Pursued By A Bear: “My political play feels like talking heads”

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’m writing a political play and I’m struggling with dialogue. How do I make sure my characters sound like real people, rather than vehicles for the various opinions within my piece?”

A lot of people find politics boring because most politicians are just vehicles for their own opinions, at least when we hear them speak publicly. We very rarely see glimpses of personality, everything is filtered out by the joint machinations of P.R. and party policy. This is why politicians who display a bit of individuality, like Boris Johnson or even Donald Trump, gain more popularity than they perhaps otherwise should.

Of course, a political play isn’t necessarily set in the political arena. Politics encompasses pretty much any issue which has an impact on society. A play about a whaling ship off the coast of Japan can be described as political just as much as a play about a back-bencher in Westminster.

Political issues are by nature contentious, the things people feel passionately about inherently create a lot of drama. Just look at the current debate over Brexit. It’s become quite personal, and political parties are splitting almost down the middle.

But, at the same time, politics can be incredibly boring. There’s nothing worse than being lectured by someone about a topic you don’t know or even care about. And the stronger someone’s opinion on a political issue, the stronger their urge to ram it down your throat.

And the less coherent their argument.

People become so fixated on their own point of view they’re unwilling to even entertain an alternate viewpoint. There’s no possibility of changing their mind, and thus a debate becomes an argument, with neither side budging. It’s repetitive. It’s boring. And everyone gets a bit red-faced.

Drama is, in essence, the possibility of change. A character must come up against an opposing force and either the character or the opponent must change as a result. The excitement for an audience comes in anticipating which side will change, and whether for better or worse. This is why politicians are boring, we know they won’t change. Under no circumstance will any politician ever allow himself to entertain another point of view. I suppose they think it would make them appear as if they lack conviction.

Personally I think it would make them look a little more rational and human. But I’m not a politician.

So how do we show a political point of view without reverting to the politician’s unwavering barrage of spurious facts and transparent statements? How do we make politics dramatic?

Once again it’s a matter of remembering to show rather than tell.

Say you’re writing a play about the legalisation of drugs, you strongly feel that the current system of policing drug traffickers, dealers and users is failing. You feel it’s a massive drain on the country’s finances for little reward, and that locking drug users up does little to alter their future behaviour. You know you need to show two opposing viewpoints so you pick a person from each side of the debate and sit them in a room together.

One is a counsellor who works with addicts, the other is a policeman who wants tougher sentences for drug users. These two people disagree very strongly about a major issue. It should be dramatic, right?

But you soon find your characters stuck in a circular argument, neither will back down. They keep saying things like “Locking people up for drug use is wrong, we should be giving these drug addicts the help they need,” and “Drugs ruin lives, they are strongly associated with criminal activity and can cause long-lasting psychiatric disturbance.”

The problem here is we’re telling the audience what our characters think, instead of showing them.

How do we show a political point of view? It’s very tricky, the key lies in putting your characters in a situation which forces them to act in a way which reflects their opinion.

Instead of sitting in a room debating the merits and flaws of government policies on illegal substances, we need to force our characters to make choices which challenge their beliefs.

For example, at the beginning we see our policeman arrest a dealer who’s been selling drugs to kids outside a school. Maybe our policeman is particularly forceful or even violent towards the dealer, displaying his belief that the dealer deserves punishment. This gives us the opportunity to show the audience how the character feels about drug use.

However, our policeman later discovers his own son who he loves dearly is a heroin addict. This puts him in a very sticky situation because he believes drug users should be arrested but at the same time he knows his son is a good person who doesn’t deserve to be locked up. He’s forced to make a choice; does he stick to his principles and report his son, or does he try to protect his son and thus risk his career?

You can also show the opposite viewpoint by having the son do something benevolent, even if it’s as small as helping an old woman cross the street. This shows us that drug users are not automatically bad people, and you can achieve it with barely a word of dialogue.

By forcing a character to make choices and react to their situation you are showing what they think and feel without needing them to say it. You’ve heard the idiom “Actions speak louder than words,” this should be your mantra when writing a political piece of theatre.

Instead of telling us conflict diamonds are stained with the blood of African children, the film Blood Diamond shows us the ravages of the diamond trade in Sierra Leone. Diamond smuggler Danny Archer is forced to choose whether to continue making money from illegal diamonds or help local fisherman Solomon Vandy rescue his son who has been conscripted as a child soldier. As a result Danny’s belief that his actions are not harming anyone is called into question and eventually he is changed by the situation.

If you stick to the “Show don’t tell” rule you can present a political point of view without any character in your play ever expressing it directly through dialogue. The key is to pick a situation which is going to challenge your character’s belief and then force them to make choices. Either they stick to their guns and get through it, emerging triumphant at the other end having resolved the problem. or they’re forced to consider new possibilities, change their point of view and come out the other side with a different perspective.

I’ll end by saying it helps to decide what you want the play to say at the very beginning of the process. Once you know the premise you can create the strongest possible situation to challenge your characters and show why your point of view is the right one (in your opinion). By all means have the political arguments in your head, but never fall into the bad habit of spouting them to your audience. Use your characters and your situation to show us why you believe what you’re saying.

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Photo credit: Tambako the Jaguar via CC license

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