How to Read a Play Like a Novel Writing Manual ‹ Literary Hub
Several years ago, I met a neighbor, a fiction writer and essayist, in a café, where he was reading Harold Pinter The goods lift. “I like to read plays before writing fiction because they remind me how to start writing,” he said.
At the time I didn’t understand what he meant, I thought the prose I wrote and the plays I wrote were diametrically opposed. I teach undergraduate playwriting and often tell my students that a play has more in common with a song or a poem than it does with a novel. In playwriting groups, it’s often a veiled insult to be told your plays are “romantic” – that’s when you know your play is crushed and not theatrical. I always thought that if I wanted to write a novel – which I did – I had to push back what I knew about playwriting: apart from the fact that both were made up of words, both forms were better distant and at worst incompatible.
In March 2020, when I had a big theatrical project postponed indefinitely, I started working on the novel that would become my first. Right from the start, I could tell there was something different about my writing, something that excited me – there was an energy, a voice. Once the first chapter was done, I knew I could continue. And as I continued to write Vladimir, the story of an English teacher’s captivation with a younger colleague, I realized that I was drawing directly from what I knew about playwriting. Here are three things I considered:
Change: I heard this second-hand from someone who worked with playwright Christopher Durang: he was giving them notes and apparently saying something like, “Listen, if your play takes off in New York, it should land in Los Angeles. Or at least Milwaukee. But not in New York.
With novels, you don’t have to think in scenes, but it certainly helps.
It reminded me of my children. Ever since they were babies, my two children have loved any activity that allows them to permanently change the state of an object. Rip, rip, cut, bake – there’s something inherently satisfying about changing the material world.
In playwriting, you can’t include a scene in which nothing changes or changes, because that would seem (to you and the audience) completely pointless. And because theater is essentially constructed from scenes, there is an intrinsic imperative for movement – something happens, then something else happens because of it, then something else happens because of it. cause of thisand in each case we see the state of the world or of history being continually reshaped.
Likewise, in a novel, I try to ask myself: how does each moment indelibly adjust the world of the book? With novels, you don’t have to think in scenes, but it certainly helps. Every scene in Pride and Prejudice introduces a new complication to the Bennet family. And that doesn’t just have to happen with the plot. This sense of progression, or change, can be achieved through an accumulation of knowledge or an aggregation of language – like the way each line in David Markson Vanishing Point builds on the last line, creating, word for word, a more complex and immutable whole.
When writing vladimir I was always aware that something in the world had to be different at the end of each chapter, something new and irrevocable, whether it was an adjustment in the world around the narrator, something something she did or something she achieved – so when we entered the next chapter, we started on changed ground.
Tempo: We know that rhythm is essential in writing; as Virginia Woolf said, “Style is a very simple matter, everything is rhythm.” The rhythm of the word is often what makes a play charming, tragic, beautiful. I’ve never read a strong piece that doesn’t have a strong musical sense in the dialogue.
However, because the pieces are enduring, there are two ways the rhythm should work: both moment-to-moment and in the overall experience. A play typically needs to run at least 75 minutes through the audience seated in their seats, so it needs both an established sense of tempo and changes to that tempo, much like you might have in a musical composition.
A great recent example of this is found in Sarah DeLappe Wolves, a play about female high school football players. For most of the play, the scenes are overlapping, funny, jerky – meant to be played quickly, like an allegro movement of a symphony. After a tragic event, however, the penultimate scene is a lengthy legato monologue by a character we’ve never met before. As spectators, the change in tempo affects our bodies as well as our minds.
Attention to tempo also animates the fiction. Joyce demonstrates this in Portrait of an artist as a young man with the sermon of this famous priest. The book shifts gears drastically and we’re trapped listening to the entire fire-and-brimstone address, written in such a way as to feel, rather than simply understand, the imprint it leaves on Stephen Dedalus.
In books like The ArgonautsMaggie Nelson luxuriously explains scholarly anecdotes, then strings them together with short, often personal sentences, so that one feels the spirit’s desire to explain, then the brutal force of emotion that sweeps away intellectualization.
I always think not just about the character’s voice, but who the character might speak to.
A while ago in vladimir in which the narrator offers the main character a detailed and favorable response to his book. For a deliberately tense novel, his reflection stops the story for a moment, and I had considered abbreviating his speech, summarizing it from a distance. Then I realized that we needed squirm a bit – we needed the space to inhabit the scene and its delivery of these overly flattering and rather pretentious thoughts to this man. It’s a way she knows how to seduce (or thinks she seduces), and we have to put up with it, embarrassed and exhilarated, in real time.
Public: A critical factor in writing a theatrical monologue for a character is to think about who exactly the character is talking to. Is he a priest? Or a judge? Their best friend or their worst enemy? Their lover or their mother?
This choice will affect how the character chooses their words, what they admit and what they leave out – and keeping that audience clear in their minds will focus the work.
I find that I also apply this lens when reading fiction. I always think not just about the character’s voice, but who the character might speak to. Some fiction writers choose to be explicit about the listener; Rachel Cusk, in The second place, writes the entire book as a letter to a person named Jeffers. (You can tell the narrator wants to charm Jeffers and present herself thoughtfully and eruditely.) Kazuo Ishiguro, in Leftovers of the day, its narrator carefully and judiciously tells his story with only the slightest hint of truth, as if he doesn’t trust his audience. And it doesn’t just have to exist in first-person fiction. Denis Johnson, in many of his short stories, tells the tale as if he were a talkative, 3-drink stranger sitting next to you on a bar stool.
While writing, I thought of vladimir like a very long monologue – and I imagined the narrator sitting with a friend who is her best possible audience, someone she likes to shock, surprise, make laugh, confide in. A friend she knows how to entertain. Someone she never talks to. Someone she feels comfortable revealing herself to but also someone she wants to impress. There may be glasses of wine in hand, leftover food left on the table, dishes piled up and ignored until morning after the story has been told.
Vladimir: a novel by Julia May Jonas is available through Avid Reader Press.