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The Essentials

Writer and founder of ‘Write Like a Grrrl’ Kerry Ryan shares the essentials for writing a play and taking care of yourself during the process.

Have you ever wanted to write a play but felt too scared to begin? When I first started out, fear and self-doubt held me back. My inner critic was relentless. I would constantly delete and start over, stuck in a frustrating cycle of never finishing a first draft. But I kept writing and learned how to quieten my vicious inner critic. Now, I create plays I’m passionate about and write with joy and pleasure – and so can you!

In this guide, I share essential tips for writer self-care, how to create three-dimensional characters, craft authentic dialogue, and handle feedback. These tools will help you get past fear and doubt so you can craft a play that truly excites you.

Ready to unleash your creativity and write the play of your dreams? Let’s get started.

Silence the inner critic

When it comes to writing, our inner critic is our greatest adversary. As soon as you start to write, you’ll hear it: “You will never succeed. This has been done before. Who do you think you are?”

And if you don’t hear it during the first draft, you’ll hear it when you’re redrafting.

Here are a few ways you can combat your inner critic:

Practise self-care

Self-care and self-compassion are our weapons of choice against the inner critic. All the tools you’ve developed to survive life as a performer can be applied to the craft of writing.

Your job as a writer is to manage your wellbeing, so that no matter what’s going on in your life, you can sit down and write wildly and freely from the heart. Writing can be a tool for catharsis. You don’t need to be in a zen state to write, but managing your mind and body means that the inner critic is easier to deal with.

Tell it, “Not today, Satan,” when it starts yakking, and then you can get back to your writing. Or, if you’re in a strong enough mental space, you can ask gently: “What’s wrong?”

The answer will always be fear. All artists are scared – we’re terrified! The difference between those who finish something and those who don’t is that we write through it. We carry on regardless.

Don’t write for others

Write for the ‘you’ in the audience. Don’t write to please anyone but yourself. This isn’t about ego, but writing to please others will only limit and constrict your art. The first draft, and often the second, is all about writing wildly with freedom. Trust your subconscious. Trust what comes up. Entertain yourself. What do you want to see on stage?

What do you need to see on the stage?

Allow yourself to write badly 

First drafts are always ropey. Just bosh it out. It’ll be horrendous. The characters will speak in B-movie dialogue. Clichés and stereotypes will flood out of you. That’s totally fine. Don’t despair, and better yet, don’t judge.

Just keep on writing and stop worrying about what other people will think. At this stage, you can’t predict what they’ll say and like. Trust that you’ll cut out the cliches and subvert the stereotypes in the redraft. Just write. You learn from every scene you create – no matter if it makes it into the final edit or not, so keep going.

Kerry’s quick guide to writing a play

Once your inner critic is subdued, it’s time to write your play. Here are some quick tips to get you started, and help you get the most out of your work and characters:

Create character and conflict

Every play, no matter what it’s about or what type of play it is, is always about two things: people and conflict. Create conflict by starting with an inciting incident. It can be anything: a woman meeting another woman at a party and falling in love, someone being accused of witchcraft, someone wanting to invest their money in a liquor store but their wife wants to buy a house, etc.

Character is determined by the event, so the inciting incident should have a snowball effect. The characters begin to make choices under pressure. Ask yourself:

  • How does the character react to what’s happened?
  • Do they fight or argue?
  • What do they do?
  • How do the other characters react to the event and to each other?

Define the super-objective

All your characters must have surface level desires – money, fame, more cake – and underneath, they have deep unconscious desires or super-objectives, as Stanislavski called them. Define your characters’ super-objectives by asking yourself what the characters want and why. Some examples of super-objectives are:

  • I wish to control everything.
  • I wish to be a hero of the people.
  • I wish for revenge.

The super-objective will help you determine how your characters behave in each scene. The characters can realise throughout the course of the play that their super-objective has been driving them all their lives – or they can just keep going, like Macbeth.

Structure the scene

Make things happen. The best way to think of a scene is:

  • Want: the character’s want within the scene.
  • Conflict: what stands in their way.
  • Event: what do they decide to do or not do.

This decision then leads into the next scene and fuels the narrative drive.

There is nothing wrong with following the traditional three-act structure. Picasso was a great portrait painter before he started painting abstracts. So, know the form before you start experimenting. You can always move scenes and play with the structure once you’ve boshed out a draft.

Think about dialogue

Approach dialogue by considering intimacy and power. Characters are usually angling for one or the other, so keep this in mind when your characters are talking to each other:

  • What are they angling for?
  • What are they hiding?
  • Do they think the person in front of them is going to give them what they want?

Just knock out the dialogue in the first draft. It will be terrible – and that’s okay! Refinement comes later. It will change in the rehearsal room because a play is a living, malleable thing. Don’t be precious. Just get it all down on the page.

Listen to feedback

Share your draft with people you trust. Then, rewrite it. Listen to what others have to say but trust your own instincts without being egotistical.

Writing is an act of trust.

Trust the instinct that set you off on the path to write this particular play – while being open to making changes. You want the audience to experience the play in the best way possible.

Don’t give up

Finally, the most important piece of advice: keep writing and don’t stop, no matter what. Every play you love began life as a terrible first draft. Every playwright you love began not knowing how to write characters or scenes or how on earth to put a play together. The difference is that those writers kept going. They didn’t give up, and now they have the skills to get their vision down on the page.

You can do it, too. Just don’t stop writing, don’t ever stop learning, and definitely don’t listen to your inner critic.

More writing advice:

Kerry Ryan is the founder and director of Write like a Grrrl. She writes plays, poems and prose, and has been published in the Kenyon Review, Manchester Review, the Spectrum anthology, and Queerlings, among others. She is the contributing editor of the anthology ‘So Long As You Write’ (Dear Damsels, 2022). She won the Spilling Ink short story prize and was shortlisted for Myriad First Editions. Her play ‘Trust’ ran at the Gulbenkian in 2020. She was the creative writing columnist for Dear Damsels, has been a fiction editor for various publications, and editor of the Write like a Grrrl anthology, published by Grind and Bearing. In 2021, she was awarded Arts Council funding to support her creative practice. She has a Masters and a PhD in Literary Studies/Creative Writing.

Image credit: Daniel Thomas / Unsplash