Tag Archives: character

Finish everything you begin….

There is always something deeply humbling about finishing the first draft…

It doesn’t matter how many plays I have written, the process never becomes hackneyed, or familiar, or any easier.

Some years ago I wrote a letter to myself which I kept on my desktop titled


It was a reminder of certain phases I invariably seem to go through: the deliciousness of research, the battle to withdraw from this glorious process and actually get down to some work. Then there are the moments of brainlessness and cotton wool mind, when any sense of character, or context, or storyline, or purpose is terrifyingly absent, when I think finally I have been found out as the talentless floozy I fear lurks in the darkest corners of my being. This is the hateful period of doubt, when the heart bangs against the ribs and I regret taking the commission and agreeing to the deadline and whose stupid idea was it to follow this line of creativity, anyway?

And then there are the reminders of the utter joy. The sublime moments I have never experienced in any other context in my life, when everything is porous, where my breath and my flesh and the universe and the keyboard and the imagination and the fluency of thought miraculously meld and five hours have passed and I didn’t even notice and I want to spend my entire life in this kinked position hooked over a book or a laptop and to hell with food and water and fresh air and sunlight and standing up and goodness, what’s this? Other human beings in the house?!

Writing consumes me and sustains me in a way no other activity ever has. This obsession, this practice, has longevity. It has been my familiar through the vast majority of my life – even before I knew the alphabet when I scrawled over my elder brother’s schoolbook and claimed I was writing a story.

And no matter how long I do it, no matter what small success or satisfaction or failure I may have, it never ceases to surprise me, to remain in parts unknowable, for I find each new project brings unique challenges and processes which differ from what I have done, before. And so I am constantly learning, and developing, and honing skills and never resting on laurels or replicating whatever I have done, before.

So it is deeply humbling to finally stagger through to the end of a first draft, as I did with ‘Woman of Flowers’ for Forest Forge theatre company last night. No matter how strong my sense of trajectory and story may be, I never fully know where I am going and where I have been until I complete this first draft.

Finishing work is essential. I make it the golden rule when teaching or mentoring any writer, and the lynchpin of my own work. Completing the draft, following that throughline (which doesn’t have to be linear or chronological), wrestling with the unities, filling in the holes and stapling it all together into some kind of coherent logic is where we really learn as writers and makers. We can all write brilliant fragments. We all have brief moments when an image or allusion seems perfect and captures exactly a thought. The major learning and honing of skills comes with putting that final full stop on a full draft after nursemaiding and bullying and coaxing and bewailing – after fretfully, anxiously, triumphantly harnessing our skills and applying them to our imagination.

Printing ‘End of first draft’ at the bottom of the page (as I did last night) doesn’t mean to say our work is done – far from it – writing is all about rewriting. Completing a first draft may throw up more problems to be solved than seems fair or possible. There will be further crises and conundrums and bewailing and killing of darlings, and the final draft may differ as much from the first as a butterfly does a chrysalis. Or it may be a very close likeness, indeed. That is the joy and the discovery – how this toddling creation will turn out in its fluid, solid maturity.

And this joy and challenge lies ahead for me. But for one day at least, I shall savour the relish of putting down that final full stop, and breathe deeply and with pleasure on a difficult journey completed.

How to write the ‘right’ ending, part two: consequential action.

I don’t like endings which are too tidy and ‘pat’. I distrust them. I feel like I’ve been processed – part of a well-oiled machine which has passed me along its predictable, dependable conveyer belt, depositing me unscathed, unchallenged and unsurprised at the end. I feel like the magical mystery tour I signed up to gave me an advance road map, with the route yellow highlighted in. I feel I have been part of a pedestrian equation, where A+B=AB.

It’s essential that there is structure and form to our writing (even – or especially – when the work is ‘experimental’), but here is a line between the well structured and the disappointingly predictable ‘I could see that coming for miles.’

But I’m not a fan of unpredictable, ‘magical’ endings either, where elements not previously existing in the world of the play fly in,  and ‘explain’ or solve everything. It doesn’t have to be as blatant as the god from the machine, deus ex machina. Think the chance meeting and deep conversation with the stranger with the meaningful past/anecdote to tell/piece of ancient wisdom to pass on which has surprising resonance with the protagonist’s dilemma and precipitates a sudden understanding and even swifter conclusion…  Or the surprise lottery win, the unexpected behest, the sudden death or illness, or the offer of a new job/house/country/lover/gender/whatever, which draws everything together in a premature ending leaving the viewer blinking and feeling cheated as the houselights come up.

The kind of endings I like are the ones where we are kept guessing until the last moment and then go ‘yes, of course it would end like that.’ We know that Hamlet will end up on a pyre of bodies, as when we think about it, this is the only possible ending, given his actions and interactions throughout the play. In this kind of writing, character equals plot, and plot equals character. They are indivisible, and there is logic – cause and effect: an action is made which brings a response, retaliation, or reward – consequential action – but not the simple binary of A + B of above, but a logarithm, a complex equation which, in both literary and mathematical senses of the word, is ‘beautiful’.

I’ve always believed that nothing should be extraneous in a play (or a story, or a novel, or a screenplay, or any kind of art or craft). Everything needs to earn its right to be there, and it all should contribute in some way to the ending. I can’t bear loose threads, or the sections included merely as a brain rest, so we can look at the attractive people, or hear a nice song, or be ‘entertained’ by something before returning to the true meat of the evening.

Of course some performances are not presenting a main or single narrative – there may not be a plot. Rather, they can be a montage working towards an overall effect at the close of the piece, rather than the resolution of a conflict, or a quest, or a psychological or emotional journey. Then I feel the power of the ending is cumulative, relying on everything that came before.

I love work which is up-close and personal, so involving and intricate it is as though I’m scrutinising individual stitches and threads, and it is only when it is drawing to a close, or complete, I can step back and see the tapestry, the full woven landscape whose minutiae I know and have followed.

That kind of experience brings great satisfaction and, for me, the most powerful ending, for everything has been created and spun out of what existed at the beginning: a fully realised world, a cast of well-developed characters whose actions and reactions create the stuff of the plot, a narrative full of twists and turns, which is unpredictable, but logical.

copyright Kaite O’Reilly 25 August 2012.