things clear in your mind such as who is present at key moments and how characters react to events.

An overall synopsis can help you see the flow of the play, determine when events occur and decide exactly which incidents you want to cover.

On the other hand, let’s say you want to write a tight two-hander about two people stuck in a lift. In this case you know there are a lot less variables involved. You might have an idea of who the two characters are, why they’re in this lift and what they want to get out of the situation (presumably escaping from the lift). You also might have an idea for a twist, for example, one of them accidentally killed the other one’s goldfish in a brutal hit-and-run, but neither of them knows it.

With a story like this, without a lot of factual information to keep consistent, you’d probably need a lot less planning. In fact, it might be better for the play if you keep it as simple as possible. Just keep your characters’ motivations in mind, get them interacting and see what unfolds.

Both styles of planning can be really valuable if used on the right kind of project. There’s a lot of fun to be had in writing something on the fly, just as it can be really exciting to intricately plot everything and watch it come to life.

If you’re struggling to write with a minimal amount of planning try experimenting and preparing for your next play in much greater depth. Likewise, if you feel like you tend to get bogged down in the details and never get started on the actual writing, try doing the opposite next time.

And of course there’s always the possibility of falling somewhere between the two approaches. There’s no reason why you can’t get all the pieces together for that Lego Millennium Falcon, and decide at the last minute that Captain America and Spiderman should fly it instead of Han Solo and Chewbacca.

Changing your planning process can take you in really fascinating new directions and prompt you to write things you never would have thought of otherwise. Try to think of planning as a fluid process; you can really do as much as you feel you need for each project.

And planning doesn’t only have to take place before you begin writing. Sometimes I find it helpful to begin writing the play blind and then decide where it will go a few scenes in. At other times I write a lengthy plan, deviate from it during the writing process, and then go back and adjust the plan if I get stuck.

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3 thoughts on “Pursued By A Bear: “I have no idea how to structure a play””

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  2. Just wanted to say I enjoyed this one a lot (been meaning to read it for a while now). I totally identify with the dilemma between planning loads or not planning at all.

    In the past I’ve hardly planned at all, tried to keep it spontaneous. Over-planning in the past has killed the play for me, so I’ve been hesitant ever since. One big downside of not planning is that you do end up with an amorphous piece that you then have to beat into shape, which can take ages. With my current project I’m doing a lot more planning, especially during the redrafting process.

    The insight about the planning process leading to vastly different plays I found really useful. Moving forward I will definitely reflect a bit more on the type of play I want to write and will try and find a process that fits that play best.

    Cheers!

    1. Thanks for the comment German, I’m glad to hear you found the post helpful.

      A lot of writers seem to struggle with this planning dilemma, and I do think the way to get through it is to keep experimenting until you evolve an approach that works for you, then adapt that to suit each play you want to write.

      Stick at it and enjoy the adventure.

      Best of luck,
      Adam

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