Wednesday, 1 February 2017

The Art of Writing for the Stage

By Paul Vates

The mist snaked round Francisco’s legs. It fused with his own breath, settling on the damp castle walls. All was tense, quiet and cold. The midnight chimes had faded into the darkness.

Francisco stood, shivering, in an alcove of the battlements, wishing for the night to end, for dawn to relieve this agony. Then the faintest of sounds struck him with terror. He readied himself. There it was again, coming closer. He swallowed and stepped out of the recess, spear pointing.

The man he faced was just a shrinking silhouette, whispering ‘Who’s there?’.

Francisco hid his fear. ‘Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.’

The figure stood upright. ‘Long live the King!’



Francisco relaxed. ‘You come most carefully upon your hour,’ he said, reaching out and placing his relieved hand on Barnardo’s shoulder.

‘’Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.’

The opening of Hamlet as a book might have it. 

Shakespeare, of course, has little description. All information is in the words. There is the threat in the first spoken line. The challenge, quickly followed by the realisation that the two guards know each other. We also know instantly that it is dark and that midnight is when ghosts appear, so both soldiers are scared. There is tension and fear. This is not a comedy, but a deadly drama. All conveyed in seven lines of dialogue.

In prose, some authors can go to great lengths to describe a character’s emotion. Whereas in a stage script, the actors and audience have only the spoken words or the action that the writer supplies. Everything else is superfluous. However, nothing annoys an actor or director more than seeing a line like:

BARNARDO: (afraid) Who’s there?

The fear is implicit in the words, therefore the actor knows to be scared. He doesn’t need to be told. Books sometimes do need to delve into such detail, describing how someone looks and acts during a specific state. Actors, however, should not require such instructions. The setting and the words will suffice and be instructive enough for them to understand the intended emotion to portray.

Stage scripts are for a visual art form by their very definition. So in writing for these, a writer must create from an audience perspective. The audience/viewers are the equivalent to readers of a book, but don’t need such hand-holding to be guided through the world of the fiction. Their eyes and ears do much of the writer’s work.

Cathy Tyson and Chereen Buckley in She Called Me Mother. Photo: ©Richard Davenport

"Theatre, by its very nature can withstand long scenes and just a few characters."

I have read theatre scripts for many years, as a founder member of The Script Readers, based at Theatre Royal, Stratford East. I receive a few every month and it is sad to say that most are bad rather than good. Not the ideas, some are amazing. It is the lack of understanding that the style needs to be so specific: the setting and the characters need to be clear and believable; the story needs to be coherent and, most importantly, there needs to be a point to it all. There is also a requirement for some practicality to stage it - far too many writers are thinking in television or film terms - expecting the most wondrous scene changes to occur - and write in short, Eastenders-like scenes with a huge cast of characters. Theatre, by its very nature can withstand long scenes and just a few characters. The feel and tone are different. Theatre is not such a knee-jerk medium, reliant on pace. Theatre can take its time to tell a story, it does not need to rush.

One aspect of scripts I am acutely conscious of is the lack of awareness from writers that people  rarely do nothing. Characters should always be doing something. At the very least, like Noel Coward, have them getting a drink or lighting a cigarette. Actors itch to find something to do, else it looks unnatural just to stand there and say the lines. Once, I watched Judi Dench shelling peas, making her speeches appear natural. In real life, people multi-task most of the time. The art in the writing is to avoid giving too much information about what the characters are doing and why.

There are, as always, exceptions, to any rule. Where someone has made the genius leap to adapt a book for the stage, when a story’s premise goes against the ‘less is more’ rule. Anything, if truth be told, can be adapted. Doing it right is the key. War Horse, The Life Of Pi and The Curious Incident Of The Dog In The Nighttime come to mind. Even Ulysses has had stage versions.

"Anything can be adapted"
Black Album
adapted from novel by Hanif Kureishi
NT-Tara co-production-2009 
Alex Andreaou as Riyaz;
 Photo Credit Talulah Sheppard

Yet, in general, the basics of a stage script show little description about the setting or the characters or, indeed, the intentions of those characters. All the information the audience need to know must be there in the spoken, or implied, words.

When I say basic, I mean it. It doesn’t surprise me anymore, how often script writers neglect to write the characters names into the spoken script. The written script has it there all the time and writers forget an audience cannot see this, so they need to be told. And that’s a key. The writer’s job is to inform the reader or viewer what is going on and who it is happening to in as clear a way as possible - even if the opening line has a character on the phone: ‘Hello? Police? … Yes, good evening, Inspector. It’s Professor Hamish McDougall here, from Edinburgh University. I wish to report a murder…’ From this, we know the who, the what, the where and the when. The why is probably what the play is about...

So, with all this in mind - back to the opening of Hamlet as it appears in script form:

Enter Francisco and Barnardo, two sentinels

BARNARDO Who’s there?

FRANCISCO Nay, answer me. Stand and unfold yourself.

BARNARDO Long live the King!



FRANCISCO You come most carefully upon your hour.

BARNARDO ‘Tis now struck twelve. Get thee to bed, Francisco.

To paraphrase Anton Chekhov, if two characters are afraid of ghosts on page one, there must be a ghost by page three - otherwise, do not have them afraid of ghosts at midnight on a misty castle wall!

If you have a new stage script and would like it read aloud in front of you, by professional actors … go to The Script Readers website. You can also find them on Facebook, or follow them on Twitter, @script_readers


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