It’s been said you can’t learn through osmosis, but I disagree.
To be clear, I’m not talking about college students napping with textbooks on their chests or listening to lectures while they sleep before “the big test,” hoping to absorb some knowledge. I don’t actually think you can learn by sleeping with a book on your chest. BUT I do think what you read (while awake) can subconsciously influence your writing.
That being said, if you want to be a better writer read the work of “the greats.”
By no means am I saying, “I’m great,” but I can tell reading plays by Anton Chekov, Henrik Ibsen, Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, and others have influenced me. For instance, I love how Chekov takes boring everyday situations with people sitting around talking and makes them interesting. Granted, he is from the era of people going to “listen” to three hour long plays instead of “watch” modern visually grand plays or musicals, but he infuses characters with such emotion that you’re auditorily sucked into the play, and it doesn’t matter how much the characters move (or don’t move). After considering how much I like Chekov’s plays, I realized I wrote a play where the characters mostly sit on a park bench and talk about life. Coincidence? I don’t think so—I think it was influence.
Reading “the greats” helped me realize what I like (and don’t like) as a writer.
I realized I appreciate plays that primarily focus on the text—much like classic plays of bygone eras. Playwrights like Williams or Shakespeare are heralded as poets, whose text is just as important as the action that takes place within the piece. Also, the plays are written in such a way that an actor can’t help but fashion the characters as the author intended because of the precision of the text. (Sure each actor brings their own “special spin” to the character, but those unique traits don’t change the core of the character.) That is something I want to strive for in my pieces—all of the text has meaning and it gives the audience and actor a clear picture of who the characters are supposed to be and what they are supposed to feel. In my opinion, text should be just as important to the writer as the story’s action.
A person can also learn from reading plays they don’t like or from writers that aren’t so “great.”
I found that emotionally driven plays with deep characters, who have some type of transformation or arc, are way more entertaining to me than plays lacking those elements. Hate is a strong word, so I adamantly dislike any type of “tropey” or stereotypical characters. If you have a play with a “peppy, popular female cheerleader” and you want me to read it, you better have a really compelling reason for her existing as trope in your story—but that’s just my opinion. After reading plays with flat or one-dimensional characters, I recognized complicated, realistic, and unique characters are important to me as a writer (and actress).
So, here are some steps to move from subconsciously to consciously learning from what you read:
- Think! Read classic plays and consciously think about what makes them “great.” Is it their structure? Is it the way their plot twists? Is it the emotion they’re able convey through simple words? Is it the subtext that lies between the lines?
- Be a “mean” critic. Think about what’s not so great in the pieces. Are you lost due to the lack of stage directions? Do you dislike how the writer abruptly ends scenes? Is the humor off? Do the characters seem to lack a clear backstory?
- Learn about structure. I know this is horrifically boring, but it will help! There’s a reason why some stories are better than others and a lot of it has to do with structure. I recently listened to an awesome podcast by Andrew Black on Play Submissions Helper’s website. It was super helpful and I’m now reading a book about structure he suggested! (FYI, I am not sponsored, this is just a personal suggestion.)
- Pay attention to voice. What makes the author unique? It’s how they tell the story! The basic structure rarely changes, but the social context, perspective, and voice do. Figure out what kind of voices you like or dislike. In doing so, you might find your own voice!
When you’re conscious about your choices, you can control them.
I wrote my first play without doing any plotting. The characters started talking in my head and I just wrote it down. Later, this would prove messy because I needed to infuse structure. Had I put a structure in place from the beginning, it would have saved me time, drafts, and possibly could have made my story more interesting. I subconsciously knew what I liked and what influenced me, but I didn’t have the conscious structure to bring it all together. (Thus, why structure is sooooo important.) I was letting the story lead me, not me leading the story.
Long story short, read critically.
Like the title of this post, you are what you read. Why not be thoughtful about your choices? That’s part of the reason why I’m going to share “Michelle’s Bookshelf,” a series of blogs where I share what I’m currently reading, whether plays or books. The blogs will be a way I can document what I’ve read and share recommendations. Now, stop reading this post and start reading a play!