Monday, March 18, 2013

Reverse Outlining and the Genesis of a Play

I am one of those odd ducks that knows the end of his play before he even starts writing. In truth, I don’t understand writers who begin to write without knowing where they’re going. I admire them, but I don’t understand them.

I almost always work backwards from the end. The question of “how did we get here?” is often the spark for the play. And I don’t work back to just the beginning; I work back to driving forces before the action starts. This creates something of a stamp or trademark to my work: characters appear richly (and sometimes opaquely) complex in the beginning of the play, driven by hidden motivations and relationships, and then they become more transparent as the play progresses. That transparency simplifies. Understanding is simplification. And by the end it should become almost primal in its clarity and force.

The clarity that comes from understanding the arc of the character right from the beginning also lends itself to characters that reveal themselves through the course of the play rather than transform through the action. The character may not change, but our understanding of them changes, and so do our feelings towards them. It’s another type of journey.

Though I don’t outline my play ahead of time, I do (occasionally and to various extents) reverse outline my play. That’s a rather inaccurate term for creating outlines after you’ve finished your first draft. The process of retelling your story this way helps clarify its structure and arc. You’ll quickly discover what’s extraneous to the work. Aaron Hamburger over at the NY Times wrote an interesting article on the technique. It’s worth a gander.  Fine it here.


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