According to ourdocuments.gov, the 19th Amendment of the United States Constitution was “passed by Congress June 4, 1919, and ratified on August 18, 1920.” It goes on to say “the 19th amendment granted women the right to vote.” The Amendment “prohibits the state and federal government from denying citizens of the United States the right to vote on the basis of sex”.
To mark the 100 year anniversary of ratification, Burning Coal Theatre Company in partnership with The League of Women Voters of Wake County and thirteen other theatre and/or opera companies from across central North Carolina will present The 19th Amendment Project, a collection of 14 short plays written about the passage of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago and its impact on our society.
I’m honored and humbled to be a name on this roster of playwrights for my 10 minute piece THUNDERCLAP.
THUNDERCLAP description: Parents Rachel and Jake are stoked that their daughter, Alice is now 18 and can vote, but she doesn’t believe that her vote will actually help. Content warning: language and sexual violence.
This week, I’m grateful to have been given space to talk about this project in podcast form and in print. Big thanks to journalists Lauren Van Hemert and Byron Woods for listening to me go on about writing generally and writing 10 minute plays more specifically, setting a play in the current moment, the future of theatre and what voting means to me.
If you’d like to listen or read, please see the info below. And then grab your tickets for The 19th Amendment Project. The other playwrights are amazing (including 2014 Piedmont Laureate Carrie Knowles) and it has truly been an impressive collaborative effort across our theatre community.
ALSO, VOTE. #votevotevote
RDU ON STAGE PODCAST
Do you know about THE 19th AMENDMENT PROJECT?
Want to hear me confess my love for Geraldine Ferraro?
Listen to this podcast from RDU on Stage and the ones to follow!
This is the 1st episode in a nine part series featuring playwrights and creatives working on The 19th Amendment Project. Lauren speaks with the wonderful Playwright Hannah Benitez (The 19th), Dianna Wynn with the League of Women Voters, Jerome Davis, the Artistic Director of Burning Coal, ….and ME saying things (a lot of things!) about my play Thunderclap, what voting means to me, the conflict I feel about celebrating the 19th Amendment, and the present and future of theatre (just a few small topics!).
How do people talk to each other? How do we write convincing, real-sounding conversations that convey relationships and character?
Today, I’m excited to share a fabulous writing exercise from Carrie Knowles (PL ’14) that focuses on DIALOGUE.
I love Carrie’s exercise because it is a visual and aural exercise for oral discourse. Rather than writing down a conversation word for word, Carrie encourages us to graph as we listen, then discern the patterns, and ask what those patterns mean for the relationships between the people in conversation. Very cool.
If you’d like to complete the remainder of the exercise below and make progress in your writing journey (at your own pace!), then grab yourself a copy of the workbook and enjoy the ride.
*As we stay home for safety during COVID-19, you can adapt this exercise by listening to conversations happening online or in radio and podcast form. You might also listen to dialogue from different styles of movies and TV shows. If you live with family members (as I do), then you’ll have lots of conversations to graph right in your own home!
Excerpt from LESSON SIXTEEN of A Self-guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on How to Write Stories From Start to Finish
HOW DIALOGUE CAN HELP YOU TELL YOUR STORY
Dialogue is one of the great tools of writing fiction. So, let’s learn something about how it works and why understanding how people talk to each other can help us develop the characters as well as the plot.
Here’s your first lesson in writing dialogue. Words matter, but how the conversation is constructed matters more. A well-constructed dialogue can define relationships between characters and explain the underlying story. In short, great dialogue shows more than it tells.
Here’s an exercise that can help you sort out this concept.
Go to a coffee shop or some other busy place where people are talking. Listen to how people are talking to each other rather than what they are saying. Pay attention to the rhythm of the conversation.
As you listen, draw lines. Set it up like a dialogue. When the first person speaks, write A, then start making a line. Try to mimic the speed of each person talking as you move your pencil across the page. The faster someone talks, the faster you draw your line.
When the next person speaks, go down a space and write B then start a second line. Go back and forth between the two speakers. Your page should look something like this:
Use a question mark (?) to indicate someone has asked a question and an exclamation point (!) when someone has shouted or raised his or her voice or gave an emphatic response.
Do this for a whole page. Look at the lines; are some longer, others shorter? Who has most of the short lines? Who has most of the longer lines? Is there a pattern?
What can you know about this interaction just from the length of the lines? Is one person dominating the conversation? Who initiated the conversation? Did someone dodge a question and change the direction of the dialogue? Do you notice any pauses in the conversation? What might those pauses indicate? Are the two people taking polite turns talking? Are they talking quietly to each other? Is one person raising their voice? Are they laughing? Are the sentences they are using long or short?
What does all this mean?
Carrie Knowles has published dozens of short stories and hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles, and four novels: Lillian’s Garden (Roundfire Books, 2013), Ashoan’s Rug (Roundfire Books, 2013), A Garden Wall in Provence (Owl Canyon Press, 2017), The Inevitable Past (Owl Canyon Press, 2020), a collection of short fiction, Black Tie Optional: 17 Stories (Owl Canyon Press, 2019) and a writing workbook, A Self-Guided Workbook and Gentle Tour on Learning How to Write Stories from Start-to-Finish (Owl Canyon Press, 2020). Her non-fiction memoir about her family’s struggles with their mother’s Alzheimer’s, The Last Childhood: A Family Story of Alzheimer’s, initially published by Three Rivers Press, was recently revised, updated and reissued through Amazon.
Carrie writes a regular column for Psychology Today: “Shifting Forward: A Wanderer’s Musings”.
Carrie was named the Piedmont Laureate for Short Fiction in 2014. Her short stories have won more than 25 awards, including the Village Advocate Fiction Contest, the Blumenthal Writers & Readers Series, the North Carolina Writer’s Network Fiction Syndication and Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Competition. She has been named a finalist in Glimmer Train competitions six times and was also a finalist in the Doris Betts Fiction Contest and received an honorable mention in the National Literary Awards.
Near the end of March, I reached out to a handful of experts to request a quick tip or exercise for people who are writing at home.
It’s taken me awhile to circle back around to sharing what I received, but I’m happy to say that a good writing tip rarely goes out of style.
I’ve found that during stretches of lengthy melancholia, I am less likely to generate new material, and more likely to turn to familiar old drafts that need to be revisited, reconstructed, or regenerated. Perhaps if you are feeling at loose ends in these difficult times, then revision might be the phase of writing that feels right for you.
Ian Finley adapted the cycle below from our fellow Laureate Carrie Knowles, who introduced him to the idea of the Five Step Revision.
Note: It is strongly recommended that you don’t revise until you have a complete draft, but once you do, hammering away at revisions might be just the project for you while staying safe at home.
How to revise? Sometimes changes are obvious. Sometimes you’re sure a script can be improved, but don’t have a way into the Revision Chute. Try these five steps, and see where you end up.
FIVE STEP REVISION PROCESS:
1. Add What’s Missing. Now that you’ve finished the script, you know where it was going all along, and what you were trying to say. Now you can add all those elements that support that destination and theme that you may not have been aware of when you started writing. Payoffs can be set up, and set ups paid off, the arc of characters enriched and extended, because you know who they are now.
2. Take Away What You Don’t Need. This is the biggest step, by far. Again, now that you’ve arrived at the end, you know what your story is trying to say, so you can remove those sections that were necessary explorations in the first draft, but don’t move the story forward. Be merciless. It’s not “obliterating your darlings,” it’s giving your darlings a haircut, taking away the unecessary bits of them so we can see them better. It’s a lot of cutting. I usually aim to trim 25% between my rough draft and the next few drafts. That’s one of every 4 lines, but your writing will be hugely better for it.
3. Ensure Conflict on Every Page. In a play, conflict is what keeps the audience watching. As soon as the conflict relaxes, you have about two minutes before the audience’s attention wanders, perhaps for good. That’s why it’s called a “happy ending;” when the characters are happy, the play is over. But conflict is not just bad stuff happening. In the Book of Job, bad stuff cascades down on this poor schlub, but there are zero conflict in the piece, until the end when he confronts God, and God pushes back. That’s what conflict is: two forces in opposition to each other; the pursuit of a want, running into obstacles, and overcoming them with tactics. Conflict is active, in the same way that agreement or even suffering is merely passive.
4. Ensure Character Voice is Unique & Consistent. Now is the time to read through the whole script, out loud, only reading one character’s lines. This will give you a sense of the quality and consistency of that character’s voice. Do it for each character, one at a time, making fixes as you go, and you’ll bring them all into focus. Ideally, you should be able to cover the character names and still know who is speaking, and this has nothing to do with funny accents or the like. It’s because each character is different, and therefore expresses themself differently. Character voice is the most powerful tool you have for revealing character to the audience, because it is shown to them every time a character speaks. Their status, background, interests, and relationships are all reflected in the way they speak, and that is the most elegant way of sharing that with the audience.
5. Edit! Spellcheck, grammar, mechanics, all of that! And correct Standard Manuscript Format! All of that is as important in playwriting as anywhere else. But notice that it is the LAST step of the process, for the very simple reason that after polishing the grammar of a given line, you might be unwilling to cut it (see Step 2) when you realize it doesn’t help the story. Edit last.
Except… last isn’t really last, because these five steps are actually a cycle. Once you’ve finished, go back and run them all through again.And again. My experience is that time is a key element in creating my best work. If you have time now to devote to revision, then your writing will be well served.
Ian Finley holds an MFA in Dramatic Writing from the Tisch School at New York University. In 2012, he was named the Piedmont Laureate in the field of Playwriting and Screenwriting by the arts councils of central North Carolina. He is the author of many plays, you’ll see them listed in the show notes including: The Nature of the Nautilus (winner of the Kennedy Center’s Jean Kennedy Smith Award), And There Was War in Heaven (finalist for the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference), Native, The Greeks, 1960, Jude the Obscure, Suspense, A Perfect Negroni, 11:50, the Our Histories cycle of site-specific plays for Burning Coal and the First Night site-specific plays for Seed Art Share.