Tag Archives: script development

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.

Essentials for the character-driven play: Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes

At risk of leaping on the current Bowie bandwagon, the character-driven play is all about ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. For want of a better phrase, ‘the world of the play’ at the end must be considerably different from the beginning – otherwise why should we expect an audience to commit themselves to seeing the experience through? (And we can’t all be like Brecht, deliberately frustrating the audience so they may take action in real life, driven by his characters’ inability to forge change in their lives in his plays…)

We know in the classical Western theatrical tradition we all go on a journey – the characters as well as the audience. This can be literal, but more often it is symbolic or metaphorical. There is an event, a visitor, a letter – something new, a trigger or inciting incidence which knocks the character off her usual routine and into unknown territory. In Shakespeare these are grand, life-endangering quests – a glimpse of the love object resulting in the pursuit of romance amongst warring clans; a walking phantom prompting investigation into a mysterious death and the seeking of revenge, to outline two. Contemporary plays are often smaller in scope and more contained, but the emotional territory is still as large. Something happens – a death, a change in the pecking order at work, a child entering their teens, a diagnosis, an infidelity, a crushing doubt or suspicion, etc. There is a change in our protagonist’s life and she is pushed off onto a journey of discovery.

This journey may be a physical, but usually it is emotional and psychological, rooted still in the familiar physical world. The newness of the situation she finds herself in is important, for this enables the audience to see the character dealing with challenges and obstacles, acquiring new skills. We can observe her trying and failing and potentially succeeding in the new situation, and this makes her a valid protagonist, worthy of our attention.

She is active, taking decisions, and this live decision making, usually under pressure, reveals her character as well as defining the direction the story will take. Her actions dealing with the new situation further the plot and we can see that character is plot. A different protagonist with their individual foibles and weaknesses, strengths and experiences might react differently, and so create a different outcome. This particular character, with all her wants, objectives, tactics and decision-making drives the story. A character without motivation and concrete wants in each moment is inactive and dull. A changing dynamic and a character responding, growing, learning and therefore changing is central to keep the audience engaged and alert and the plot rolling forward. The play is alive and moving and so is the character, even if this movement is internal: changing opinion, politics, allegiance, belief system; falling in or out of love.

The character at the end of the play has changed owing to the experiences she has had, the decisions she has had to make and act on (and making no decision is still a decision, with consequences). The journey she has gone through has changed not just her, but her interactions and relationships, and ultimately had a transformative effect on her world. An audience emerges at the end of this character-driven play satisfied, and perhaps changed too in their thoughts and opinions about subjects central to what they have just seen.

A New Writer Doesn’t Mean A Young Writer….

Octagenarian PLaywrights wanted: Photo from The Independent newspaper

Octagenarian PLaywrights wanted: Photo from The Independent newspaper






I’m grateful to my friend the writer Sandra Bendelow for bringing my attention to this…. The wonderful news that the Royal Court Theatre in London is seeking out ‘bright octogenarian writers.’ For a theatre so often associated with youth (I, amongst many, have benefitted from the development process attached to its well established  young writers programme), this is a major turning point indeed.

“The question was: ‘Why aren’t we giving those people a voice?’ ‘Vicky Featherstone says in an interview with the Independent, the link for which is below. ”What if you want to be a playwright in your 80’s, why can’t you be?”

Frankly, if this is what Vicky Featherstone has in store for the Court under her new directorship, things are looking up indeed…

For years I worked with Jonathan Meth and Sarah Dickenson of (now, sadly defunct) writernet – and we constantly challenged the notion that new = young. Although pretty youthful myself at the time, I was still painfully aware of the disparity in opportunity offered to the beginner performance writer, which revolved around how many years (or, rather how few) any scribbler had been on the planet. It seemed for a while that those who were rich in elastin but poor in life experience had a monopoly on any call for script development, when the hungry, eager 25 year olds (and god help the 45 plus year olds) were consigned to the scrapheap. New writing meant young in age writers. No wonder we began to introduce those clunky, worthy terms ‘young in career’, ’emerging writers’ and so on, to try and counter the endemic ageism within the profession.

For years everyone wanted ‘the new’, which meant ‘the young’, which also seemed to mean ‘the first’.  I was in my mid-20’s when I co-won The Peggy Ramsay Award for my first London production, Yard, at the Bush. I’d been writing for many years, with several BBC radio plays broadcast, two international productions, a handful of scripts produced for young audiences, and a solo presented at the Royal Court Upstairs as part of the Young Writers Festival. Despite all this hard work and experience, in the press I was still described  as ‘new, young writer wins award with her first play.’ It was clear that my long apprenticeship and years of self-sufficiency didn’t live up to the myth, the story so often paraded in our media: the overnight success; the ‘discovery’; the untutored ingenue, the young ‘natural’…

I’m sure these stories will continue – and some of them may indeed be true. I have no problem with precocious talent, and I celebrate creativity and success whatever the age. What became so wearing, especially having been one of those ‘prodigies’ bandied about myself, was it seemed to be the only story. Young in age practitioners seemed to be the only ones wanted.

I think the monopoly of youth-orientated workshops, opportunities, and development programmes may be weakening. We have had an explosion in fee-paying courses (and not just those in higher and further education and the original writers centres like Arvon and Ty Newydd, but now the Faber Academy, and the Guardian masterclasses, etc….) and it is often those who have been around a while who can afford to develop themselves. At some workshops I gave in the South West recently, the 50 plus writer was as evident as the under 25 – which personally, I think is fabulous. For years I’ve seen new plays which sparkle with potential but are sometimes thin on content. On more than a few occasions I’ve gone away thinking ‘that playwright will be really interesting in about ten years when they’ve got something to write about.’

So what might octogenarian first time playwrights write – and in what form? I hope it’s edgy and experimental – which are not exclusive to youth (our own Caryl Churchill is, after all, 74 years young). I can’t wait.


Exit pursued by bear…. some thoughts on stage directions

imagesI recently got into discussion with two different friends about the same issue. It was not about Syria, the treatment of women in India, Cameron’s stupidity on Europe or even the distressing activity of the nasty party in the UK generally. We weren’t discussing the level of unemployment in Spain, or the depth of the snow in the East neuk of Fife. I’m afraid it was one of the geekiest of dramaturgical discussions. It was about stage directions.

When I teach, this is an issue which crops up repeatedly. How much information should we put into our scripts? What follows is a precis of some (but not all) of my thoughts on the issue of stage directions…

1) We are dramatists writing a blueprint for the stage. (Passionately) Please respect the skills and imaginations of those who read the work, plus the actors or directors who may produce it. (Sarcastic) It is a collaboration. Allow actors to surprise you with how they interpret a line. (With menace) Please try not to control your actors, nor infringe on their and the director’s process and creativity by trying to direct how a line ‘should’ be said by putting an impossible action (bursting into tears) in italics, bold, or brackets before a line of dialogue. (Laughing bitterly) You may discover they know better than you how to present the line, and in an unexpected, thrilling way, beyond the narrow confines of your own initial ‘hearing’ or interpretation provided by the voice in your head. Besides, they will no doubt ignore what can be seen as a vain and ridiculous attempt to nail everything down, to be in control. Sadly, you will only be revealing your own inexperience and distrust. If you have done your work well, the character, dynamic, and intention will come across. It will be there in the dialogue, the pace, the action, choice of vocabulary, the syntax, the subtext, the thrust of narrative and revealed characterisation. Of course errors and misinterpretations can occur, but please please please don’t give emotional stage directions anywhere in your text.

2) Be sparing in your descriptions of the set. You will discover that the detailed description of every stick of furniture, its placement Stage Left/Right/Centre, plus items on it (also known as props) will invariably not have been written by any playwright post 1956, but is actually the loving, exquisite work of the company’s Deputy Stage Manager, or DSM, who has recorded all from the production in ‘the book’. This then may have been the script sent to the publisher.  However, the tendency to write extremely long descriptions of an interior in excruciating and gnomic detail in the second decade of the twenty first century will invariably reveal that the playwright has probably not read a contemporary script, or a publisher other than Samuel French. I am not being snide, snobby, or bitchy about Samuel French – I think they do splendid and immensely useful publications, specialising as they do in presenting all the practical elements required for production (including prop lists, costumes, etc). The issue is when a contemporary playwright presents such a description of the set. It will either be seen as further proof of a control freak (see 1), or someone not widely promiscuous in the purveyor of play texts. I personally know that when we are first creating the world of our play, we need to write everything down (including description of set, costume, traffic of the stage, how lines are said, etc). Once the draft is developed, it will probably do the writer a favour to then cut these descriptions out. Allow your reader (and hopefully future director, designer, actors, etc) to create it anew – to ‘own’ it – and provide their own versions.

 3) A handsome man of above average height wearing a check suit under a buttoned-up mackintosh enters USR. With a barely perceptible smile he moves elegantly on a diagonal to the battered oak table, its surface ruined by coffee rings too numerous to count and generations of careless family use, sitting on a slight angle front edge pointing DSR on the elegant Persian rug CS. The moon glints in the window USL and falls on the exquisitely hand knitted Arran jumper worn by our heroine, sauntering with assumed nonchalance   

Had to stop, was losing the will to live writing that. See 2 above re-‘the book’ and DSM re-traffic of the stage and 1 above for being a tyrannical control freak.

Don’t do it. A simple indication of who enters or leaves will suffice. The director and actors will decide where they stand/move. The lighting designer will decide where the moon glints from (if at all). The costume designer will decide – etc etc. Our job is to write the play. We don’t like it when a director or actor tries to rewrite our lines or do our job. So respect, and let them do their job, also.

4) Assume you will have a production and there will be collaborators to deal with that other stuff (If you don’t want others to contribute, but want to do it all yourself, good luck, but I doubt you’ll have read this far, anyway).

5) There are of course exceptions to these – playwrights whose vision not only created extraordinary stage worlds, but who also rewrote the so-called rules, who challenged convention, transformed theatre, and brought in new forms, processes, theatre languages… They of course often used stage directions extensively (see Beckett), but not in the manners outlined, above.

I hope we will continue to have more such innovators, so as for everything I write, nothing is rigid, nothing is prescribed, but I hope it is stimulating.

(c) Kaite O’Reilly. 25/1/13. 

In praise of mentoring and creating a community of fellow writers







Ty Newydd: The National Writers Centre of Wales and former home of Lloyd George.

I recently wrote about the joys and symbiosis of mentoring playwrights through my association with Ty Newydd, The National Writers Centre of Wales. In this capacity, I was the tutor, the dramaturg, the reader who wrote encouraging reports on works in progress with the occasional sting in order to jolt the writer (I hoped) out of inertia or unproductive habits and into focused activity. One of the strengths of working with writers you have known for many months, and in some cases several years, is the mutual trust this sharing of time and processes brings, and the knowledge of what works best for them in this most particular dynamic when deadlines are approaching and new drafts need to be delivered – the carrot or the stick.

The other tangible benefit from this kind of close engagement is the potential creation of community. Writing is a notoriously singular activity, requiring long stretches of solitude and solo focus. Unlike other forms, theatre has its moments of social activity, for it is a blueprint for the stage which needs the massed imaginations and skills of the collaborators (actors, director, scenographer, lighting designer, dancers, musicians, etc) to bring it to fruition. It is often a relief to move into this engagement after the solo slog – and enlivening (at the least!) to discover other interpretations and imaginations responding to a work which has perhaps until this date existed only in the voice in your own head.

But meanwhile before that – when perhaps a script is still emerging, or relationships have not yet been forged with a company to move the script into this next phase of development… what happens then?

You create the company for yourself, utilising whoever is at hand.

I am a great believer in people power. Perhaps it’s the old punk in me, but I’m an exponent of ‘doing it yourself’.

For years I have been gathering friends who, if not professional actors, are willing to be drawn into reading my script aloud. And often the carrot of wine or food once we have done this task isn’t always a required inducement. Of course such homemade workshops may not be as effective as working with an experienced cast and director or dramaturg, who have an inkling of what they’re doing… But when you are stuck in a strange sort of hiatus, hearing those words in the room rather than inside your head can often move the work forward.

Tom Wentworth, one of the participants on my recent Mentoring Scheme, has written about the joys of peer review and this kind of workshop exploration on the DAO website, link below. He outlines some of the processes we went through over the scheme, and the joys of sharing extracts of the scripts in progress in the beautiful, tiny theatre of The Lloyd George Museum in North Wales last month.

I hope that this group will continue nurturing and supporting each other. We have a well-established private google group where we urge each other on, or share opportunities in the flick of an email. We have created our own small community of fellow writers – and I hope we will continue to observe each other’s development and success of careers over the coming years.

For Tom Wentworth’s article, go to: http://www.disabilityartsonline.org.uk/?location_id=1951

Managing expectations…..

One of my dear friends emailed me for some advice:

As a writer, when you were starting out, how do you manage your expectations?

It’s a question I’m familiar with – we don’t have to be ‘an emerging writer’ to struggle with the often gaping chasm between what we anticipate or hope for, and what actually transpires. Theatre is sadly not necessarily a meritocracy, although there are plenty of encouraging stories to keep the faith alive…

My friend also asked about dealing with the feeling of emptiness that can follow a project coming to an end, with perhaps no promise of a next step, be that production, touring, etc.

After I answered my friend, she suggested it would be good fodder for a blog, so I have filleted our conversations to share with others. My comments are based solely on my own experiences and beliefs – but I hope that along the way they may be useful for others…

  • define your own idea of success – don’t be swayed by others or what you feel you should be doing/feeling/getting…. Imagine you are creating a library of your work and always keep your eyes on the horizon ie, your own definition of success – most importantly, your own definition of what you want to write, what you want to achieve, what constitutes a career in your own eyes, what you want to communicate with the world.
  • what we do is important and has significance in our own lives. Expect to be upset, to be down when something is finished, and frustrated by what is unknown…. There are so many scripts I have written I would love to go further, have more productions, be readily available through publishing… All I can do is make contact with other artists and theatres and organisations – find my allies – those who love my work and ‘get’ me as an artist – and find those whose work I love and whom I would love to work with. Then it’s about trying to make relationships and it can take a long time – opportunities are scarce and may never come up – but it’s a network, and I try to avoid isolation by supporting those whose work I admire and hope this way we can make a community.
  • theatre is ephemeral – it is energy, a dynamic which is alive and not immortal as it is made by these people in this context in this time….. Once we embrace that and understand that everything ends, it allows us to seek out new beginnings and further engagement. When a company comes together it is a unit in itself, a family, and then it can be heartbreaking when the project ends and we move on… But connections made can be re-connected and also new ones made and new units created and new productions or sharings of an individual script. Often the onus is on us as writers to get the script out into the world – an agent helps, but the vast majority of work I do and the productions I have come through relationships I have built myself with other collaborators over the years.
  • help distract yourself from the emptiness of a project apparently ending with the next one. It always helps to have new projects and ideas ready to be developed, researched, or written. But don’t rush the next one. It will take as long as it takes. Breathe deep and give thanks for what you have achieved, and then give yourself a kick up the arse and set your sights on the next horizon……

Mentoring Course. Ty Newydd National Writers Centre for Wales: Sharing of work in progress







Ty Newydd. Photo by Touchstone.

It is a cliche, but it is true: if you are immensely fortunate, mentoring and teaching can be a symbiotic experience. I’ve often seen books about creative writing dedicated to the students of the tutor/writer, and I fully understand that compulsion. I have just worked alongside eight playwrights over six months on the mentoring scheme at Ty Newydd, the  National Writers Centre of Wales. Our final weekend together looms and I feel I have probably learnt as much as I hope they have from our interaction and process together – if not more.

Dramaturgical work brings you to the heart of creating and constructing. I am constantly aware of the form, the medium, questioning and querying how it works, and how I can communicate that understanding to less experienced dramatists. The effort of engaging and trying to diagnose dramatic ills, to offer potential solutions or ways forward for the playwright to explore and decide what works best for her ambitions and intentions is edifying; to find the language to clarify rather than mystify during the process is challenging but improves my own articulation. To advise the playwright on his script whilst in the process is exhilarating and a privilege. I feel like a visitor in a photographer’s dark room – observing the characters and world of the play as they magically form in the developing fluid.

So this weekend brings the end of this most recent mentoring scheme, and we are keen to celebrate and share the evolving scripts. I also want to give the writers a taste – however briefly – of the rehearsal room and the revising process that may follow from that, so we are Doing It Ourselves. We also want to invite any interested parties who may be in North Wales this weekend along:

Saturday 13th October 2012

Lloyd George Museum, Llanystumdwy, Cricieth, Gwynedd. LL52 0SH.


We will be reading excerpts from eight new plays by

Julie Bainbridge

Sandra Bendelow

Anne Marie Durkin

Sean Lusk

Martin Pursey

Marie Quarman

Maria Vigar

Tom  Wentworth

Admission free


The Ty Newydd Mentoring Scheme is led by playwright/dramaturg Kaite O’Reilly. Over a six month period the eight selected writers on the course are supported throughout the process, from initial pitch to polished second draft.

A new scheme, for writers young in career will commence in December 2012, also led by Kaite. For further details on this course, please go to the Ty Newydd website or see: https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/mentoring-project-for-new-and-emerging-playwrights-working-with-kaite-oreilly-dec-2012-april-2013/

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 111 – 114








More thoughts from those who have done it on how to do it….

111.)  A short story must have single mood and every sentence must build towards it.  (Edgar Allan Poe).

112). Do change your mind. Good ideas are often murdered by better ones. I was working on a novel about a band called the Partitions. Then I decided to call them the Commitments. (Roddy Doyle).

113). For one thousand nights, before you sleep: Read one short story a night. Read one poem a night. Read one essay a night, from very diverse fields: politics, philosophy, religion, biology, anthropology, psychology, and so on. At the end of the one-thousand nights you’ll be full of stuff! All this stuff will be bouncing around in your head, and you’ll be able to come up with lots of new ideas. (Ray Bradbury).

114). Never worry about the commercial possibilities of a project. That stuff is for agents and editors to fret over – or not. Conversation with my American publisher. Me: “I’m writing a book so boring, of such limited commercial appeal, that if you publish it, it will probably cost you your job.” Publisher: “That’s exactly what makes me want to stay in my job.” (Geoff Dyer).

‘Theatre has to get to get over itself and put crips in its scripts.’ Guardian Comment is Free.

The Guardian Comment is Free asked me to respond to Lisa Hammond’s Open Letter to Writers: Put Crips in your scripts (reproduced on this blog at: https://kaiteoreilly.wordpress.com/2012/08/08/lisa-hammonds-open-letter-to-writers-put-crips-in-your-scripts/)  

What follows is their edit of my article.

I think it is edifying to read the forty plus comments on the Guardian website in response to the article. You will find the article and the comments at:


Theatre has to get over itself and put crips in its scripts.

Kaite O’Reilly. 

Guardian Comment is Free.

I was delighted to read Lisa Hammond’s open letter to writers as part of this year’s TV Drama Writers’ Festival – Put crips in your scripts. It’s a sentiment I support, and have for some time. As a playwright, I’ve been trying to put complex, seductive, intelligent characters who just so happen to have an impairment into my scripts for decades. It is only in rare cases I am commissioned to write such a play; usually I have to smuggle it in like a Trojan horse, with disability politics and what I call “crip humour” in its belly.

Disability is often viewed as worthy, depressing, or a plethora of other negative associations I (and many others) have been trying to challenge and subvert in our work for years. I find this representation astonishing, for the vast majority of my disabled friends and colleagues are the wittiest, most outrageous and life-affirming human beings I have ever had the pleasure of spending time with.

I identify proudly as a disabled person, but am often struck how to those without this cultural identification the impaired body is “other”. Disabled people are “them” – over there – not a deaf uncle, a parent with Alzheimer’s or an acquaintance who has survived brain injury following a car accident. Although the vast majority of us will acquire impairment through the natural process of ageing, through accident, warfare or illness, disabled people are still feared, ostracised and set apart.

The western theatrical canon is filled with disabled characters. We are metaphors for tragedy, loss, the human condition – the victim or villain, the scapegoat, the inferior, scary “special” one, the freak, the problem requiring treatment, medicalisation and normalisation. Although disabled characters occur in thousands of plays, seldom have the writers been disabled themselves, or written from that perspective. It is also rare for actors with impairments to be cast in productions, even when the character is disabled. As I scornfully stated in my 2002 play Peeling, in which Hammond performed: “Cripping up is the 21st century’s answer to blacking up”.

As Hammond suggests in her essay, the theatre profession just needs to get over it – their fear, concerns about expense, about difference. There are fantastic deaf and disabled performers in the UK, just as there are talented and experienced choreographers, directors, visual artists, sit-down comedians, and writers. I hope that the Paralympics, and Unlimited at Southbank Centre,  part of the Cultural Olympiad, will change preconceptions just as the Olympics did regarding sportswomen and abilities.

For “putting crips in our scripts” means we have different protagonists with different stories, which don’t always have to revolve around yet another medical drama. The active, sexy, wilful protagonists of In Water I’m Weightless are an anomaly simply by being protagonists, and in control of their lives. The work is a montage of movement, visuals, excerpts from fictional monologues and not, as most of the reviewers assumed, the actors’ autobiographies (as director John McGrath said, “that’s called acting”).

We need characters who are not victims, whose diagnosis or difference is not the central drama of their lives, but multi-faceted individuals with careers and relationships, dreams and challenges. I want characters who are full of themselves, their hands and mouths filled with a swanky eloquence. Whether in signed or spoken languages, words can dazzle and dip, shape form, shape meaning and shape a perspective that counters the previously held.

We need to have crips in our scripts not just to reflect the society we live in, but, as one of my characters says, to “threaten the narrow definition of human variety … [to] broaden the scope of human possibilities”. And we need crip actors to perform these parts, not yet another non-disabled actor doing an impersonation, with an eye on an award.

(c) copyright Kaite O’Reilly 30th August 2012.

How to write the ‘right’ ending? Part one: The Promise.






When is a piece of fiction completed? How do we ensure that a play doesn’t just stop, but actually ends?

I was giving a workshop last week at Sheffield theatres, and this query about finding the ‘right’ ending came up. It was also an email query from my friend Antonietta in Chile, only in her case the question was more about recognising and then delivering the best ending for a piece of writing.

This is clearly an issue which concerns any writer or maker, regardless of form, and as an audience member there is nothing worse than that sense of wasted time and disappointment from sitting through a performance and feeling the experience was not worth the investment. But it is a complex question, with a variety of answers dependant not only on the form and the intention of the writer, but also the expectations of the viewer/reader/listener. So in order to address this, and in depth, I’ll take elements one at a time, beginning with the phrase so familiar in Hollywood and popular fiction: The Promise.

Many feel there is an unspoken contract between a writer and her audience, an understanding, a deal we make in this strange and wonderful dynamic between the spectator and the spectacle, the reader and the writer. Nancy Kress in Beginnings, Middles and Ends insists that a book makes two promises to a reader, one emotional, one intellectual. The emotional promise says

“Read this and you’ll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted – but always absorbed.”

The genre of the novel, or film is also part of this inherent promise. A mystery offers intellectual engagement, a puzzle, confirmation that the mind can understand events and solve the central questions (whodunnit, whydunnit, howdunnit) and, like thrillers, after chaos and misrule, return balance, order, and justice to the world. A romance might deliver the emotional promise of ‘love conquers all’, whereas the literary novel, or the independent art movie, or the experimental performance might challenge and unbalance. As Susan Sontag said: “Real art has the capacity of making us nervous.”

The intellectual promise, according to Nancy Kress, has three varieties:

“(1) Read this and you’ll see the world from a different perspective.                

(2) Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about the world.

(3) Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.”

If working from this perspective, a completed piece of work must deliver on the initial emotional and intellectual promises. Forsaking the implied or expected outcome can lead to massive disappointment – but, again, I believe this is dependant on the form. An unexpected ending in a thriller or experimental piece could be part of the promise and therefore welcome, but a bloodbath at the end of a romance would, I suspect, be breaking the contract. As Lori Handeland says: “Do not promise apples and deliver oranges.”

So in the first instance, be aware of the promise your story, play, or novel makes. It will be introduced in the beginning, developed in the middle, and provide a satisfying ending by delivering on this promise at the close. Even if the ending is a surprise, if you’ve done your work well, it will feel inevitable, as it has grown organically from your set-up at the beginning, it fulfils the promise of the start, which has been developed throughout.