THE DRAMATIC WRITER’S COMPANION: TOOLS TO DEVELOP CHARACTERS, CAUSE SCENES, AND BUILD STORIES, SECOND EDITION
Moss Hart once said that you never really learn how to write a play; you only learn how to write this play. Crafted with that adage in mind, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion is designed to help playwrights and screenwriters explore their own ideas in order to develop the script in front of them. No ordinary guide to plotting, this handbook starts with the principle that character is key. “The character is not something added to the scene or to the story,” writes author Will Dunne. “Rather, the character is the scene. The character is the story.”
Having spent decades working with dramatists to refine and expand their plays and screenplays, Dunne effortlessly blends condensed dramatic theory with specific action steps—over sixty workshop-tested exercises that can be adapted to virtually any individual writing process and dramatic script. Dunne’s in-depth method is both instinctual and intellectual, allowing writers to discover new actions for their characters and new directions for their stories.
Dunne’s own experience is a crucial element of this guide. His plays have been selected by the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center for three U.S. National Playwrights Conferences and have earned numerous honors, including a Charles MacArthur Fellowship, four Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, and two Drama-Logue Playwriting Awards. He is currently a Resident Playwright at Chicago Dramatists where he develops plays and teaches workshops. Dunne also has led over sixteen hundred workshops through his San Francisco program, served as a dramaturg at the O’Neill, and twice attended the Australian National Playwrights Conference as guest instructor. Thousands of individuals have already benefited from his workshops, and The Dramatic Writer’s Companion promises to bring his remarkable creative method to an even wider audience.
- More than sixty of the author’s workshop-tested exercises for playwrights and screenwriters
- Cross-references throughout the guide (Second Edition only) to related topics and tools in Character, Scene, and Story
- An underlying focus on character as the root of scene and story
- A unique, nonlinear format that allows the writer to use exercises in any order and as often as needed to meet individual writing goals
- A special troubleshooting section that addresses common script problems
- A glossary of key terms
- Examples drawn from well-known plays and films, including both contemporary and classical masterworks
The University of Chicago Press published The Dramatic Writer’s Companion in April 2009 (352 pages, 6 X 9 © 2009). Series: Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing. The guide is available in hardcover, paperback, and electronic versions. Click here to order your copy directly from the publisher.
Shelf Life,” Playbill.com
Head of the Playwrights Workshop and Dramaturgy Program,
University of Iowa
Playwriting program head, Playwrights Horizons Theater School
—Dennis J. Reardon
Professor emeritus of playwriting, Indiana University
Recipient of the John Cassavetes Award, Film Independent’s
20th Spirit Awards, for his film Mean Creek
Former Artistic Director, Australian National Playwrights Conference
Artistic Director, San Francisco Unified School District
In addition to the same character, scene, and story exercises that thousands of writers have used since 2009 to write and revise their scripts, the new edition of The Dramatic Writer’s Companion features all new cross-references throughout the guide to related tools in Will Dunne’s Character, Scene, and Story.
AN IN-DEPTH ANALYSIS
When The University of Chicago Press asked industry experts to review The Dramatic Writer’s Companion, May-Brit Akerholt, who served as Artistic Director of the Australian National Playwrights Conference for ten years, wrote this detailed report summing up her analysis:
I was delighted to read Will Dunne’s The Dramatic Writer’s Companion. It is obvious from the beginning that this book is written by someone who is a both a playwright and a teacher. Will Dunne mixes an artist’s imagination and intuition with a teacher’s knowledge of the craft of dramatic writing. It is an irresistible combination, producing a book which is simultaneously astute and imaginative.
This book is not concentrating on the idea of story, or how to tell a story, the way most playwriting manuals do. It establishes early that character is “the heart and soul of story.” By focusing on character and action, and the effects of character on action and action on character, the book lays open the many ways a story is built from the complex relationship between character and action.
Dunne also deals with the use of imagery in the building of a story. His ideas on how to exploit images so they become part of creating a through-line are not only extremely useful, but presents a whole new way of seeing an action, an event, in terms of both image and character.
I was fascinated by the imaginative, even entertaining way Dunne presents his ideas. For instance, there is a sub-heading called “How Your Characters’ Voices Compare and Contrast,” which deals with the old adage that when you read a play, you should be able to hold your hand over a character’s name and still know who is speaking. However, this book suggests that you “translate” ten generic statements into the voices of two different characters. It forces you actively to explore how characters talk, in which ways their voices are unique. As the book points out, it is vital to find the distinctness of each character’s voice as an ongoing part of the character’s development process, and this is a distinctly refreshing way of doing it.
A similar idea is expressed in the section called “Building Your Story” where Dunne deals with the problems of choosing a protagonist. Using Hamlet as an example, he suggests that making it one character’s story involves the process of creating a voice for that character, thus beautifully linking, even tying together, different parts of the book.
For me, language is of prime interest: text and subtext, not only what the characters say, but how they say it, and most importantly, what they don’t say. The section “Unspeakable Truths” suggests that this is a critical part of what happens between characters, that what is commonly called “subtext” is a “rich source of dramatic action because they are powerful motivators of what the characters do here and now” [my emphasis]. Dunne suggests how, on a wider level, characters have objectives, and then details ways to explore and deepen these objectives and make them part of characterisation.
Another chapter extends the argument about objectives by discussing how to understand a character by knowing what he or she wants in each scene. The book suggests how to link what your character wants most in life to what the story itself is about, and to use this in each tiny beat of language and action.
“Over-writing” is one of the most common sins in playwriting. In an extremely useful section, “The Bones of the Lines”, Dunne deals with how to refine, or edit dialogue, how to get rid of the superfluous and create a dialogue that reverberates, hints, tantalises and avoids becoming explanatory. This should become prescribed reading for all playwrights of all levels of experience.
The book moves from exercises offering a “clear, big-picture view” of the scene you plan to write, to giving your blank page a working context so you can translate a scene onto a visual storyboard, to dealing with minute details such as the effects of sounds and smells – for instance, the effect of the sound of Nora slamming the door on her past life in the final scene of A Doll’s House.
Finally, the book is beautifully structured. Any writer who approaches it will find the “Content” section extremely effective and lucid.
This book triggers two keywords in me: “provoke” and “inspire.” No one can teach anyone to become a dramatic writer. But it is possible to learn how to improve your writing skills. It is possible to be provoked into thinking differently, into adding different colours and dimensions to your ideas, to extend the range of images in your head, to startle your imagination; in short, to be inspired into trying new approaches and methods. This book has the potential to do all of that for a writer.
– May-Brit Akerholt,
- Basic Character Builder
Begin to create a new character by fleshing out key physical, psychological, and social traits and by identifying some of the important experiences that have shaped the character by the time the story begins.
- What the Character Believes
The character’s personal beliefs have a huge impact on how he or she sees the world, makes decisions, and behaves. Twenty topics lead you through an exploration of this credo and – like the next two parallel exercises – ask you to respond through your character’s unique perceptions and voice.
- Where the Character Lives
Whether or not story action actually takes place in the character’s home, it is a personal domain that can reveal much about who your character is and isn’t. Twenty questions lead you through this exploration.
- Where the Character Works
The activities, culture, and experience of work provide another key source of character information – even if this work doesn’t figure prominently in the story action. Twenty questions lead you through this exploration.
- Getting Emotional
Dramatic characters tend to be driven by strong feelings. Learn more about your character by exploring his or her primal emotions – anger, fear, and love – and the stimuli that trigger them.
- Into the Past
One key to a great story is a great back story. What has your character experienced in the past that will shed new light on his or her behavior now? Starting at the precise moment the story begins, this exercise leads you backward through time, step by step, to discover important truths.
- Defining Trait
What are the bold strokes of your character – positive or negative – and how do these dominant traits inform and affect story events? This exercise helps you explore the causes and effects of the character traits that matter most.
- Allies – Then and Now
Drama is about human relationships and how they function under pressure. This exercise defines different types of allies, such as “the dangerous ally,” and asks you to find examples of each in your character’s life.
- Adversaries – Then and Now
This exercise picks up where the previous one left off, defines different types of adversaries, such as “the friendly foe,” and asks you to find examples of each in your character’s life.
- Characters in Contrast
Compare two of your principle characters in categories ranging from key strengths, such as “Extra Special Talent,” to key weaknesses, such as “Extra Special Lack of Talent.” You may find similarities and differences that help you better understand each character and their relationship.
- Finding the Character’s Voice
A fully developed character has a unique way of expressing thoughts and feelings. Explore some of the long-term and short-term factors that can affect this voice. Then compare the voices of any two of your characters.
- Three Characters In One
See what truths, lies, and delusions you can uncover by exploring a character from three different perspectives: that of the character, that of someone who knows the character well, and that of an objective outside observer.
- The Secret Lives of Characters
The secrets that characters keep suggest a lot about what they value and what they fear. Explore different types of character secrets and how they might affect the direction of your story.
- The Noble Character
Great characters tend to be noble in nature, even if they are also flawed and behave badly. This raise-the-bar exercise challenges you to explore the nobility of a character and build on this to create a more important story.
- Seven Deadly Sins
Whether or not your characters are religious, the concept of “sin” offers opportunities to explore their individual strengths and weaknesses. Use the traditional seven deadly sins to develop capsule character portraits.
- The Dramatic Triangle
In a relationship between two characters, there is often a third party affecting what happens between them – even if the third party is not physically present. Learn more about a key relationship by analyzing it as a dramatic triangle.
- Spinal Tap
The spine of the character is the root action from which all of the character’s other actions flow. This “big picture” exercise helps you explore a character’s spine and use it to trigger new story ideas.
- Character as Paradox
Fascinating characters tend to manifest contradictory traits and behaviors. By exploring your character as a paradox – a self-contradiction which is true – you can add to his or her complexity and generate new ideas for story action.
- The Character You Like Least
To develop any character, you need to understand how he or she experiences the world. Try this character exploration if you find yourself with a two-dimensional “bad guy” whom you are having trouble writing.
- In So Many Words
This exercise helps you establish a “big picture” view at your character and then gradually focus in on his or her most important characteristics.
- Basic Scene Starter
This simple writing warm up offers twelve basic questions that can help you prepare to write any dramatic scene.
- Where in the World Are We?
The setting for a scene can be a rich source of story ideas if you take the time to discover what’s there. This physical life exercise guides you through a visceral exploration of the place where a scene will occur.
- The Roots of Action
Explore the immediate given circumstances for a scene and use this scenic context to fuel the emotions, thoughts, needs, and behavior of your characters at this particular time in your story.
- What Does the Character Want?
Dramatic characters act for one reason: they want something. Explore five types of objectives and figure out what specifically your character wants in any scene of your story.
- What’s the Problem?
Conflict in drama is obstacle. Explore different types of obstacles that your character might have to face while pursuing a scenic objective.
- Good Intentions
Right or wrong, characters act in pursuit of what they perceive to be good at the time. Find the good intentions behind even the worst behavior so that you can better understand the characters you write.
- How It Happens
Characters try different strategies – some planned, some spontaneous – to achieve their objectives. This exercise helps you figure out the beginning steps of character action in a scene.
- Character Adjustments
Your character has a certain observable attitude or emotion that can affect how a scene begins or unfolds. Use this exercise to explore different possible adjustments for your character during the course of a scene.
- Scene in a Sentence
No matter how many different actions and topics it involves, and regardless of its complexity, a scene is about one thing. This exercise helps you explore the main event of a scene from different angles that may lead to new story ideas.
- Seeing the Scene
A picture is worth a thousand words. Streamline the need for dialogue by exploring new ways to literally show, not tell, your story and create a simple visual storyboard of the scenic action.
- There and Then
In drama, the term “exposition” refers to anything that is not observable in the here and now. Use this exercise to turn expositional facts into story action that fuels your story instead of stopping it.
- The Aha!’s of the Story
Characters continually acquire new knowledge about themselves, others, and the world at large. Explore three types of character discovery and how these “aha!” moments might influence the dramatic action of a scene.
- Heating Things Up
One way to heighten conflict is to make confrontation between your characters unavoidable. Explore different conflict techniques, from a binding disagreement to such devices as the locked cage, ticking clock, and vise.
- The Emotional Storyboard
Character emotion is an integral part of story structure. Map out the emotional arc of each character in a scene, and explore how this emotional life both creates and grows out of the dramatic action.
- In the Realm of the Senses
Sense experience and sense memory are key ingredients of our participation in your story. Add visceral power to a scene – and trigger new ideas – by doing an in-depth sense study of its setting, characters, and dramatic action.
- The Voice of the Setting
Whether indoors or out, every setting has its own voice. Explore different ways to use the nonverbal sounds of this voice to help set the scene, create a mood, or tell the story.
- Thinking in Beats
The beat is the smallest unit of dramatic action. By doing a beat analysis of a scene you want to revise or edit, you can not only pinpoint dramaturgical problems but also evaluate your current writing process.
- Talking and Listening
Dialogue is heightened speech that sounds like everyday conversation but isn’t. Here are some general guidelines to help you revise your dialogue so that it accomplishes more with less.
- Unspeakable Truths
What your characters don’t say is just as important – and often more important – than what they do say. Explore the subtext of your characters and how to communicate it without actually stating it.
- Universal Truths and Lies
A great story imparts not only the specifics of a plot, but also statements – true or false – about the world we all live in. Elevate your dialogue by exploring character beliefs about the human condition, and mixing these universal truths and lies into plot details.
- The Bones of the Lines
While there are no rules for writing dialogue, certain basic principles tend to govern the power of dramatic speech. Use these principles as editing guidelines to refine your dialogue from a purely technical angle.
- Whose Story Is it?
A dramatic story may center on one, two, or more characters. Use this exercise to find the right character focus for your story if you are having trouble figuring out whose story you are writing.
- How Will the Tale Be Told?
From what vantage point will we experience the world of your characters? Develop a point-of-view “contract” to define how you will limit – or not limit – our knowledge of story events.
- As the World Turns
What is the world of your story? Trigger new story ideas by fleshing out the physical, cultural, and political dimensions of this realm as well as the values, beliefs, and laws that govern it.
- Inciting Event
Every story is a quest triggered by a turning point experience that upsets the balance of a character’s life in either a good way or a bad way. Explore your story’s inciting event and how it affects your character.
- The Art of Grabbing
Great stories grab us by the throat and don’t let go. Increase your story’s grabbing power by looking carefully at what you have accomplished – or not accomplished – during the first ten pages.
- Step by Step
Drama is about life in transition. This exercise helps you plan the big transition of your character’s dramatic journey, and begin using a step outline to track and analyze key events.
- Turning Points
Your character’s dramatic journey is a sequence of events that can sometimes turn in unexpected directions. Learn more about your story by fleshing out two basic types of turning points.
- What Happens Next?
Suspense is a core ingredient of any dramatic story. Use basic principles of suspense to strengthen your story line and keep your audience engaged.
- Pointing and Planting
Foreshadowing can help you strengthen your throughline by finding the relationships between story events. Use this exercise to explore how setups and payoffs can heighten suspense.
- Crisis Decision
The crisis is when your subject, theme, character, and story all converge to create the most difficult decision your character must face. Construct this crisis decision by examining the gains and losses that hang in the balance.
- Picture the Arc of Action
This exercise can help you visualize the throughline of your story, find telling images of your character at the most important points of the dramatic journey, and understand how these points connect.
- Before and After
Define your character’s dramatic journey by comparing its starting point to its final destination, and determining how the character has been affected by what happened.
- Twelve Word Solution
Work within given limits to explore your story globally and define the key events of your character’s dramatic journey.
- Main Event
No matter how complex its characters, plot, and subplots may be, a great story usually adds up to one main event. This focusing exercise helps you understand what happens – or what could happen – in your story overall.
- My Story as a Dog
By translating your story it into totally different forms, such as a newspaper headline or poem, you can simplify and prioritize your story ideas, get a clearer view of the “big picture,” and have fun in the process
- The Incredible Shrinking Story
Developing a synopsis is a great focusing process that can help clarify what you are really writing about. This exercise helps you get the most out of this process by writing not just one but seven different levels of summary.
- What’s the Big Idea?
As you review your script, you will probably find a number of themes woven throughout. Use this focusing exercise to figure out which of these ideas is most important, and develop a theme statement that can help guide the rest of story development.
- What’s in a Name?
This exercise might help you find a great title for your story, but its primary purpose is to use the naming process to explore the “big picture” of your story and figure out what matters most.
- The Forest of Your Story
The forest is what we discover when we can finally see more than just the trees. What is the forest of your story? This summary exercise leads you through a detailed ‘big picture” analysis of your material.
- Ready, Aim, Focus
This focusing exercise asks you to think a lot but write only a little as you give one word answers to big questions about your story, such as “What does your main character most want?”
- Six Stages of Revision
The revision process is often when a script gets “written.” This exercise offers a series of suggestions and reminders to help you review a completed draft of your script.