How to Write a Play

Disclosure: I’m no expert. I’ve never written a play. But, boy, have I just analysed the ass out of one.

This analysis covers the 1954 play by Reginald Rose, Twelve Angry Men.

The story is about a jury who are deliberating over the case of a young black man charged with the murder of his father. The verdict must be unanimous – and it almost is at the start of the play: eleven to one vote guilty. But that single dissenting voice gradually uncovers flaws in the prosecution evidence and, in turn, each of the other jurors overcomes their own prejudices to return a unanimous vote of “not guilty”.

Observations on How to Write a Play

Having just spent about ten hours typing out this play, I feel I’m qualified to make a few observations about the way Reginald has written Twelve Angry Men – and how this might offer pointers to other would-be playwrights.

Keep the action focussed

There is only one (and a half) locations in the play: the jury-room and the wash-room just off to the side. This keeps the action very tight and focussed. It makes the play claustrophobic, an atmosphere that is accentuated by the humidity of the weather – broken by a thunderstorm.

Define the characters

Twelve Angry Men has quite a lot of characters for a play, really: twelve jurors, a guard and a judge. There’s not much Reginald could have done about that: a jury has twelve people. But he does two things to deal with this potentially difficult large cast:

  1. He doesn’t add any extraneous characters. The guard is largely silent (39 words), simply providing the jurors with props. The judge is a voice off-stage and is used to set the scene at the beginning of the play, saving Reginald the trouble of a lot of clunky exposition.
  2. He divides the jurors into “primary“, “secondary” and “tertiary” characters. Four of the jurors take up 61% of the words in the play. The next four take up 25%. The final four jurors have just 13% of the words of the play. Just for a bit of crazy fun – here’s a chart showing the speech patterns of the twelve jurors, as the play progresses. Click on the picture to see a full-size version.

Keep the tension high

Reginald does this superbly by having the jurors take regular votes. At the beginning only one man votes “not guilty” – this is the single vote that sets the play off. There are five general votes in total, spaced throughout the play, and the audience is on tenterhooks every time, as the votes are called out.

You can see exactly how Reginald has paced the play by looking at the way the jurors voted in my little list below. “Vote” means there was a general ballot of some sort, where every juror voted. “Change to” means that only one or more of the jurors announced their change, without calling a general vote.

  • Page 06: Vote 11-1 (“Guilty” – “Not Guilty”)
  • Page 18: Vote 10-2
  • Page 24: Change to 9-3
  • Page 26: Vote 8-4
  • Page 31: Interval
  • Page 33: Vote 6-6
  • Page 41: Change to 5-7
  • Page 42: Vote 3-9
  • Page 45: Change to 4-8
  • Page 47: Change to 1-11
  • Page 49: Change to 0-12

Note here that, although the interval comes over halfway through the play – 63% of the way through, to be precise – at that point, the vote is 8-4 in favour of finding the young man guilty. The scene that the interval curtain falls on is a turning point, highly dramatic. Immediately after the interval, the vote swings to 6-6 – even stevens.

Note also that Reginald adds a little twist towards the end, making one of the jurors change their mind from “not guilty” to “guilty”. At this point, the audience might fear there is the chance of a hung jury.

I hope you’ve learnt something interesting from this. I might do it again.

Anatomy of a Novel: The Quiet American by Graham Greene

Graham Greene is one of my favourite novelists. His talent is in his concision. He is able to say in 200 pages what it would take many other writers 400. The Quiet American manages to be a thriller, a detective story, a romance and a historical fiction in just 167 pages, about 60,000 words.

How does he do it? I decided to find out.

For those of you who haven’t read The Quiet American, I’d seriously recommend doing so immediately. But the gist of the story is this:

Setting

Vietnam in the 1950s, during the French war.

Main Characters
  • The viewpoint character is Thomas Fowler, a cynical British journalist who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for some time.
  • Alden Pyle, the quiet American of the title, has been murdered.
  • Vigot, a French detective, is trying to find out who did it. He suspects that Fowler may know something about the murder, but Fowler denies everything.
Plot

Fowler and Pyle have been competing over the last few months for the affections of a Vietnamese girl, Phuong, Fowler’s lover of two years.

Fowler is unable to offer Phuong anything concrete: he is already married and his wife refuses him a divorce.

Pyle, on the other hand, is young and has good prospects. In the course of his courtship of Phuong, Pyle saves Fowler’s life.

But when bombs start going off in Saigon, Fowler discovers that Pyle has something to do with it. He tells a communist contact that Pyle has “got to be stopped”. Pyle is murdered.

Phuong returns to Fowler, whose wife has now granted him a divorce. Vigot can’t prove a thing.

Scene Structure and Pacing

I divided the book up into its parts, then into its chapters, then into its sections within those chapters, then down into its scenes within those sections in order to build up an anatomy of the novel.

The Quiet American is split into four parts. The first two parts take up two-thirds of the novel.

  • Part 1: 55.5 pages in 5 chapters and 16 scenes. 1300 words per scene.
  • Part 2: 64 pages in 3 chapters and 14 scenes. 1700 words per scene.
  • Part 3: 26.5 pages in 2 chapters and 9 scenes. 1100 words per scene.
  • Part 4: 21 pages in 3 chapters and 7 scenes. 1100 words per scene.

Already we can see that, as the novel progresses, the pacing of the scenes increases.

After the climactic scene in Part 2, in which Pyle saves Fowler’s life, there are no more sections longer than 8.5 pages. In Parts 3 and 4, the longest section is just 6 pages. You can see this clearly in the graph below (click on it for a bigger size):

The Quiet American: chapter section length in pages.

Flashbacks and Narration

One of the fascinating aspects of the novel is Greene’s use of narration and flashback. The novel is mostly told in flashback, with Fowler recounting the events leading up to Pyle’s death.

In fact, there are only 8 scenes in the whole novel which are told in the present (17%). The rest is flashback (83%). The whole of the longest part of the book (Part 2) is told in flashback. This is the most dramatic part of the book.

And yet it is the present narration that adds the suspense to the book: did Fowler have a hand in Pyle’s death? Will Vigot find out? Why did Fowler do it?

The fact that Greene is able to keep these questions in the reader’s mind without detracting from the sense of immediacy during the flashbacks shows great skill.

The placing of these scenes may give us a clue.

  • 5 of the first 6 scenes take place in the present. In these, Greene establishes Pyle’s death, the relationship between Fowler and Phuong and the investigation into Pyle’s murder by the French detective Vigot.
  • Then there are 24 consecutive flashback scenes, taking us through the rest of Part 1 and the whole of Part 2.
  • There is not another “present” scene until scene 30 of 46, at the very beginning of Part 3 (1 out of 9 scenes in that part).
  • Finally, the first and last scenes of Part 4 are also present (2 out of 7 scenes in that part).

In this way, Greene is able to give the story a good push at the beginning and then only has to give us a little nudge in the middle, to remind us of the ongoing investigation, before wrapping things up at the end.

Getting Closer

To look more closely at the section structure, word counts, present narration and flashbacks and for a brief synopsis of each section, see the image below (click on it for a larger size – and no apologies for the crazy colours!):

The Quiet American: detailed analysis.

Through close examination of the way that great novelists have solved the problems of plot and narration, we can improve our own writing and understand how great novels work. I hope this article helps you as much as it has me!

The Ministry of Stories

Dave Eggers and 826 Valencia

In 2002, Dave Eggers (the writer) set up a pirate supply store. And that’s why, on Monday, I spent an evening writing a story about a fish called Bob, who was distressed by the colour of his tail.

826 Valencia was Eggers’ stab at creating a literacy program for kids. As you can imagine, from the mind of the man who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, this was never going to be a normal after-school homework club.

The idea (once you’ve got past the pirate supply store frontage) is that kids come to 826 for story-writing workshops, mentoring, cartooning, ‘zine creation, homeworking, poeming – anything really. And the idea has been wildly successful. As a result, six other chapters opened up in the States. But, now, most excitingly, London has its very own: The Ministry of Stories.

The Ministry of Stories

As soon as I heard about it, I cancelled any plans I had for emigrating to the US to join Dave, and instead I emailed the Chief Minister at The Ministry of Stories. To my delight, he invited me for a training session, which is where I found myself on Monday night, pretending to be an eight year-old, writing a story about Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail.

My kind of (volunteer) job!

The Ministry of Stories was set up in November 2010. They take about three field-trips a week from local (and not so local) schools and also have two one-to-one mentoring sessions a week to help young writers (8-18) work on their stories.

Plus you can buy the finest human snot at the monster supply store, while you’re there.

Minister in Training

So, hot-tail, hip-top excited, along I went, down Hoxton way, to meet Ben and Anne, two of the Chief Minister’s aides, for an evening’s hard training.

To start off, we pretended to be eight year-olds and wrote a story together.

  • First we made a list of things that go into a story. Things like villains and danger and feelings, but also words and punctuation. 
  • Then we had to decide who we wanted our main character to be. We shouted a few things and then had an anonymous (and blind) vote. By democratic decision, it would be Bob the fish with the blue stripe on his tail
  • Then we did the same thing for a second character: Archimedes, Bob’s hairdresser
  • Then we chose Bob’s dream in the same way: to wear jumpers; and Bob’s greatest fear: that he would turn completely blue
  • Finally, we chose a location for the story: a pub.

Then, together, we wrote the first page and a bit, trying to build up to a cliff-hanger. The gist of the story was that Bob really wanted a jumper to cover up his embarrassing blue tail. Archimedes offered to make him one (out of Bob’s hair) – but it would cost him. The problem was that Bob didn’t have any money. So Archimedes suggested that Bob go and ask the elephant in the room for a job. And that’s where we had our cliff-hanger: “But isn’t he…?”

At this point we all split up into mentors and writers and we finished the story on our own, with the help of the mentors. Frighteningly good fun.

The Fish’s Arms

Here, for your edification, is my (unedited) story. See if you can spot the logical inconsistencies; editing is a wonderful thing…

“But isn’t he…?”
Archimedes stopped cutting Bob’s hair and touched him on the shoulder. “Listen. Finish your pint and just go over to him. I’m sure he’s not as mean as the stories say.”

Bob gulped and looked over at the elephant from the corner of his goggles. The stories were horrible.

Archimedes reached over and took the pint from Bob’s fin. “Go on.”

Bob vomited a little bit in his mouth. “But they say his trunk can strangle a shark!” Bob said in a small voice.

“That’s true,” Archimedes said. “I’ve seen him do it.”
Then he saw Bob retch again. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.”

Bob shivered and watched the muscles in the elephant’s back as he sucked up an entire gallon of brine. “I can’t do it!”

Archimedes shook his head at his old friend, picked up his scissors and said, nonchalantly, “Your tail’s looking very blue today…”

Suddenly, Bob shot out of his chair, spilling the rest of his whelk juice all over the elephant’s foot.

There was a rumble and the whole pub started to shake. Bob quivered and whimpered as the big fat elephant turned slowly around and bellowed in Bob’s face. “You! Blue-buttocks! Are you looking for a snorting?”

Bob could hardly move for his quivering and shook his head scarcely. There was a tinkle as the scissors fell from Archimedes’ hand and Bob felt his friend creep away…

Chapter Two to follow!

(Perhaps.)

The Contract

And so I signed the Ministry contract:

YOUR RESPECT
YOUR COURAGE
YOUR IMAGINATION
WILL BRING YOU VICTORY

Huzzah! Can’t wait to get my first ministry appointment.


You can watch Dave talk about 826 Valencia – and the network of similar ventures it has spawned – here:

Good ideas without action are just bad excuses

‘Good ideas without action are just bad excuses.’

I’m not sure if this saying from 2009 needs to be explained, but I will anyway, with an example.

A lot of people say:

‘I’m gonna write a novel!’

but then don’t start writing, they don’t act on their words. So it turns into:

‘I’m gonnna write a novel – when I’ve got a bit more time, after the kids have moved out, after I’ve bought a new computer, after I’ve finished painting the Sistine chapel…’ 

etc., etc., etc..

Hence: good ideas without action are just bad excuses.

Touring with Dinosaurs

This is a list of the top grossing worldwide ‘tours’ of 2010, according to Pollstar.

1. Bon Jovi

  • Gross Takings: $201.1m (£130.7m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $105.35
  • Number of Shows: 80
  • Gross Takings per Show: $2.5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 48

2. AC/DC

  • Gross Takings: $177m (£115m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $97.21
  • Number of Shows: 40
  • Gross Takings per Show: $4.4m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 57

3. U2

  • Gross Takings: $160.9m (£104.6m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $100.17
  • Number of Shows: 32
  • Gross Takings per Show: $5m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 50

4. Lady Gaga

  • Gross Takings: $133.6m (£86.8m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $88.22
  • Number of Shows: 138
  • Gross Takings per Show: 0.97m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 24

5. Metallica

  • Gross Takings: $110.1m (£71.5m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $98.72
  • Number of Shows: 60
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.8m
  • Got Famous: 1980s
  • Age Now: 47

6. Michael Buble

  • Gross Takings: $104.2m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $83.81
  • Number of Shows: 111
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.94m
  • Got Famous: 2000s
  • Age Now: 35

7. Walking with Dinosaurs

  • Gross Takings: $104.1m (£67.7m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $50.56
  • Number of Shows: 485
  • Gross Takings per Show: $0.21m
  • Got Famous: Late Triassic Period
  • Age Now: 230m years

8. Paul McCartney

  • Gross Takings: $93m (£60m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $138.35
  • Number of Shows: 31
  • Gross Takings per Show: $3m
  • Got Famous: 1960s
  • Age Now: 68

9. Eagles

  • Gross Takings: $92.3m (£59.9m)
  • Average Ticket Price: $121.85
  • Number of Shows: 54
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.7m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 62

10. Roger Waters (ex-Pink Floyd)

  • Gross Takings: $89.5m (£58.1m) 
  • Average Ticket Price: $126.14
  • Number of Shows: 56
  • Gross Takings per Show: $1.6m
  • Got Famous: 1970s
  • Age Now: 67

Dinosaurs

With the exception of Lady Gaga and Michael Bublé, I would contend that none of the things touring actually exist any more. Or shouldn’t.

It is highly appropriate that the show ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ is at number 7. Arguably Dinosaurs fill most of the other spots as well.

Bands that were big in the 60s, 70s and 80s should not still be massive today. It goes against all the impulses of Rock – and against the very definition of Pop.

The old Rock ‘n’ Roll attitude of ‘live fast, die young’ has been forgotten (or at least part of it) – and from the looks of those box office takings it seems these guys (note: all men) prefer filling their pensionable pockets to dying.

Fair enough – I suppose it’s not their fault that healthcare has advanced to the point where even rockers living fast can still survive to a ripe old age.

And I suppose it’s not their fault that they are top of these charts: it’s just that their fans are the ones with the money, baby-boomers all grown up, cashing in their own pensions.

And why not?

Well you’ve got to ask why the money in music is still with acts that hit the big time thirty years ago? What does that mean for the industry? What does that mean for innovation and new music? Do we really have to wait until we’re retired before we can afford to go and see top-line shows? What price nostalgia?

I guess you can make a parallel with books. On the Road by Jack Kerouac is still wildly popular with young kids looking for their first taste of freedom, just as it was in the 1950s and 1960s. It’s our job, writing today, to be better than that.

Otherwise, why bother at all?