How I Learned to Write Like a 10-Year-Old

Writing tips
Tim J. Lord

 The first question in your brain is likely this, “Is that what you wanted, Tim? To write plays like a 10-year-old?”

The answer is, undeniably, a big yes.

 

I’d heard about the 52nd Street Project for years from friends who volunteered there, but I never got it until I finally walked in and saw a Playmaking show in spring 2012. If you haven’t heard of it, the Project is a community-based theater in Hell’s Kitchen which provides all kinds of artistic opportunities for the kids of the neighborhood, and Playmaking is the class where fourth- and fifth-graders learn how to write a play over the course of nine weeks. At the end of that time, they’re paired with two professional actors and write a brand new short play for them, and these are fully produced and presented to the public. The first play of the show I saw was called “The Solution Between Bees and Flies”—sounds pretty basic, right? Sounds like exactly what you’d expect a 10-year-old to write?

Friends, hands down, it was one of the greatest pieces of theater I’ve ever seen.

The premise was pretty simple. A bee, named Bee, and a fly, named Fly, meet. They hit it off. They’re becoming friends. And then they learn the hard truth: bees and flies can’t be friends. Your classic, tragic love story follows as Bee and Fly struggle with the fact that they really like each other, but their families will never accept this—a tug of war between getting along and fighting. Will they choose each other? Or will they choose their families?

There is no good way, in words, for me to explain how fucking amazing “Bees and Flies” was, so I’m going to let Ricardo’s play take over. Here is a brief sample of the dialogue:

 

FLY: We live right across from each other. So cool.

BEE: Yep. How come you never came to visit?

FLY: Stop asking me so many questions. We didn’t know each other.

BEE: Quit yelling at me, you’re not the only one who’s nervous and curious.

 

I saw this performed by two brilliant actors, and my mind was blown. I’m not kidding you, I thought, “I have an MFA, but this is genius. I would never write dialogue like this. But I want to. How do I do this?” I was hooked.

Six months later, I was volunteering in the Playmaking class, and I finally got to see inside the process—namely that the Project gives these kids just enough information to know what makes for a good play and doesn’t squash their imaginations in the process: the Playwrights’ Toolkit, they call it. Now I call it that too. Here are a few things I keep in mine:

  • Every character has a fear. 

In theater we talk about characters having obstacles they have to overcome: Romeo and Juliet have to find a way to be together, Hamlet has to avenge his father’s death, Oedipus has to find the source of the curse. You know what never registered with me until Playmaking? The most important obstacles are the ones inside a character, the fears that are holding them back. Oedipus can’t stop people dying, because he’s afraid that he might be the one getting them killed. Olivia Pope can’t save this politician’s career, because she can’t figure out her own crazy life. And Fly can’t run away with Bee, because, “I’m grown up. I even have responsibility for kids that are not even mine. I can’t throw that away.” Brilliant.

  • Every character has a wish.

I understood the reason for “Fear” (vs. “Obstacle”) pretty quickly, but “Every character has a wish” vs. “Every character was a want or a need, a super-objective…” It took me ages to figure that out, but here’s why I now like to talk about “wishes” over “wants:” A want, or a need, is likely something you can get if you try hard enough. Hamlet wants to avenge his dad? Cool. Get a sword and go to town (and cut about four hours out of this play). Fly and Bee want to be friends? Just do it, guys. No one has to know. But if it’s a wish, that’s something bigger, maybe it’s even something that’s impossible to achieve. Maybe Hamlet wishes his dad would come back to life? Or that some almighty power will swoop in and take out Claudius without his having to do anything? A wish is something that begins deep inside and finds a way to move outwards. Hamlet doesn’t get his wish, but Fly and Bee do. They don’t just become friends, they eliminate the whole bees vs. flies feud.

  • Surprise yourself.

The truly ingenious thing about pretty much every play I’ve seen written by 10-year-olds is that they never end the way you expect them to. A lot of the plays are about friendship—friends meeting, friends fighting, etc.—and a lot of them do end up with the friends making up. But they seldom take the path you’re expecting to get to that point. Here’s another quote from “Bees and Flies:”

 

BEE: I hate that fly. I mean I had my stuff packed. That no good stinkin’ fool. If I had a rock I would have squished that little runt. Ha ha ha wha braw.

(Bee’s laughs turn into sobs.) Wa wa wa bra wa wa. I really messed up this time.

And then, just a few lines later…

 

BEE: … I understand how much you care for your family.

FLY: How?

BEE: Because that’s how I feel for my family. I was just afraid to admit it.

 

This is some real empathy right here, the human experience on display. I mean, how can you not fall in love with these two? I didn’t see it coming. They share this genuine moment and they’re able to tear down the whole structure of their civilization, as they declare, “We have come up with a solution of peace. If we share the honey everyone will be happy.” They live happily ever after, and you believe they’ve earned it—you don’t feel cheated. You get that warm, cathartic feeling, and you fucking cheer when the other bees and flies appear and declare, “We think that’s an intreating idea. Today we’ll live in harmony in a hole with a beehive in the tree.” Brilliant, genius, life-affirming stuff. The same stuff that has me still making theater after too many decades.

 

So, you interested? Think maybe you, too, would like to learn to write like a 10-year-old? Well, don’t worry:

 

You’re not the only one who’s nervous and curious.

About the author

Tim J. Lord

Tim J. Lord is a native of St. Louis who has spent the last ten years in New York—five of them with his wife, the director Nicole A. Watson. His plays include We declare you a terrorist…, 11 Hills of San Francisco, Peloponnesus, Down in the face of a God, and Fault & Fold. These and others have been seen at the Public Theater, Actors Theatre of Louisville, the Lark, Working Theater, the New Harmony Project, the Summer Play Festival, NNPN/Kennedy Center University Playwrights Workshop, Circle Rep, the Cutout Theatre, the Vagrancy, and most recently at the Barn Arts Collective. He has been a volunteer at the 52nd Street Project since 2012 and on staff there since 2014. Tim studied with Paula Vogel while living in Providence, RI, and is a graduate of UC San Diego's MFA playwriting program.