Friday, December 08, 2006


"Begin at the beginning," the King said gravely, "and go on till you come to the end: then stop."
-- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

"Go that way really fast. If something gets in your way, turn."
-- Advice to Lane Meyer(John Cusack)
from Charles De Mar (Curtis Armstrong)
and Monique Junet (Diane Franklin)
in the movie Better Off Dead
The problem with unlimited freedom is inertia. If you can go in any direction at any speed, off into eternity, you might as well stay still. Structure is important if only to tell you where to go and when to stop. All the detail work, the fancy character choices, the witty dialogue -- that's the freedom that exists within the carefully determined boundaries of plot. In other words, a carefully thought out and planned plot allows for creativity and imagination to flow.

There comes a point when I've been stirring around the cauldron of ideas that the play starts boiling over. I'm ready to write. At this stage in the process, It's time to plot out the play. The way I learned to do it is with the old standard "plot card" technique. Any decent book on playwriting or screenwriting will tell you all about this, but here's my take.
  • Get a bunch of lined 3 x 5 note cards
  • Write the title (working or otherwise) on a card. (If you are planning on major act divisions [acts, scenes, vignettes, etc.], make a "title" card for each major division ["Act I"])
  • Put each of your major plot points on a card (Romeo meets Juliet, Romeo kills Tybalt, Juliet fakes her death, etc.)
  • Make "Introduction of [character name]" cards for each of your characters.
  • Let your imagination go wild: put scene ideas, bits and pieces of dialogue, etc. on note cards.
  • Now lay out your cards from beginning to end, roughly setting out when each event should occur. If you have cards that don't quite fit yet, set them aside.
  • Go through and create gaps in your layout where obvious gaps in continuity exist (missing transitions, needed plot points, etc.)
  • Fill in the gaps.
  • Go through and read the cards, paying close attention to flow.
  • Rearrange cards, take some out, write new ones. Tinker with it. Roll up your sleeves and get your hands dirty!
  • Put the cards in a neat, chronological stack. Go through them one at a time and write your play!
Note - one card is roughly equivalent to 2 pages or less of script. Roughly.

This is a very structured approach to plotting, and I know first hand that sometimes it feels better to just let the words flow. Sometimes the muse won't wait for you to plot things out. Well, fine. Just write. Jump continuity, write scene fragments -- have a ball! Later on, when you're stuck and have no notion of what to do next, transfer brief descriptions of your fragments onto notecards, and plot out the rest of the play.

The word "plot" literally means "piece of ground". I like to think of the plot as the map of the play. It'll tell you how to get from point "a" to point "b" but it's still up to you to detour around a bit and see the sights. After you've bought the souvenir spoon and seen the world's largest ball of twine, the map will keep you heading towards your destination: a finished play.

1 comment: