Sometimes play ideas seem like cartoon lightning bolts—they strike without any particular pattern and leave a playwright feeling electrified, buzzing, and charged with excitement. And if we’re lucky—or unlucky, if the lightning isn’t metaphorical—we’ll be in the right place at the right time. But beneath the seeming chaos and randomness, there are well-ordered scientific principles at work. Similarly, finding the right idea for a play can remain an act of the subconscious, a stroke of luck; or we can demystify the process by breaking it down into its elemental particles. Generating play ideas is a muscle, just like writing dialogue or developing characters. It’s a skill we can cultivate.
Before a lightning bolt can come into being, water molecules have to evaporate and condense into clouds. No clouds, no storm. Before an idea can come into being, a playwright has to build up a cloud of raw material. This cloud is already all around us: it’s on the morning news; it’s a song on the radio; it’s our own personal or family history; it’s a chance encounter with an old lover; it’s other plays. Common wisdom for fiction writers is to read at least ten times as much as you write. As playwrights, we have the opportunity to read ten times as much as we write and to see productions. Spending time with other artists’ work allows us the opportunity to reflect on what resonates for us and what leaves us cold—in other words, to develop our own particular taste.
Inside the cloud, water molecules separate and an electrical charge starts to build. For writers, the raw materials we consume start to separate from their original sources and contexts and recombine with other stories we’ve heard somewhere or experienced. The electrical charge of ideas can build up over a lifetime—suddenly, that news story we read this morning connects with a childhood memory we had forgotten until now.
Most of my play ideas start with a particle of something I’ve been mulling over for years. The stories or images or questions that resonate with me always do so because they’re striking against something that is already inside of me. It’s worth taking some time to do some free writing about the following:
- What are the worries/questions I have for myself, my partner/child/best friend, etc.?
- What are the worries/questions I have for the world?
- Collectively, what are we wrestling with as a society?
Articulating these things for myself has helped me identify the kinds of stories I want to tell. They stay fairly constant, although of course they evolved as I mature and as we face different challenges, socially and politically.
I also keep the following lists:
- What are the stories that have stuck with me? Why did they land? How do these stories work both onstage and on the page?
- What stories haven’t I seen? What’s a character or milieu or way of telling a story that I haven’t encountered yet?
These lists shift with some frequency—some of the stories that lit me on fire when I was younger have lost some of their heat for me, and stories I didn’t yet love now enrapture me. The “stories I haven’t seen” list comes from the cloud of material I create for myself.
Once I have my cloud of raw material and these lists, I start to ask myself how I can combine several of these individual elements to form a new idea. Maybe I read a news story this morning that reminded me of a painting I saw when I was a child. With these two ingredients as a base, what else can I add that seems, perhaps, unexpected?
This is the process of building up an electrical charge. As I start to put together seemingly disparate elements, I should be getting excited about the idea that’s starting to form. Sometimes I have a few elements but something feels incomplete, and I have to go back to my cloud of material to try different things until I find exactly what I’m missing.
After an electrical charge builds up in a cloud, the air actually has to create a path for the lightning to travel through down to the earth. In terms of an idea, this part of the process means thinking about what structure best serves the story. What would the play look like if it all took place in one long scene? What would it look like if there was a twenty-year time jump between Act One and Act Two? What if the whole play was performed by a single actor?
I imagine at least three radically different ways I could tell the story. As I do this thought exercise, the world of the play starts to solidify for me. I’m able to ask: Who are the people that live in this world? What do they want? Could I raise the stakes for these characters?
For me, some of this happens through free writing, but a lot of it actually takes place through conversation with dramaturgs, other writers, or close friends. My goal is to think strategically about the dramatic engine of the play and to rigorously examine which version will provide the most satisfying framework for the story I want to tell.
Now lightning is ready to strike.
Lightning image used under Creative Commons license from Flickr user One Day Closer.