Writing Things Other Than Plays When You’re a Playwright

crop woman using laptop on sofa at home

So, I’ve had no new plays to write recently, which is totally fine by me. I wrote two last year and something like five the couple of years before that, so I’m ok giving myself a break. I also wrote, for no reason other than I love British crime series, a British crime series. Not that I hold out much hope for it going anywhere; it just passed the time pleasantly.

It also gave me some much-needed practice at writing for television, which is not unlike writing plays, but it’s not exactly like writing plays. Sure, there’s dialogue, but it as rule needs far more economical language, far more characters, far more scenes told visually, and very few scenes that last more than a couple of pages. So actually, it’s very different. And I for one, find the differences challenging, but in a way that I can’t help but think will help my playwriting. I have a theory, and I doubt it’s very original, that your greatest talents as an artist, without constant vigilance, can quickly turn into your greatest weaknesses. You either lean too heavily on them that they become tiresome and predictable, or you fail to develop your other facets. Probably both.

As a playwright, I’ve been told, that dialogue is probably my greatest strength (or smallest weakness, depending on whom you ask). But even for playwriting, which is far more liberal medium for denser language, I still enter every rehearsal knowing that I will if I’m smart, I will walk out of that room with a shorter script than I walked in there with. So something like writing teleplays is, at worst, a good chance to become leaner with my language.

However, a few weeks ago, for reasons I can’t quite fathom, I became interested in a story my brain was vaguely formulating that I instantly felt should be a novel. A novel. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an avid reader of novels, and have been most of my life. So it’s not like I’m unfamiliar with the basic blueprints. But still, I do believe at least a little in the 10,000 hours theory ( I believe it’s a necessary but insufficient requirement for mastery), and though I don’t have an abacus handy, I can safely say I won’t be getting anywhere near that number.

Regardless, I started it as an exercise, just to give me something to do and try out a different part of my writing brain. And I’m here to tell you…it’s weird. My girlfriend, who is a novelist, was actually encouraging about me trying my hand it. I was touched by her support. I now realize it was in part fueled by the joy she would experience reading my offerings and know the money and time she had spent requiring an MFA were not spent in vain.

I’m only about two chapters and one virtually complete rewriting of those chapters in, but it is, I am confidently told, guilty of writing too much and yet explaining not nearly enough. My dialogue, which in theory should be the one thing I can get a handle on, doesn’t quite cut it in the context of novel writing. As a playwright, you hope (or at least I do) strive to have your characters talk intelligently and in a way that makes them dimensional. Inevitably, this requires the characters often talk only obliquely – if it all – about what their true feelings and intentions are. This can work well in novels, but then I’m told it’s incumbent on the author to let the reader into the characters’ true intentions, and man, after spending so long avoiding that at all costs, is that a hard skill set to acquire. Because it necessitates eradicating so much of what you’ve absorbed into your writer’s DNA.

Of course, there are other writers who might disagree with this formulation. Hemingway leaps to mind. But that requires another whole other kind of mastery and well, once again, 10,000 hours is a long time.

I’ve no idea if I’ll continue to try to write this wannabe novel much longer. Regardless, I’m glad I’ve done it and am trying it. If nothing else, it’s forced me to look at narrative building from a new angle. And I think for someone such as myself, who’s written almost exclusively plays for decades, that’s a pretty gift. Regardless of this book’s development (or lack thereof), I have a feeling I’ll write my next play with a slightly fresher perspective. That’s pretty hard to come by after all these years.

Published by Jack Canfora

I'm an award winning and losing playwright and screenwriter; I'm a dad of two great kids, an aggressive spoiler of dogs, and hopelessly addicted to baseball and The Beatles. I have no recollection of ever having worn a mullet, yet photos in the 80's say otherwise.

One thought on “Writing Things Other Than Plays When You’re a Playwright

  1. I think tackling different mediums really do help. I myself have zero knowledge on scriptwriting, but have taken interest in the craft because I feel it lends itself so well to my primary pursuit of novel-writing. Anyway, thanks for sharing your experience, Jack!

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