How to be a better writer through playwrighting

by:  Carolyn MacLeod at 05/01/2017

Have you ever played that game - who would play you in the story of your life? But who would write the movie/play of your life? That would be you, of course. Do you think you would be up for that challenge?

At the Huntington, we are lucky to know someone who's done both - written and starred in the play of her life. Mala is Melinda Lopez's one-woman show about her relationship with her aging parents (coming to the Huntington January 8 - 28, 2018). In addition to being a well-respected playwright (see that time Obama quoted her in one of his speeches), Melinda is the Huntington's playwright-in-residence, making her an invaluable resource for the company and community at large.

Melinda recently lead a workshop at the Huntington for aspiring writers. If you were unable to attend, don't worry - you can follow her exercise prompts in the comfort of your own home!

You'll need a timer, a piece of paper, some index cards, and a pen.

Warm-up your creative muscles:

We start with some simple lists to get your mind moving creatively. The goal here is simply to write continuously. 

Set a timer for one minute.

Write down as many things as you can think of on the following topic:

Things you do every day

When the timer goes off, set a new timer for another minute and move on to the next topic in the list below. Repeat.

Things that are sticky
Things that are scary
Things that smell good

Take a break. Go through your lists and pick one or two things from each category that surprise, delight, or interest you. Write those favorites on individual index cards and set them aside.

Repeat the process above with the following topics:

7 mysterious things
7 kinds of hunger
7 kinds of trouble
7 lies you've told
7 lies you've heard
7 different kinds of love

You now have the beginning pieces of a play. Plays usually contain trouble and love (often at the same time); they contain lies and liars and could be lies in and of themselves.


Practice writing with personality:

Set a timer for 3 minutes.

Write down, in order, everyone you've ever met in your life. From your mother to that grocery store employee. Who can you recall?

When the timer goes off, look at your list. Whom do you find most interesting in that list right now? Whom would you like to spend more time thinking about?

Set a timer for 3 minutes.

Describe the person you selected. What are they wearing? What do they smell like? Who are they?

When the timer goes off, reset it for 5 minutes. Next, create a dialogue for your person to participate in. You can introduce new characters. The dialogue begins, "I've always wanted to tell you..."


Building blocks:

To tie in with the Huntington's production of The Who & the What, Melinda pointed out that plays are really a matter of the Who, the Where, and the When. Take 2 minutes for each category and write down as many as you can of the following:

Who - describe defining qualities of a person or character (i.e. Afzal from The Who & the What is a Pakistani American father of two girls. He is stubborn and loves his daughters above all else.)
Where - name places that interesting things happen (i.e. a coffee shop, a Tex-Mex restaurant, a kitchen)
When - why is today different than other days? This is the day that everything changes - what kid of day is that? (i.e. a blind date, the day she finishes the book)

Look through your lists. What do you find particularly interesting? Write them down on index cards.


Put it together and play:

Take out all of your index cards from the previous exercises. Shuffle them up. You may want to scatter them over the floor for a new perspective. Amid the cards you have many pieces to start writing - locations, characters, trouble, love, lies, and objects. Pick a few that speak to you and begin writing a scene. No need for a timer here - explore to your hearts desire. 

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