I do this at the first class of every year. It’s a good ice-breaker in itself, and leads to homework which is then the first writing read in class.
I cut up lots of strips of paper – and label three boxes CHARACTERS, LOCATIONS, CONVERSATIONS.
I then dump 200 strips of paper on the table and tell my (10) class members to write an invented character on each strip and put it in the CHARACTER box while saying it out loud.
Characters are briefly named rather than described at length – e.g. lovestruck teenager, seasick pirate, the last woman in the world . . .
When 200 characters have been invented, declaimed aloud and stowed in their box, I dump another 100 strips on the table and we set about inventing locations in the same way – heaven, a treehouse, a sleazy bar . . .
When that’s done, it’s on to ‘things a conversation could be about’. These might be subjects like ‘the existence of God’ or ‘the price of fish’, or could be snippets of lines such as ‘Why don’t you love me?’ or ‘That’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen’ (though that last one probably wouldn’t fit on a strip).
Once that’s done, I give the contents of each box a stir, then each writer has to pick (without looking) two characters out of the CHARACTER box, a location from the LOCATION box and a conversation topic out of the CONVERSATION box.
They read out what they’ve got – e.g. a lovestruck teenager and the last woman in the world in a treehouse talking about that’s the stupidest haircut I’ve ever seen.
Homework is then to write that scene as a script – could be film or theatre – of about three minutes’ duration (no longer) and bring copies for everyone to the next week’s class.
The following week we read them out loud in class.
It’s a good way to start that process because it’s an arbitrary (and kind of silly) exercise, rather than a piece of writing dear to the writer’s heart. Very often the inventiveness of how the writer tackles their task is truly admirable – and sometimes writers have gone on to develop their short homework script into something ‘real’.
Extract from The Exercise Book from VUP.
Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be at the next Writers on Mondays with the Masters scriptwriting students at Circa Theatre, September 24th 12.15pm, introducing the latest crop of emerging talent. Full WOM programme details here.
Writers in my MA Scriptwriting class quickly find out they have to come up with a lot of ideas very quickly – sometimes on the spot. And not little ideas – big ideas that could make a feature film or full-length play. My hope is to make them aware (if they’re not already) that they are swimming in an ocean of potential stories – they don’t need to clutch at the first straw that comes floating past, rather they can endlessly make up ideas, audition them, make them compete against each other. It should always be a question of why this idea instead of all the others, what’s the imperative to write this one now?
Earlier this year, when sending the writers off to think up yet more ideas I took pity on them somewhat and produced the following cheat sheet they could use if they felt they were running dry. It’s a series of Google (or search engine of your choice) search terms – pairs of words. A lot of the pairs have got some kind of inbuilt tension, a friction between them, from which drama is likely to spring. The idea is that the real-life stories the search terms reel in from the net provide inspiration for fiction.
This is me trying to be modern – usually I just send idea-challenged writers back to the newspaper, that old-school and reliable compendium of human drama in all its forms.
To throw some arbitrariness into the mix – and prevent uncomfortable racking of uninspired brain – feel free to plug any of the two-word search terms below into Google and follow the results till you feel the tickling of a new idea …
Take what grabs you from the net stories these terms link to, and make your own story for a 30 minute theatre piece.
Search on …
Ken Duncum is The Michael Hirschfeld Director of Scriptwriting at the IIML. Ken will be at the next Writers on Mondays with David O’Donnell at Circa. It’s said that, all going well, the playwright/director relationship can be ‘better than a marriage’. Ken and David will talk about who does what and who did what in their world premiere production of West End Girls (running at Circa, 4 Aug-1 Sept). Where – if anywhere – are the creative divisions between writing a play and directing it? Are they two different things – or different phases of the same thing?