theatre | writing | writing tips

Playwriting 101 : Getting Started

November 21, 2013

This time last year, I was invited to take part in a 12 month scriptwriting course at The Garage, Norwich. “Don’t worry,” they assured me, “You don’t have to be a scriptwriter already, we’re just looking for people who want to have a go.”

I didn’t need any more encouragement. This time last year, I was terrified of my writing. I’d never read any of it aloud – I’d barely even shown any to my tutors. Kind of a bad start when you’ve just dropped 9K on a Creative Writing degree. But one thing I’ve learned this year is that writing is a lot easier than I ever thought it would be. Last month, I finished my first play. It was dead on 100 pages long, which translates to about an hour and a half of runtime. And it was okay. Not great, but not too bad, for a first try.
It turns out all I really needed was some advice on how to get started. In scriptwriting, there are some particular issues : how to format the script, how to write good dialogue, and how to write not only for the audience, but for the actors – and the director, and maybe the producer too. It’s a daunting task, and that’s why I’ve noted down some of the things I learned while I was writing. Hopefully someone out there will find it as useful as I did.

o1 : Getting an Idea

According to V for Vendetta and the edgy half of the internet, “ideas are bulletproof”. Maybe that’s what makes them so hard to hunt down.
The best ideas come from real life. You’ve heard it before : ‘Write what you know.’ I like to carry a little notebook around with me where I can note down any ideas I have during the day. They can come from anywhere : overheard conversations on the bus, things you see on the internet, talks with friends.
When I don’t have my notebook on me, which is a lot of the time because I’m amazingly absent minded, I use the notes function on my phone.
You might find that you’re just coming up with lines of words that don’t seem to go anywhere. That’s okay – note those down too. They might not fit with anything you’re writing right now, but you never know when you’ll be able to work those disembodied lines into something really neat!
You can also try actively looking for ideas : my favourite place to do this is, believe it or not, Wikipedia. Ever started out looking up breeds of cats only to end up reading about social issues amongst the inuits? You’ve been Wikipedia’d. If you’re anything like me, you’ll find yourself absorbing all kinds of information – and the more information you have to hand, the more likely it is that you’ll find an idea. You can try this on other sites, too. Try Tumblr for gathering knowledge on points of view different to your own, and Flickr if you’re more of a visual writer. You never know what you’ll find lurking in the depths of the internet.

o2 : Formatting your Script

Script formatting was probably the biggest reason I never tried writing for the stage before. It just seemed so complicated. Let’s face it, it’s hard to concentrate on your literary genius when your technological ignorance is preventing you from getting the line indents right.
That’s why software like Celtx exists. It’s a completely free program that automatically formats your script for Stage, Radio, and Screen. If you’re not writing for any of those, it has an online library of templates that might be more to your liking. They even have one for the BBC standard script format. They’re not even paying me to write this, and I’m still plugging them as my favourite writing tool.
Celtx also has an online workspace called Celtx Edge, where you can access any scripts linked to your account from anywhere with internet access. There’s a 15-day trial, or you can get it for £9.99 a month. As a dirt-poor student, I haven’t shelled out for it yet, but it looks pretty good if you’re collaborating with someone.
You can find some resources on using Celtx here : 1 , 2
And if, on the off chance you’re browsing this on your washing machine or just don’t like downloading things some random blogger told you were good, remember that Kate Tempest’s hit new play, ‘Wasted’ was written entirely in good old Microsoft Word.
Just keep in mind that there’s a right way to write for everyone : there are lots of tools to help you with the standard format, but when it comes to writing for the stage, a lot of people aren’t really picky about how the script is packaged. What they really care about is your writing, not how well it’s presented.

o3 : Actually Writing

Some writers can pull ideas out of nowhere, and go on to write amazing things. Most people have a bit more trouble than that – it’s not that our ideas aren’t good, it’s that they don’t translate to the page in quite the way we were expecting.
Doesn’t matter. Keep writing it anyway. The worst that could happen is that you don’t like it – it’s not like you have to show your finished manuscript to the writing police or something. The fact of the matter is, you can only improve a skill – any skill – by practising. You’d expect to have to practise riding a bike, or juggling, right? Writing is like that. The more you try, the better you get. As in anything, failure only teaches us how to improve.
Skydiving is the exception. 

And in case you need that extra push out of the plane, try signing up to NaNoWriMo – this year gave budding writers the option to choose ‘Script’ as their genre and set their own target. The only catch is, you have to finish it in a month. Maybe you’re reading this way after November has passed. That’s okay! There’s nothing to stop you saying : ‘I’m going to write a script, and I’m going to finish it in X amount of months’. I finished mine in 6 – next time, I’m going to try and write even faster.

You can even try looking around and see if there are any scriptwriting workshops in your area – if you write already, there’s plenty of theatres looking for new voices. If you don’t write already, there’s plenty of theatres, writing groups, and tutors willing to help you start.
Or, if you want, you can go off on your own. The nice thing about writing is that you can go about it any way you like. Feel free to comment, and share your own tips!