When I’m writing a play, I like to use a guideline called Occam’s razor. It’s commonly misstated as, “The simplest solution is usually correct.” But that’s actually not true. Occam’s razor is a mathematical principle that says, “Entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily.” What the hell does that actually mean?
In trying to solve a problem, you should look for a solution that makes the fewest possible assumptions. Then, when you need to make a leap or make something more complicated, you do. As Einstein (apocryphally) said, “Everything should be as simple as possible, but not simpler.”
Occam’s razor is a heuristic, rather than an immutable law like, “Matter cannot be created or destroyed.” In writing, I use it the same way. Why do I use it for playwriting at all? Because I think simplicity is one of the hardest things to achieve. In grad school, my advisor half-jokingly suggested I make a t-shirt that said, “Simplify.” If I were wiser, I’d just do that instead of writing an entire article on the subject. But since I’m not, here are the four ways I try to implement Occam’s razor in my plays:
1. BUILDING CHARACTERS
Part of the reason I started writing plays was that the female characters I saw onstage as a kid were reductive, stereotypical, and uninteresting. I wanted to write characters that were more reflective of the strong, complicated women I knew in real life.
So I would never advocate for simplistic characters. But what I have discovered is that when I can articulate the core objective of my character in simple, active language, I can explore the character with even greater nuance and specificity. Once in rehearsal, my director said to an actor: “You can only play one action at a time. Complexity is built by stacking different and contrasting actions on top of each other.”
Now I use that as a fundamental rule in building my characters. In life, there are plenty of times where we don’t know what we want, or want mutually exclusive things. But even if I want to kiss someone and slap her in the face, I can only do one of those things at a time.
2. THEATRICAL LANGUAGE
Theatrical language is temporal. That means the audience is experiencing it in time. In an essay, like this one, could talk about the aleatory nature of getting a production or eschewing psychological realism. But in dramatic writing, I try to use small(er) words. This doesn’t mean dumbed down characters (see above). But overly dense language can be hard for an audience to hear. An audience member can’t go back and re-read a sentence. I don’t want my viewers to miss an important story point because they’re lingering on a particularly beautiful and poetic turn of phrase or three that I’ve given my characters.
In my first draft, I give myself permission to use my SAT vocab words and all the poetic imagery I can think of, and in subsequent drafts I whittle them away until only those words and images that are essential remain. In life, I use my vocabulary (and big words) as a tactic. Sometimes people use aleatory in conversation. But if I’m being honest with myself, usually I say that getting produced is a fucking gamble.
3. MUSCULAR STORYTELLING
Part of the reason I used to regard simplicity with suspicion is that I conflated telling a simple core story with well-made, naturalistic storytelling. But telling a simple story doesn’t mean telling it linearly, or naturalistically.
I used to use magic as a crutch when I didn’t know what story I was telling. This invariably became clear in a workshop when the actors wanted to know why something non-naturalistic happened and my response would be, “because…it’s cool?” Not a great answer.
Peter Pan is perhaps my favorite example of this idea. Neverland with all its magic and fantasy is essential because the beating heart of the story is about the fear of growing up and the concomitant death of imagination. I wrote a play that’s set largely inside Schrödinger’s box, narrated by a cat that’s both dead and alive. But the story at its core is about a break up. The protagonist happens to be a quantum physicist. Schrödinger’s box is necessary because the play grapples with how we experience time inside of relationships as they are falling apart. During rehearsals, the director, dramaturg, and I were continually checking in about how the scenes inside the quantum universe served that break up story.
But what I’ve found is that when the core of my story is robust and clear, the magic arises organically the characters needs and we can all identify exactly why there’s a talking cat or flying ship or dream ballet.
4. LESS IS ENOUGH
When I’m writing a play I try to use three things and really mine them for all they’re worth. The actual number is arbitrary. But in general, three is better than twenty. A play occasionally needs twenty or fifty or a hundred or three hundred things. The meaning is made in the accumulation. Usually, however, less is enough.
What do I mean by things? Metaphors, images, objects – or anything else that you as the playwright are asking the audience to track. Focusing on a few central things allows you to dig deep and find the unexpected or hidden meanings within them. Sometimes it’s tempting to throw another image or idea into a scene because you feel as though you’ve exhausted all the ideas you’ve already introduced. But what happens if you force yourself to stick to what you’ve already written into the play? Does it continue to yield? Often it does. If not, there might be another object or image that can give you more mileage.
In this case, the central metaphor is Occam’s razor. And now that I’ve milked it for everything I can, I’ll end here!