An excerpt from

The Dramatic Writer’s Companion

Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories

Will Dunne

About This Guide

Designed for dramatic writers who are developing a script or about to begin one, this guide is a creative and analytical reference tool. It is composed not as a linear sequence of chapters, but as a collection of self-contained writing exercises to help you explore and refine your own unique material. These tools can be used at any time in any order and can be repeated as often as you like to make new discoveries. For best results, please take the time to read this introduction, which explains more about what the guide is and how to use it.

♦ to the dramatic writer

As a dramatic writer working on a play or screenplay, you are engaged in the process of telling a story. It is a process both old and new—old because its roots stretch back through centuries and offer time-tested principles to guide you, and new because it must be adapted to an utterly unique set of dynamics: you and the story you want to tell.

This guide is designed to help you manage both the old and the new of the storytelling process. Written from a playwright’s perspective and making room in its embrace for both playwrights and screenwriters, the guide offers sixty-two in-depth character, scene, and story development exercises. The purpose of these tools is to spark creativity and steer analysis as you develop your script.

Tools for Leaping into Blank Pages

The exercises in this guide build on certain basic assumptions. First, though stage and film are each a distinct medium, the writers of plays and screenplays are more alike than different. Both must create the blueprint for an emotional experience that is meant to be seen and heard. Both must tackle the idea that “less is more” and convey a lot—often a character’s entire lifetime—in one audience sitting. Both must use the present to imply the past. Both must figure out how to “show, not tell,” the story so that the audience’s knowledge of it comes not from hearing explanations, but from observing and interpreting character behavior. Like storytellers of any kind, dramatic writers also must try to grab the audience from the start, keep them interested to the end, and communicate something meaningful along the way. It is common challenges like these that the exercises in this guide are designed to address.

Second, though there may be no rules for creating art, dramatic stories tend to reflect certain basic storytelling principles. For example, most plays and screenplays focus on the dramatic journey of one main character. This journey usually consists of a series of events that change the world of the story for better or worse. Most of these events are caused by the character’s need to accomplish something important and are shaped by the conflicts and risks that stand in the way.

Some dramatic writers adhere faithfully to classic principles like these and produce great works like A Streetcar Named Desire and Long Day’s Journey into Night. Other writers cherry-pick such principles—using some and ignoring others—to produce great plays like Waiting for Godot, where nothing really happens, and great films like Crash, which has no main character or central throughline. Whether you wish to use traditional techniques or ignore them, you can benefit from an understanding of storytelling principles that have proven to work. The exercises in this guide are designed to remind you of such principles and give you leeway to adapt them in whatever way best fits your specific needs and story.

Character: The Heart and Soul of Story

While emphasizing different aspects of the dramatic writing process, this guide draws from the theory that character is the root function of scene and story. The more you know your characters and the world they inhabit, the better equipped you will be to discover and develop all of the other dramatic elements for your script.

Every exercise in this guide is, to some degree, a character exploration. Even when you are working through the details of a scene or building a story, you are making decisions about your characters: how each is unique and how each is universal. The success of your work will depend on how broadly and deeply you mine the truths of each character and use them to structure the dramatic journey. Such truths are most useful when you understand them emotionally as well as intellectually, especially when you are in the moment of a scene and need to know what each character will say and do next.

Plot is a critical element of any play or screenplay, but a script dictated by plot points may end up sacrificing truth for spectacle, and result not in drama but in melodrama. By letting the plot evolve from the characters instead of forcing the characters into a prefabricated plot, you can keep the focus on truths that enlighten the human condition rather than exaggerated conflicts and emotions that exist only for dramatic effect.

Herein lies the simplest yet most powerful idea underlying this collection of dramatic writing exercises: the character is not something added to the scene or to the story. Rather, the character is the scene. The character is the story.

Real Story Solutions

Each exercise in this guide has grown out of real issues that playwrights and screenwriters have faced while working on scripts, side by side, in more than fifteen hundred dramatic writing workshops that I have conducted over twenty years. Each exercise has been tested with different writer groups and refined as needed. The result is a collection of tools that translate dramatic theory into action steps and cover a range of topics from a variety of angles.

Some exercises focus on development details, such as defining a character’s credo or figuring out her scenic objective. Others address the big picture of the story by helping you explore subject, theme, and throughline. Sometimes the approach is instinctual—you work “from the heart” to find new insights—and sometimes intellectual—you work “from the head” to evaluate material, fix problems, and reach writing goals.

Each exercise tackles its topic in depth and provides step-by-step guidance rather than general directives. Though the guide is meant to have both educational and motivational value, no exercise is solely a lesson or creative diversion for its own sake. Rather, each targets information that you can import to your story so that you are always exploring your own material—not someone else’s. In effect, the exercises become part of your writing process rather than something you do in addition to it.

♦ how to use this guide

You are welcome to sit down and read this guide from cover to cover, but that is not the intended use. Like any reference tool, the guide invites you to review its contents, select the specific information you need now, and use it to produce results.

Nonlinear Design: You Choose Which Exercise to Do Next

The exercises in this guide are each self-contained, so you can try them in any order at any time and repeat them at different times with different results. This approach reflects the idea that there is no single way to develop story and lets you adapt the guide to your individual writing process and level of experience.

Organization for Ease of Use

To help you manage the guide, the exercises are divided into three areas of content: character, scene, and story. Though character is the foundation of scene and story, the breakdown allows a different focus for each section.

Exercises within each section have been further divided into stages 1, 2, and 3. The purpose of these numbers is not to indicate degree of difficulty, but to suggest the general stage of script development in which an exercise might be most appropriate, with stage 1 best suited to early development, and stage 3 to later development. Attention to these numbers is optional. They are provided mainly for those guide users who prefer a more structured approach to choosing exercises.

At the end of this guide, you will find a troubleshooting section that highlights twenty common script problems and suggests specific exercises to help you address them. For quick reference, you also will find a glossary of terms to facilitate nonlinear use of this guide and also to highlight the dramatic principles woven throughout the exercises. For example, the term “beat” appears in many of the exercises. While it may refer elsewhere to a pause in dialogue for dramatic effect, the term “beat” is used in this guide only to mean “the smallest unit of dramatic action.” Just as a dramatic story is made up of scenes, a scene is made up of beats. Each beat centers on one thing, such as one topic, one behavior, or one emotion. Beats bring variety to the dramatic action of a scene and determine its structure and rhythm.

Exercise Elements to Trigger Discovery

As you work with the guide, you will find that each exercise offers certain features to support your character, scene, or story exploration, including a summary, suggestion for when to use the exercise, topic introduction, exercise introduction, detailed action steps, and recap of key messages.

Since the exercises are designed to be self-contained and useful in any order, certain principles and questions are repeated among them. As you develop your script, these recurring elements can often lead to new discoveries. Use any recurring theory you encounter as an opportunity to reevaluate your current writing process, and any recurring question as an opportunity to rethink your material and gain new insights about your characters and story. Some exercises tackle the same subject, but with different levels of depth or from different angles. Most exercises can be completed in about thirty minutes.

Examples to Illustrate Key Principles

The guide is sprinkled with hundreds of examples from dramatic works, many of which have been developed as both plays and films. Some examples are quick references. Others include more detailed script analysis. The dramatic works used most often or in most depth include: Angels in America, Part One: Millennium Approaches by Tony Kushner, Ballad of the Sad Café adapted by Edward Albee from a book by Carson McCullers, The Bear by Anton Chekhov, The Beard of Avon by Amy Freed, Betrayal by Harold Pinter, Blasted by Sarah Kane, Crimes of the Heart by Beth Henley, Doubt by John Patrick Shanley, Edmond by David Mamet, The Elephant Man by Bernard Pomerance, Frozen by Bryony Lavery, Glengarry Glen Ross by David Mamet, Hamlet by William Shakespeare, The History Boys by Alan Bennett, Hotel Desperado by Will Dunne, How I Became an Interesting Person by Will Dunne, In the Blood by Suzan-Lori Parks, Long Day’s Journey into Night by Eugene O’Neill, Loot by Joe Orton, The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare, Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck, The Pianist by Wladyslaw Szpilman and Ronald Harwood, The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, The Pillowman by Martin McDonagh, Proof by David Auburn, Psycho by Robert Bloch and Joseph Stefano, The Real Thing by Tom Stoppard, Search and Destroy by Howard Korder, Topdog/Underdog by Suzan-Lori Parks, A Streetcar Named Desire by Tennessee Williams, True West by Sam Shepard, Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee, and Wit by Margaret Edson.

Getting Started

How should you begin to develop a dramatic script? Different writers address this question in different ways. In the end, their answers indicate not what is “correct” in the storytelling universe, but rather what works best for them. Here are suggestions for getting started with this guide and doing whatever works best for you.

1. Select a section. Think about where you are now in the development of your script. Trust your instinct and pick one of three areas to tackle: character, scene, or story. Then go to the matching section in the table of contents.

  • Use “Developing Your Character” to flesh out, explore, and understand the important characters in your story. Exercises range from a basic character builder to in-depth character analysis.
  • Use “Causing a Scene” to plan, write, or revise any scene in your story. Exercises range from a basic scene starter to more advanced tools for refining dramatic action and dialogue.
  • Use “Building Your Story” to spark global thinking and figure out how to compose and connect dramatic events so that they add up to one story. Exercises range from deciding whose story you’re writing, to analyzing and revising the dramatic journey that emerged.

2. (Optional) Select a level. Choose the level of exercise that best matches your current knowledge of the story.

  • Stage 1 starter tools can help lay the groundwork for a new character, new scene, or new story: you may use them any time in any order during writing or revision, but might find them most helpful during early script development when you have the most to figure out.
  • Stage 2 exploratory tools can help you learn more about a character, scene, or story you’ve started. You may use them any time in any order, but might find them most helpful during the middle to later stages of script development when you want to get deeper into your material.
  • Stage 3 focusing tools can help you simplify, prioritize, and clarify your thoughts about a character, scene, or whole story. You may use them any time in any order, but might find them most helpful during the later stages of story development when you are more familiar with your script and have the most details to track and manage.

Some writers will choose to do stage 1 exercises first, stage 2 next, and stage 3 last. Others will gain more from ignoring these numbers and intuitively creating their own system of use. For example, you may wish to try a stage 1 during later script development. The leap back to basics can help shake up material that has grown stale. Or, you may wish to try a stage 3 during early script development even though you may not yet be prepared to complete many of the steps. The leap forward can help you plan the story or formulate questions to guide the work ahead.

3. Select an exercise. Scan the exercise summaries in this category at this level, and pick the most appealing one. Don’t worry about whether you are making the right choice, because, while you are using this guide, you cannot make a mistake. You can gain something useful from whichever exercise you choose to do—even if you simply select one at random.

Ongoing Use of the Guide

You can use this guide periodically or every time you sit down to work on your story. Integrate the exercises into your writing process to help you warm up, find and explore new ideas, and analyze and solve script problems. Remember that you can use the same exercise at different times to find new material for your story.

While you write and rewrite, you may wish to use the troubleshooting section at the end of the guide to tackle specific script problems. Remember that if the meaning of a term is unclear, you can always check the glossary for a working definition.

♦ ground rules

Before you start any exercise in this guide, be sure you are familiar with the following guidelines. They provide a foundation for each exercise and are designed to help you get the most of out of this guide. For best results, revisit these suggestions now and then, and keep them in mind each time you do an exercise:

  1. Trust your authority. A basic principle of these exercises is to proceed with confidence and turn off the censor inside you who says your work isn’t good enough. While doing each exercise—at least for that thirty minutes or so—you are infallible and simply cannot make a mistake. Enjoy it while it lasts.
  2. Work fast. Another basic principle is to open up and let ideas flow by working as quickly as possible. Try to avoid thinking too much or getting too complicated. If you get stuck on a question, jot down any answer—even a bad one—and go on from there. Off-the-cuff responses sometimes have surprising payoffs later.
  3. Look for what’s new. Some exercises may focus on material that overlaps with other material you’ve already discovered through another exercise or on your own. Keep taking creative leaps and try to avoid repeating or rehashing what you already know. Use the exercises to make discoveries, not relive them.
  4. Go one step at a time. The exercises tend to work best if you don’t know where they are leading. Once you get past the introductory material and into the action steps of the exercise, don’t look ahead. Focus on here and now.
  5. Honor exercise limits. Most of the exercises are designed to be done in one sitting. Some have word limits and other restrictions. These limits are designed to boost your creativity, not stifle it.
  6. Stay flexible. Some exercises ask you to explore several different possibilities to find one solution. For best results, complete the exercise even if you think you’ve already found a solution that works. It’s only an exercise, and the exploration could lead to valuable material where you least expect it.
  7. Think big. These exercises are designed ultimately to help you discover and understand what matters most about your story. If you find yourself at a crossroads unsure of which way to turn, always make the most dramatic choice.
  8. Have fun. While some writers suffer in garrets and slave over their stories, others enjoy their work. The value of your script will not be measured by how much anguish you experienced in producing it. Dramatic writing is serious stuff—and it will often be challenging—but you can have a good time in the process.

Copyright notice: Excerpt from pages xv–xxi of The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories by Will Dunne, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2009 by The University of Chicago. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)

Will Dunne
The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories
©2009, 352 pages
Cloth $45.00 ISBN: 9780226172538
Paper $19.00 ISBN: 9780226172545

For information on purchasing the book—from bookstores or here online—please go to the webpage for The Dramatic Writer’s Companion.

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