Pursued By A Bear: “My full length play is too short, what should I do?”

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.   

I’ve finished my first ‘full length’ play but it’s only 40 pages long. I know many theatres only accept plays of an hour or more; I’d like to make the play longer but feel like I’ve said everything I need to say. What should I do?

In the nicest possible way, if your play is only forty pages long it isn’t a full length play.

Maybe it’s a finished play. A complete piece of art. But it’s not a full length play in the conventional sense.

I don’t envy you, this is a horrible situation to find yourself in. You’ve put everything into this script, it’s going to be your first full length play, an exciting milestone at the beginning of an illustrious career. You’ve spent months beavering away at it, but that moment of triumph you’ve been so eagerly anticipating for so long suddenly becomes a horrific anti-climax when you realise your masterpiece is barely longer than an episode of Hollyoaks.

And they write five of those a week.

Now you’re stuck in no man’s land. It’s too long to be a short play but too short to be a long play.

What can you do?

You essentially have three options:

  1. Leave it as it is.
  2. Make it longer.
  3. Make it shorter.

Thank you Captain Obvious. I know, that doesn’t sound particularly helpful… but hear me out, because the wisdom’s coming. I hope.

Let’s deal with my stupendously nebulous options in numerical order.

First option is to leave it alone. Call it a day. Write “The End” or “Curtain” or “Game over!” at the bottom of the last page, light up a cigar and ride off into the sunset. You’re well within your rights as a playwright and human being to cash out at this point.

However.

Let’s consider for a moment how many times we’ve been to see a forty minute play in a theatre. I don’t think I ever have. An hour? Yes. Ten minutes? Definitely. Forty minutes? Get the hell out.

But why not? Einstein says time is relative anyway. That’s why a particularly dull ten minute play can sometimes feel like a four hour marathon, and a fast-paced, engaging ninety minute play can fly by in an instant.

Time is relative.

Which is why we invented clocks.

People love to keep track of time. We check it on our watches, phones, dashboards, alarm clocks, ovens, computers, TVs and sundials. We used to check it by staring directly at the sun, although apparently now that’s bad for your eyes (it’s health and safety gone mad).

Even though an audience might be perfectly entertained for the forty minutes that elapses as they watch your play, to the extent they have no idea how much time has actually passed, they’ll probably still check their watch at the end to see if they got their money’s worth.

Most people visiting the theatre are looking for an evening out. An hour long play just about qualifies. Five or six ten minute plays will also fill that hole. But a single forty minute play? Most of your audience probably travel for forty minutes to get there.

If you kick off at half seven, the show will be done by ten past eight. The audience will feel robbed; they’re paying their babysitters by the hour. If the sixteen year old from next door can manage a full sixty minutes of work why can’t you?

Without meaning to sound harsh, a forty minute play will never work. I think you realise this, which is why you asked the question in the first place.

Your second option is to elongate it. Stretch it out, expand it, build on it, add to it. Do whatever you have to do to tip your play over that one hour mark.

Except don’t add anything that isn’t absolutely necessary to the story.

You don’t want to start cramming in extraneous dialogue or shoe-horning superfluous scenes into your tight, cohesive narrative. Ultimately you shouldn’t be adding anything that isn’t moving the story forward.

Although this sounds outrageously counterintuitive, I think it’s actually more difficult to make a play longer than it is to cut bits out. You can only cut what’s there, and unnecessary scenes tend to stick out once you’ve got a bit of distance.

If it’s too short though, the only limit is your imagination. Add that alien abduction scene into your period drama. Stick a five minute monologue about the EU Referendum into the middle of your flat-share romance. Do whatever the hell you want. But if it doesn’t move the plot forward in a meaningful way it will feel out of place to the audience. And any director who knows their shit will cut it anyway.

There is a way you can add to the length of your play without directly altering the course of the plot though. You can add a subplot.

Pick a few minor characters and give them a separate story arc. The great thing is that subplots don’t even have to influence the main plot, they can just share some of the same themes. You can even use a subplot to offer a counter-argument to a message in the main plot.

I think I may have mentioned before that I once wrote a musical about a schoolboy with a small penis. For those of you joining us for the first time, it’s pretty self-explanatory – a school bully comes under scrutiny from his cronies after a girl he snubs spreads a rumour he has a tiny weeny. Imagine that with songs.

When I began writing this deep and insightful ode to teen angst I thought that was the whole story. After all, what else could there possibly be to say?

But the first draft came in at a measly thirty minutes. Much like the protagonist’s disappointing appendage, it left a lot to be desired.

I couldn’t see a way to lengthen it organically, anything I added would have felt artificial and unnatural.  If your mind hasn’t descended into penis enlargement jokes at this point I applaud you.

Anyway, the excellent director I was working with at the time pointed out I had a number of strong minor characters in the play who could potentially benefit from their own subplots.

So, the resident homophobe came clean about his insecurities and asked out the gay kid he’d been picking on throughout the play.

The school diva dropped her act and went on a date with the studious goth.

And the bully’s sidekick went behind the bike sheds with the most promiscuous girl in school, contracted an STD and sang a heartfelt ditty about it.

None of these were directly connected to the main plot about the itsy-bitsy penis, but they all reinforced the anti-bullying message of the play, while also adding some depth to the supporting cast and bringing about some of the biggest laughs of the show.

Try thinking of some subplots that might fit around the main narrative of your forty minute play. Is there a minor character who deserves more shine? Is there a backstory that might add weight to events? Is the play in need of some comic relief in the form of a light-hearted side quest?

Your third and final option is to shorten it. Before you start snapping at me like an angry turtle, I know you want to write a full-length play. That’s what you set out to do and you don’t want to hear different from me.

But the fact is some stories just aren’t big enough to support a full-length play. If there’s nothing else you need to say, and you can’t find a viable subplot, you may have to think about doing something shorter.

This sounds really painful, and it is at first, but you can end up with a much stronger play. I remember once writing a thirty minute script which ambled along with all sorts of twists and turns but didn’t really feel like it was going anywhere. After considering every possible way to make it longer, I decided to do the opposite and ended up with a really strong ten minute play.

You may already be drowning in a sea of ten minute plays and hate the thought you’ve spent all this time on another one. I think it’s better to have a great ten minute play than an underwhelming, bloated full-length one though.

The exercise of cutting thirty or forty minutes down to ten is invaluable in itself. You really have to focus on what’s vital to the story you’re telling and ruthlessly remove everything else.

You’ll end up with a really tightly plotted and impactful ten minutes of theatre.

Finally, if you find you’re regularly struggling to tell whether a story is big enough for a full-length play, it’s worth putting more time into your planning before you start writing. By plotting out the story scene-by-scene you’ll get a good idea of how far it can go. You’ll also be able to spot those subplot opportunities at this stage so that they end up being an integral part of the play.

Whatever you decide to do, whether adding scenes or cutting, always keep the story you want to tell in the forefront of your mind.

 

 

 

 

 

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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