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What came first: the World, the Character, or the Story?

June 27, 2011

Alright, I’m not all Stage Manager, I’m a playwright at heart and want to discuss some technique with you.

I’m currently working on 2 separate collaborations of new pieces with different artists.  For one, I am mostly helping with Story Development and Artistic Direction while my colleague is the Playwright.  For the other, it is completely opposite.  I love to throw myself into what I like to call, pardon my crudeness, “Creative Orgies.” An “orgy”  is defined as “uncontrolled indulgence in an activity” [source]; in this case the “activity” in using your imagination and creating something.  A Creative Orgy could be as simple as bouncing ideas off of one another in a coffee shop or as complex as taking a pre-planned retreat with an artist[s] and the nature of the trip is solely to create something, either independently or together.  Occasionally, Creative Orgies turn into professional Collaboration.

Collaborations are a different beast all on their own, as it takes two (or more) minds and melds them into one work.  You behave differently and the Creative Process can change depending on if you’re working alone or with others.  As a Collaborator, I like to talk in person with my colleague in a calm environment over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee to map out some ideas, then (if I’m the playwright) I’ll work independently on the script or (if I’m the developer) go over details and inconsistencies in the notes and progress of the work.

If I’m “flying solo,” as is more typical, I still put myself in a calming environment, there is usually hot coffee involved, and almost always background music.  I like to keep my skills and techniques fresh and sharp, especially if I have to discipline myself into working productively alone. Two Great books containing Imagination Techniques and Inspiration Stories I always keep handy (yes, they were produced by Disney): The Imagineering Way and The Imagineering Workout. These books were created by going to the Disney Imagineers and saying “give me something about being an Imagineer to put in a book” some typed anecdotes, others drew a sketch, and some scribbled on napkins, and the results were compiled into these books.  Great for curing that Writer’s Block.  They are all about the individuals creative process, why and how they create.

So, that leads me to the question posed.

What came first: the World, the Character, or the Story?

Usually as a Playwright [occasionally as a Developer], I begin with the World.  I personally cannot formulate a Story until I’ve set up the “rules” of the world.  What I mean by the “rules” is not only the setting [location, time period] but defining the Reality of the way the Story is told.  To determine the Reality, I think of possibilities i.e.: will the characters be providing the audience back story information directly via monologues (Three Days of Rain); or will there be little to no set or props in a conceptual setting (Our Town);  or is it a perfectly realistic “Slice of Life” for very real characters in everyday situations (Months on End), or life-changing Realism (A Doll’s House); etc.  Once I’ve established all the components of the World, I can move on in my Creative Process.

Occasionally as a Playwright [almost never as a Developer], I begin with a clear outline of the Character.  The Character[s] is not simply a name, gender, age, and occupation; but has a personality, desires, hopes, dreams, and their own perspective of Reality.  If I begin with the Character[s], usually the setting falls in place and the Reality of the World is strongly influenced by the Reality of the Character.  Regardless of when in my process the Character is created, he/she/it always starts with a full name.  There is something jarring and intimately personal about someone saying your full name.  Maybe it’s because that’s how we’re scolded as a child and it makes us tense, but either way a concrete name is a strong foundation on which to build a character.

Usually as a Developer [almost never as a Playwright], I begin with the Story.  The Story is more than the plot, it is a formula in which the inciting incident directly affects the rising action, which in turn affects the climax, which determines the falling action and finally: the resolution.  The Story, if an adaptation, is a map of comparisons, similarities, plot & event timelines, and creative liberties intended to make the work stand on its own.  When it comes time in my process to create the Story, I tend to start with the rising action, followed by the climax, which leads me to the inciting incident, then the falling action and the resolution.

So, when writing, what comes first for you in your Creative Process: the World, the Character, or the Story?


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