by guest blogger Bob Sabatini
I was in a playwriting class a while ago, having the first five pages of a ten-minute play workshopped. Without going into too much detail, the play begins with two people with a complicated romantic history who wind up seated next to each other in a crowded theatre. In the workshop, I was being congratulated on a bit of “stage business” that I had written in: The woman, to avoid addressing their uncomfortable past, uses the earbuds of her iPod to try to shut the man out, and both characters have actions in the stage directions to play with those earbuds.
Somebody in the class mentioned the earbuds, which lead the instructor to point out the difference between giving the characters an activity (which, in playwriting, is bad) and an action (good). “This wasn’t just thrown in at the last minute,” she said. “It isn’t ‘oh, I’ll have them play with the earbuds just to give the actors something to do.’ Do you see that they are an essential part of the conflict between the characters?” To which a roomful of students all nodded or made little affirmative grunts.
Now for the dirty little secret. Less than 12 hours earlier, I had only two pages of the five that were due. Worse than that, those pages were nothing more than two characters sitting next to each other, talking. I don’t want to see that play, do you? I decided I needed to give the actors something to do. “What if she has an iPod?” I thought, “I’ll have them play with the earbuds.” In other words, I threw them in at the last minute.
Here’s the point. If you have a story to tell, tell it. Trust your instincts. I was never thinking about “how do I go about making these earbuds essential to their conflict?” I wrote what felt appropriate, and people who had never read my play before recognized that the way the characters were using the earbuds was a good illustration of that conflict. These are characters I am very familiar with, a story that’s been bristling to get out for months now, and a conflict that I know all too well in “real” life. So, were I to introduce a mutant armadillo on page 3 (Señor Trujillo, I’m talking to you), you’d better believe he’d add something vital to the story.
Tell your story and trust yourself to say what’s really important to you. Finding problems with believability and characters’ motivations–not to mention cleaning up the craft–that’s what workshops, proofreading and revising are for. But getting that story onto the page–that’s all you, and if you believe it, you can do it.
Bob Sabatini is an undergraduate who is about to (finally!) complete his BA in Creative Writing. He wants to be best known for the three years he spent at his dream job: Hawking peanuts and Cracker Jack at Isotopes Park. He has worked tirelessly in some capacity for the last three editions of Blue Mesa Review, and although his work has yet to be picked up by any magazine with national distribution, his mom loves it.