A black and white photo of an empty theatre, looking from the stage toward the seats.

First Principles

Trying my hand at many kinds of writing — playwriting, screenwriting, radio plays, short stories, and poetry — I’ve come to think about what’s consistent across all of them. What makes a piece of writing interesting whether it’s a novel or a poem?

Years ago, I came across a list of commandments for comedy writers by Gene Perret. “Thou Shalt Surprise.” “That Shalt Be Simple” and so on. For a while, I had it tacked on my wall. It’s counterproductive, I think, to always be checking your impulses against a rule set, but there are principles that almost always serve you well. Be simple. Be brief. Be openhearted, etc.

My shortlist of first principles looks like this: need, struggle, stakes, relationship, surprise, momentum, tone, vision.

It’s difficult to put them in a hierarchy, because they’re not hierarchical but holistic. Characters don’t usually experience struggle without having needs. A story’s tone depends on its worldview or vision. Sure, showing a person suffer and strive because of their deep unmet human need is fundamental — at least, within certain dramaturgical bounds — but tone can be what hooks a reader!

Also, relationships can be every bit as compelling as the ups and downs of individual struggle. Sometimes what we most care about, from our seat in the theatre, is what’s going to happen to the relationships onstage. And the big need in the story may not be friendship or marriage or true love.

I prefer to think about “struggle,” as opposed to “conflict.” Actually, in talking about my work in the rehearsal room, I use the word “tension” more than any other word perhaps. I frame stories in terms of “struggle” and “tension,” and not “conflict,” because the most thrilling forms of tension can easily come from situations in which two characters want the selfsame thing. Romance can create exciting and even deeply sad tension without anything approaching combat. Yes, we can tease out internal conflicts in scenes of romantic tension — the divorcée doesn’t want to admit she’s falling, because she’s been burned, and fears getting burned again — but relying too much on the conflict frame is like trying to use a hammer for every home improvement job.

Probably the hardest muscle to flex in writing is the “vision muscle.” As people, we tend to see the world through more or less consistent lenses, but that’s optional as a writer. As a reader and audience member, I like certain writers for their worldview, but there are other writers I like because they’re ideologically flexible and willing to try on different visions of the world — as thought experiments, if you will. And I think this sort of flexibility is helpful if you’re trying to go deep into a character’s point of view. Because your characters aren’t always like you, the artistic vision woven around the character should not always be like you.