It worked! — a better scene from reading each character’s dialog

So, maybe you remember that I’ve been posting about a dialogue-editing technique I learned about at the Dramatists Guild conference back in August.

I read through my play “How to Kill a Cactus,” and read only one character’s lines. Even after doing this for just two minor characters, I saw where their dialogue and their “voice” were inconsistent.

What’s more important, I saw how to fix the problems in the second act. Because in reading just one character’s lines, I didn’t get distracted by everything else in the script. And I could see where the characters weren’t pursuing their wants strongly.

I’m going to attach files with one scene, before rewriting and after. This is about midway through Act II.

Some background info:

Paula is a successful mystery writer who’s been having serious writers block, who’s missed several deadlines, and whose publisher is about to cancel her contract. Richard is her old high school flame, who’s renewed his attentions after she moved back to their small hometown in Mississippi. Thing is, Paula is married to Cathy, whom she met in Chicago. But Richard just can’t fathom her not being straight, and the word “bisexual” is barely in his vocabulary.

By this point in the play, a mystical old oak tree, that is the source of all of the town’s prosperity and happiness, has mysteriously died. Along with it, the entire town is dying.

In the “before” version of this scene, Paula is still her sweet, genteel, passive self. And Richard is trying the same old tactics to win Paula back. And mostly they’re just standing there! Not only do they not have any strong wants, they don’t have any strong action!

The “before” version.

In the “after” version, Paula is – for a Mississippi woman – unbelievably rude and coarse. Richard is trying the most drastic tactic he can think of to fix what’s gone wrong and to get Paula back.

The “after” version.

What’s more, in the “after” version, Richard finally accepts that Paula loves Cathy and is committed to her, and that he will never get Paula back. That’s been missing in all previous drafts, which explains why audience members had so many different suggestions about what should happen with Richard at the end. He didn’t definitively either get, or not get, what he wanted; in this version, he definitively does not get what he wants.

Let me know what you think.

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Why waste time? Start out strong!

I went to a play reading the other night. The playwright has a lot of experience, has gotten awards, has gotten work produced around the country. So I was surprised at how weak the play was, given the playwright’s experience etc. Even though it was just the second draft, I think that after a while, you can skip some of the steps that have you writing weak, low-stakes stories.

Of course, maybe that playwright usually writes stronger second drafts. Maybe he was sick, or was swamped in his day job, or something like that. There could be a reason.

But why not start out strong?

Here’s what I think you can do to get to strong, high-stakes stories quickly.

  1. Start with high-stakes characters.

Choose characters with high stakes. Find those characters who have the most to gain or lose.

  1. Find a high-stakes situation.

Decide on the circumstances, find a time and or a place where something is happening that the characters care deeply about.

  1. Know what the characters want.

Know what each character wants from every other character, what they absolutely must have, what’s life-or-death important to them.

  1. Write the highest-stakes scenes.

Figure out what the highest-stakes points of the story are. Set your characters loose, in the situation, and have them pursue their wants in the most important ways, at the most important times of the story.

You’ll avoid problems and get straight to what you’re passionate about

If you do this, you’ll avoid a whole bunch of problems without even thinking about them. You won’t have scenes that don’t go anywhere. You won’t have characters that seem unimportant. You won’t have boring scenes.

Of course, you’ll refine your characters, the situation, their wants, and the highest-stakes scenes as you go along. And you can always write whatever you feel like an any given day, if you have an impulse, or want to explore something.

But start out making strong, bold choices. You’ll get to what you’re passionate about, why you’re telling this story, much quicker. Given how busy our lives are, why waste what time we have to write?

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Damn! I’ve become a better playwright

I have this play, “How to Kill Cactus,” that I thought was the crown jewel of my plays. It’s the most complete, the most ready-for-production play I’ve written.

I was heartbroken when I suddenly saw the problems in it, and realized how much work I have to do to fix them.

See, at the reading it had on the 21st (of October), I got restless and irritated during the middle of the second act. My notes are full of “cut that!” “get rid of all of this exposition!” “up the stakes!”

The audience didn’t act as restless as I felt. So I thought maybe, just maybe, everything was okay. After all, I hadn’t changed the play that much from the reading back in January, because it didn’t seem to need it. So maybe I was restless because I know the script so well.

Then I used the dialogue-checking technique I wrote about last time. (Reading one character’s lines — it works!!!)

I read through the play, reading just the lines of one of the minor characters. Then I did it again, with another minor character.

Just that was enough to make it glaringly obvious that, in the second act, most of the characters were not working towards their objectives. There wasn’t enough action, enough momentum towards the climax of the play.

Oh, damn. Now I have to refresh my memory of the voice of this play, and how to write it. And rewrite four scenes in the second act.

But it will be a better play.

Has this ever happened to you? Please tell me I’m not alone.

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Reading one character’s lines — it works!!!

Do you remember that I posted, a while back, some great tips for working on dialogue that I learned at the Dramatists Guild conference in August?

Here’s the link, if you want to refresh your memory: Problems with dialogue in your plays, and how to fix them, part 1. I’ve been using one of the techniques on a play of mine, “How to Kill a Cactus,” that had a reading on the 21st of October.

I’m reading through the play, and reading only one character’s lines. So far, I’ve done this for all but the main character.

I have learned a lot.

I found some places where characters aren’t speaking consistently, and I’ve made corrections.

I can see where some of the characters aren’t pursuing their wants strongly enough. I have some ideas for rewriting the scenes to make their wants stronger, and to have them use different tactics.

It’s like a fucking miracle. I knew there were problems in the second act, and I thought I knew what they were and how to fix them.

But now I really know.

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Dream Logic — the essay by Kato McNickle

Kato McNickle, one of the presenters at the “Dream Logic” talk at the Dramatists Guild conference in August, wrote an essay based on her research on dream logic.

“I woke myself up laughing. Laughing out loud at a play that I was watching.

“It was a dream, of course. In the dream I was watching a short play in a ten-minute festival written by a playwright friend of mine (he had asked me to perform it for him). During the dream I was both the actor and an audience member—simultaneously. While in the dream, it did not seem out of place to be both the performer and the observer of the event, and it proved to be great fun. It was the audience member part of me that started laughing, and my laughter—really laughing—caused me to awaken, still laughing. The dream was so vivid, and so recent, that I got out of bed and to my computer a few feet away. I typed the play, called Humalong (yes, the title was part of the dream too) about which I had dreamed. My playwright friend Mike still claims I owe him residuals, because in a weird way, he wrote the play, right?”

It’s at her blog here:

Take a read. It’s fascinating.

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Dream Logic — exercises

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Dream Logic — exercises

At that “Dream Logic” talk at the Dramatists Guild conference in August, the presenters passed out a booklet with an essay about dream logic, and two exercises.  Kato McNickle gave me permission to post them here.

The exercises were developed by Kato McNickle ( and Martin Kettling.

BTW, if you want to read my previous two posts about this talk, they’re at Dream Logic – how it can help your plays, part 1 and Dream Logic – how it can help your plays, part 2.

Dream Exercise #1 – Committing to the Objective

The dream is a bizarre associative reflection of the waking world. In running away from the bear [if you’re dreaming about a bear chasing you], the reality of tripping once is re-formed to become a continuous problem of tripping. Our brains look for similar experiences and pile them on to the memory, in hopes that we may better prepare for the future.

In this exercise, give yourself a simple – often physical* – objective, and then imagine all of the ways that it can be distorted as in dream space. Does the bear attack, and you fall, and then your entire third-grade class is there laughing at you? Be mean to yourself, and your characters. Extend their fight and don’t let it resolved.

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Getting Help with a Hard-to-Place Play

I’ve posted before about trying to get a production of my play “How to Kill A Cactus.”

I’ve had such a hard time identifying theaters that might like “Cactus,” I finally decided to ask for help on a couple of the LinkedIn groups I belong to. I’ve gotten some good suggestions, and some people have asked to read the play, which is part of what I want to talk about in this post. But I also want to talk about why this play is hard to place.

I finally figured out why this play is hard to place

People have strong reactions to this play. Either they love it, or they hate it. Either they think it’s perfect as it is, and all it needs is that first production where you iron out all the kinks in the play; or they think it needs major changes, and I mean major.

Finally, a playwright friend of mine, Rebecca Tourino, read the play and figured out why people react so strongly. And why it’s hard to place.

It’s because people don’t know what kind of play it is

The play is hard to place because a lot of people don’t know what kind of play it is. The play is about a same-sex woman couple – but the play is not about the problems of being a same-sex woman couple. One of the women in the play is bisexual – but the point of the play is not about the struggles of bisexual person has in life. The couple argues about whether or not they’re going to have children after all – but the play is not “about” a couple working through the problem of whether or not to have children.

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Welcome to Ciarán Myers and ToonForever!

What are you working on these days?

Everyone, check out their blogs:

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Oops (was Getting Help with a Hard-to-Place Play)

I’ve posted before about trying to get a production of my play “How to Kill A Cactus.”

I’ve had such a hard time identifying theaters that might like “Cactus,” I finally decided to ask for help on a couple of the LinkedIn groups I belong to.  I’ll be posting soon about what everyone said.

And here is the post:


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Dream Logic – how it can help your plays, part 2

So, in a previous post, I talked about what I learned at the “Dream Logic” session at the Dramatists Guild conference in August. In this post, I’m going to talk about some examples I came up with on how you can use your dreams as a basis for play.

Start with Some of your Dreams

David and Kato had us write down a sentence or two about three of our dreams:

  1. A dream we had the night before.
  2. A dream we remember from our childhood.
  3. A dream we have over and over.

Any of these can be a play.

I don’t remember if they said anything about why they chose these three types of dreams. I’m guessing that #1, a dream we had the night before, is easy because it’s recent; maybe remembering that dream helps us to remember others. #2, a dream we remember from our childhood – that’s probably because childhood is a special time in our lives. And #3, a dream we have over and over, has a lot of meaning for us, otherwise we wouldn’t dream it so many times.

An Example: A Professor’s Anxiety Dream

As I was writing down these three dreams, I thought of another dream I used to have.

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