Lessons from Playwriting

Nancy Toomey, fellow fiction mfa student, and I are taking Principles of Playwriting at NJIT, with six undergraduates whose majors range from directing to management information systems. Playwriting is a very particular craft, broken down into its component parts by Professor Michele Rittenhouse, who began the semester by flying to London for a reading of one of her own plays. She bases class lessons on our plays which we read out loud, assigning parts to members of the class, then respond to much like a fiction workshop. Professor Rittenhouse is a walking story machine, able to conjure a character and a plot for illustrative purposes at the drop of a hat.
Nancy and I thought the class would help us write bright shiny dialogue for our stories, but we’ re learning much more, and all of it works for any kind of fiction writing. Each sentence and gesture and action in a play moves the characters forward toward a specific objective. We are forced you to put our characters in a room to confront each other and resolve things right then and there. Unable to escape to the insides of their heads, we write their interactions, something we often shy away from in our stories. Every line of dialogue ideally adds depth to the characters, moves the action forward, and reinforces the theme. Even the backstory takes an active role in moving the story forward.
Playwriting demands a strict three act structure, similar to the arc of a short story. Act One defines who the characters are and what they want, and sets up the conflict or problem. Act Two raises the stakes, often by having the main character’ s desires thwarted, or the issues complicated by backstory. The problem is resolved in Act Three, and the characters may or may not get what they want. The three act structure applies to plays of every length. It applies to stories and even novels.
Plays are not written but crafted through a multitude of drafts. It’ s not easy to do, but
Professor Rittenhouse makes us feel it’ s possible. She suggests we let ourselves loose to get into the souls of our characters. She paraphrases Paulo Coehlo, telling us there are enough diverse and contradictory ideas within our own heads to write any number of characters. None of this comes as news exactly, but putting our stories into a new framework give us a fresh perspective on writing fiction.

By Priscilla Mainardi

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