The importance of writing in fragments

By Timothy Daly

The problem with play with is that it’s a very complex area, for which there is no one method or approach. Rather, the path to a rich and coherent work is a series of paths, wrong-turns and interesting by-ways, the significance of which only becomes apparent later.

Getting lost mid-piece, as I often did, I used to believe that writing problems were a result of my writing inexperience. I now believe, however, that this fragmented and difficult process (sketches, drafts, false starts, speculative endings) is crucial and is itself the actual process that others eventually call good writing.

The fragmented process is most necessary with regard to character, which to me is the soul of theatre. Theatre, more than film, is an exploration of character. Or, to put it better, theatre is about revealing, not the richness of character, but its essential MYSTERY. Human beings are mysteries. Theatre characters should be doubly so. Who really knows the great theatre characters? Hamlet, Iago, Blanche, Willy Loman; these are not rounded, explicable characters, far less “people I’ve met”. Essentially, a stage character is a symbol. A symbol of not just the play itself, but of us, or rather, our inner life.

A play exists in order to allow us to dream. A play itself is a dream, a fantasy, a rumination, a brooding, whether malignant or benign.

Stage characters are incomplete symbols of a more-or-less complete picture; the complete picture being the writer’s vision of his/her world. The function of character is to provide a rich but INCOMPLETE portion of the whole.

This is not to say that characters should be thin or two-dimensional. What I am suggesting here is that at the heart of the great characters is an insoluble mystery. A puzzle. “Why is Hamlet like that?” “What makes Iago tick?”

I don’t believe it’s our job as writers to explain characters to our audience– the pschological strip-tease that Brecht derided. Our fundamental job is to create characters so strange, mis-shapen and incomplete that they will not leave the audience’s imagination alone, and it finds it has taken them home, and even disturbed their sleep.

How is this done? For such a seemingly esoteric conception of character, the steps are surpringly clear and practical. I’ll list here eighteen ways:

  1. Give characters an inner life that is powerful, chaotic, at odds with their outer life, and most importantly, an inner life they do not understand.
  2. Give this inner life a power over them they cannot control.
  3. Make their language the means whereby they wrestle with their inner lives.
  4. At the very core of them, have them galvanised by the contradictions of their own nature. Why not? Real people are.
  5. Give them a limited understand of themselves, and– fatally– others.
  6. Give them a dramatic goal that is at odds with their fragmented nature, or accords with only one aspect of it.
  7. When creating them, think of the human personality as a kaleidoscope. There is not one personality, not even two or three sub-groups (a la Freud), there is not just a Jungian shadow. If you think in terms of the kaleidoscope, then a particular interaction with one character will bring out certain colours of the personality; an interaction with another will bring out other colours.
  8. To express these many selves without confusion to the audience, or diffusion of the dramatic drive, establish a hierarchy or “which self dominates”. That said, however, give each other the ‘lesser selves’ a voice, a beat, a moment in the play, however partial and temporary. It may be an insight, a thought, an action considered and then withdrawn. Anything that will indicate to an audience that here is a powerful, driven self in perpetual reflection on its own nature.
  9. To this end, study how Shakespeare writes “parenthetically”. That is, a single observation, a clear line of action, is intercut with others but without derailing the main thrust of the speech. Mamet literally writes parenthetically, thus indicating to the audience that this character is aware of his/her own complexities.
  10. Create a story that, the longer it proceeds, the more contradictions it exposes– in the world of the play, and the characters themselves.
  11. Create a “character dilemma” that gives two options to a major character, both fine and both terrible… and yet only one can be chosen.
  12. Think of your plot as being the set of contradictions that put great pressure on one or more of the fragments of the characters’ personality or nature.
  13. Widen the character’s “existential spectrum”– that is, what he or she most conceives to be a personal hell and heaven; and then let the character experience both during the course of the play (whether through action, imagination, dream, foreboding, yearning or desire.)
  14. Give them a thought-life, and this thought-life is taken very seriously by them, even if it is expressed lightly.
  15. Give them a feeling-life, where the range, intensity and history of their emotions is as wide and deep as most people (often wrongly) believe theirs to be.
  16. Think of a plot that draws on the character’s experience in any or all of the following thirteen levels of experience– physical, biological, social, professional, emotional, sensual, sexual, intellectual, aesthetic, ethical, moral, philosophical and spiritual.
  17. Make them fail to live up to their own ideas.
  18. Make them momentarily successful in living up to their own ideals.

And finally, create a Rosebud for your major character(s)… and then abandon it. Rosebud, as we know, eschatology aside, was Citizen Kane’s lost sled, the symbol of the only existence Kane ever had in which he experienced love. Personally, I suspect that while Rosebud was a good narrative “puzzle-solving” device to get them out of the movie house with a sense of completeness and satisfaction, its writers themselves may have blushed at its very neatness (not to mention its inherent sentimentality). A symbol exists because it means one and many things. A symbol that neatly explains everything is no symbol– it’s just a plot device. The strength of symbol is how much we are fascinated by what we know of these characters, and yet, days, even weeks after the performance, are still puzzling over their fragmented, contradictory, volatile and unstable natures.