My favourite playwriting notes from Mark Ravenhill

Final tweet from Mark Ravenhill in his 101 notes series, which reads: "To finish,Toni Morrison ‘if there’s a book you want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, you have to write it’. Resonates -that’s how I started l-the sense that a play ought to exist,it would be easier if someone else wrote it but they haven’t so YOU MUST"

Mark Ravenhill is a playwright I studied for my MA dissertation, which focused on plays attributed to the heavily criticised label: “In-yer-face theatre.”  His play Shopping and Fucking, first performed in 1996, was one of several key texts referenced in my final thesis.

So I was thrilled when last year I saw Ravenhill sharing playwriting tips for free via his Twitter, using #MarkRavenhill101.

Earlier this week, I discovered that all 101 notes have been collected into a single post. I decided to revisit them all and have noted some personal favourites I wish I’d known sooner.

Below I’ve shared those personal favourites, but I urge you to read the full list if you find this interesting.

#4 Try writing a draft zero/dirty draft. Let the characters say all the exposition, themes, everything they think and feel. Don’t show this to anyone – even yourself ! – and then write the first draft. Sarah Kane told me she did this for Blasted.

#5 For a theatre play, an hour of playing time is 9,000 to 10,000 words. Basic but no one tells you this! Think in minutes – after a thousand words, the audience are six minutes into the play. And so on. Writing a play is ‘sculpting in time’.

I cannot tell you how many times on my course someone asked how to work out the running time of a script. Nobody could ever answer with a word count.

“It depends” was the most common response to the question, which is true. A single line of stage direction in theory could take several minutes. The 9,000 to 10,000 words equating to an hour will not always be true, but it’s a useful guideline that nobody ever told me or my classmates.

#16: Have characters say at the top of a scene who they are, where they are and what they’re up to. It will push you to make these decisions. Vagueness may feel satisfyingly ambiguous but will soon lose momentum. You can make exposition more subtle in a later draft.

#30; I cut the first word of many lines. That last bit of fear of committing to the action of the line has a put in a ‘well’ or ‘but’ or ‘just’. In rehearsals actors sometimes unconsciously put back in that little thing before a line. I try to discourage them!

#31: ‘Show don’t tell’ – a red herring? From the Greek plays messenger speech on, plenty of great plays have had a lot of ‘tell’. As long as the ‘tell’ changes the characters on stage and realigns the action of the play. Alternating show and tell works well.

One day I’ll write a lengthy blog post about my thoughts on “Show, don’t tell.” It’s largely considered the golden rule of writing but neglects to teach writers that “telling” absolutely has a place in narratives. Ravenhill’s example is just one of many.

#44: A catch phrase: a repeated sentence the character is caught in. Chekhov’s characters have them, famously ‘if only we could go to Moscow’. Finding a character’s catchphrase allows you to identify their central obsession, even if you don’t put it in the play.

#54: Always imagine you’re writing for actors who’ve also been offered a well paid Netflix series. Create an objective for their character that’s exciting to act with strong actions that are an invitation to play. Give them sleepless nights agonising which to choose.

When I’ve worked with actors and we’ve finished a hotseat exercise, I’m always fascinated and impressed with the layers the actors have added to my characters. Often, I’ve realised they’ve put in more thought into these fictional beings than I have, which shows I need to work on my characterisation.

#57; Your characters probably won’t behave according to commonly agreed ideas of human behaviour. They act within the logic and ‘rules of the game’ of the world you’ve created. As the action escalates they may discover thoughts and feelings no one else ever had.

Reminds me of what someone else once said — I forget who or where I read it — about treating plays like playing as a child (the clue is in the title of the medium). You can make up all the rules you want to make your play work. It’s what made me realise just how flexible playwriting is as a form and the amount of fun that can be had by inventing your own world for the stage.

It’s also what annoys me when I’ve heard people criticise a play because the characters did not speak or act like a real person would. Depending on the play, it might be warranted. If an illiterate character starts dropping beautifully poetic monologues, it might warrant some eyebrow raising if the play offers no justification for this. But as a general rule, it should be expected that people on stage do not behave as we do.

#62; Four characters in a play A,B,C,D. How many different combinations? Even just for two hander scenes: A+B, A+C, A+D,B+C,B+D, C+D and then there’s three + four hander scenes. Think of all the combinations to generate scenes. A play like Marber’s Closer uses this.

Patrick Marber’s Closer also had a profound effect on me and was another text I studied for my dissertation. When I saw this note, the advice felt like it was obvious and yet was something I’d never considered.

It’s also a useful exercise not necessarily limited to playwriting. Whatever you’re writing, it’s worth considering what would happen if you put certain characters together in a scene.

#67; Write the play first then do the research! Do no more than three days research than write zero/dirty draft. So you will see what research you need to do, stuff that informs the dramatic action. Again not too long -research is often what we do to avoid writing.

My MA was structured in a way that this might not have been possible. However, it was 100% what I should have done. I tried so hard to fit my preliminary research to a story that I went months without writing anything.

By the time I did write something, I had to perform some great feats of mental gymnastics to justify how my final play was congruent with my research. As a result, my dissertation (and grade) suffered for it.

#71: A very good playwright told me she always has the last line/image of the play first. Jealous! a play does often drive toward that last moment. Everything else is a set up for that pay off. But it takes me many drafts to get there.

#74: Test a scene by reading each character’s lines aloud. One character at a time, skipping the other characters’ lines. You’ll see fresh things. It’s often surprising to find that a character you thought was very present is underwritten and others overwritten.

#88: ‘I’m worried my characters will sound the same’. Relax ! Most plays have a dominant register : everyone on stage is using the same language. If each character has a clear and contrasting intention then each will ‘sound’ different.

That’s something I’ve said every single time I’ve tried to write a play (or anything really). Ravenhill has the advice I wish someone had told me long ago.

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Ravenhill has started 2022 by sharing tips for note givers on Twitter, which I’m finding equally insightful. So if you’ve found anything he’s shared useful, I’d suggest giving him a follow.