Friday, 25 October 2013

Writing course - creating characters and writing better dialogue

I will be running two workshops at Aberystwyth Arts Centre on Sunday 3rd November and Sunday 1st December 2pm – 5pm. Creative workshops in creating characters and writing dialogue for all forms of script writing and prose writing.

I’ve specifically chosen subjects which are constant queries from my writing for performance group. Basically whenever I ask what subjects do you want me to do exercises on, the answers are always character and dialogue – and no matter how many I do they always want more.

For me creating characters is at the heart of my writing process – for me everything begins with characters. I build the character developing their past, their flaws, their personal history, imagining the big moments in their lives and working through how those moments have impacted on them. Once the character starts to talk to me and a voice emerges then I know I’m ready to start writing – and because I know the character in such detail whatever problems I throw at them in the course of the play I know that their reactions and behaviour are real. I also find that through the process of developing character the plot and structure of the play will inevitably unfold – scenes, other characters will start to spring. But first, always first is character. Without the character it is just faceless people on stage spouting words.

Over the years I’ve built a mountain of exercises – my box of tools that help me get ideas for characters, develop characters, resolve problems through characters when something is not working.

When I read scripts I find that more often than not, the main problem is bad dialogue. Scriptwriters, prose writers – it doesn’t matter really. Dialogue needs to be just that – dialogue. Characters speaking to one another as they would speak, not how you want them to speak so you can push in a cheeky metaphor or say – look how clever I am with words. I don’t care about your metaphors, I don’t care how clever you are with words. All I’m going to think is – bad dialogue. Just thinking about that made me wince. Because that’s what happens, bad dialogue makes the listener, watcher, reader – wince. It jars. It reminds us it is fiction. It will stop an audience engaging and investing in your characters because they don’t believe they’re real.

I like dialogue, I like real dialogue, I want to hear characters speaking as they would really speak, not how a writer wants them to speak.  I want to hear characters with accents flowing through the patterns of how they speak. I want to hear characters speaking grammatically incorrect because that’s what they do! I don’t want to hear the voice of the writer, I want to hear the voice of the character. I also like how theatre writing allows us to play with dialogue, creating rhythms, patterns, music –characters not talking to one another but dancing. I want to hear noise and overcutting of dialogue that reflects the way we converse. I like poetic text, I like stylized text. But how do you marry the demands of a more poetic or fragmented style with the need for characters to speak realistically. These are subjects I’ve been exploring for years in my writing and again I’ve found exercises that help a writer to resolve these issues.

The workshop is for writers of all mediums – theatre, film, radio, television, digital writing and prose. The workshops will look at the difference and similarities in creating characters and writing dialogue for the different mediums and what we can learn about from the different mediums about creating characters and writing dialogue.

If you’re interested in more writing courses then please let me know and I can keep you informed of any new courses in the future.
More information about me, my work as a writer and theatre producer here
To book a place on the courses visit the Aberystwyth Arts Centre website

Wednesday, 23 October 2013


Cursed by Sandra Bendelow. Image by Boz Groden
Cursed is an interesting one, a short play produced for the EarCandy project, an audio drama project from a web platform.

It was a really exciting project to be involved in, 13 writers exploring audio-drama, learning what works and doesn't by writing, recording and then presenting the plays. And also very importantly having the plays available so that anyone, anywhere can listen to them - for free.

But Cursed as a short audio drama was created from frustration. A story I'd wanted to tell but hadn't been able to find a way to tell it. It had been bugging me for a really long time. The story of the Bells of Santiago which I'd discovered on one of though random journeys on the web. You know the ones where you click a link and then click another, drawn along a pathway by interesting stories until there it was the Bells of Santiago.

Now bearing in mind that one of my writing obsessions is how objects become imbued with the history around them, a story about a set of bells that hung from a tower in a church in Santiago until a fire which killed over 2,000 killed destroyed the church in which they hung, at which point the bells were transported to the Gower to hang in a church for several hundred years before someone realised their origins and shipped them back to Santiago - yes that's a story which is going to interest me.

Izzy Rabey recording Cursed
It's a story about a horrible tragedy, fire and bells, so it always seemed to be a radio play.

I took the idea to a writing workshop with Kaite O'Reilly and used it as a base for writing exercises, imagining myself as the bell, voiceless, thousands of miles from my home, haunted by a memory of thousands of people screaming when they burned to death.

And yet still I couldn't find the way to tell the story. I still haven't. It's still there waiting for me to find a way in. I'm almost there but it's not quite there yet.

But in the meantime as I tried to think of an idea for a short audio play, the story of the bell came to me and I found myself creating a version of it, drawing some of the elements from it - Swansea, a church fire and then drawing some elements from one of my other writing obsessions - magic.

And so here it is a play about a girl and a bell, both cursed by a tragedy.

The bell magnificiently played by Robert Harper and the girl and every other character played by the amazing Izzy Rabey.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

Getting the balance right

I’ve been thinking a lot about being a writer recently, mainly because I haven’t been doing much writing. I’ve been doing all the other things I do alongside my work as a writer producing, digital marketing workshops, running writing groups and of course when the mortgage gets too demanding and other projects aren’t lining up quite right to fill the bank account on designated days then I pretty much do any part-time job to hand which will fit around everything else in my life.

Earlier in the summer I worked in a cafe, at the moment I’m cleaning.
I used to have a full-time, decent wage earning type job and it was nice to not worry about bills about it was very difficult to manage production work and writing alongside it. I was made redundant - I had a choice to make and it seemed an opportunity to take a leap which I did. Mainly it’s been going really well with the things I do to sustain my writing - several creative projects heading in the direction of funding, more bookings for digital marketing workshops. As for my writing I’ve had a short play produced at the Royal Court. I’ll say that again because I like saying it. I’ve had a short play produced at the Royal Court.

My short play One Hour and Forty Five Minutes, written for Dirty Protest as part of their plays-in-a-bag project, was selected to be presented as at Royal Court’s Surprise Theatre.
I said it three times but who’s counting.

It was presented again at Theatr Clwyd’s Picnic Plays. It’s says on the website I’m an up-and-coming writer.
As most up and coming writers and more established writers know it’s difficult to earn a living from writing and I’m one of very many who find themselves needing to supplement their incomes. As I wander round town covered in bleach stained clothes at the moment I do find myself feeling the need to remind other people I’m a writer though I don’t need to remind myself.

The thing I know is that the decent wage earning type job I did for eight years may well have paid the bills easily but in eight years the job itself created exactly four ideas for scripts. Four – in eight years. Not a very good success rate really. All the other scripts I wrote in those years came from elsewhere – the magic box of ideas!
My play One Hour and Forty five Minutes was inspired by three months working in a cafe, and working in the cafe for three months gave me at least three other ideas for scripts and endless research on characters.  My play, produced at the Royal Court (okay four times) would not have been written had I not been working in the cafe. The idea germinated from a day of wandering about with a bag of sharpened knives.

My work as a cleaner has made me resurrect an old short play which featured a cleaner and it was a nice little idea but do you know what has made it burst back into life and become a sharper more focused idea? Working as a cleaner.
As I clean rooms imbued with the lives that have been lived in them and move abandoned belongings my head fills with fleshed out characters because they have houses, rooms to walk around, belongings to leave behind. I do workshops about creating characters and working as a cleaner has given me a new character building exercise – think about your character packing up to leave a house, think about them looking about them in an empty house, what do they think about, what are the memories of the home filling their mind as they switch the lights off, what belongings do they choose to throw into a black bin bag rather than take them with them, why don’t they want to take those belongings, what memories make them what to bin the belongings rather than keep them. Answer those few questions and I bet you have a fully fleshed out character.

I’m not really sure what advice I’m trying to give. A writer writes, that goes without saying. But also a writer feeds off everything around them. Everything is a source of inspiration, everything is a scratched note in a notebook waiting to find it’s way into a story. And if you're doing a job to sustain you while you work you really need to ensure the job is something that feeds not only your stomach but your writing. People talk about life/work balances but we're writers so the most important thing or us to check is our writing/life/work balance.
As new students start their courses at the university I see their eager faces filled with dreams of acting, writing, directing – as I walk passed them on the street covered in the dirt of their houses – and I hope their dreams come true but it’s likely their dream will take a little work, and a little work on the side. Many of them will abandon their dreams or drift from them towards careers they'll get the balance wrong and it can be really difficult to get the balance back once you start to sway. But it’s important to keep dreaming and keep doing whatever you need to do to keep the dream alive and give you enough hours to pursue it. And I think I’m not really advising anyone I’m just writing this for myself to remind myself it’s okay, two years ago I was an emerging writer, now I’m up and coming.