This is the third in a series of four articles discussing techniques for developing a new play inspired by a character. The first installment covered the development of a character biography. The second article explained how to find your character’s voice through exploratory monologues and scenes.

I WROTE EARLIER about my inability as a student playwright to sit down with a blank page and write an outline for a new play. The panicked feeling that overwhelmed me was in no way relieved by one playwriting teacher’s directive to “just write a narrative first” — a prose version of the story — before attempting any dialogue, as if that was the easiest thing in the world! For me, dialogue flowed like water. But ask me to write an outline, and I froze.

I was able to break my mental block about writing outlines once I gave myself permission not to write them. Instead, I found it easier to think in terms of major events — the things in the play that have to happen in order to tell the story.

Let’s take, for example, Salvation Road, my play about a boy, Cliff, whose sister Denise gets involved in a religious cult. When I started to write Salvation Road, all I knew about the story was that the sister becomes involved in a new church and cuts off the family cold, then her younger brother eventually goes to look for her. I didn’t know how the play would open, but I had a good sense of how it would end: on the eve of the confrontation between Cliff and Denise. From the beginning of the project, I knew that we would never see that encounter. We would only see Cliff as he’s about to walk into it.

Based on that knowledge, here are four major events that were immediately clear to me.

  1. Denise joins the new church.
  2. Denise cuts off her family and disappears.
  3. Cliff decides to look for Denise.
  4. Cliff figures out what he will do when he finally gets a chance to talk to his sister.

Obviously, there’s a lot missing from that list, but if you look closely, it raises a number of questions, the answers to which lead to decisions about other important events.

  1. Why does Denise join the new church?
  2. Why does she cut off her family?
  3. Why is it Cliff who goes to look for Denise and not his parents?
  4. What is it that Cliff has to figure out?
Mapping the major events can provide structure for your play. Antigone's choice to bury both of her feuding brothers leads to her death and the death of her friend.
Mapping the major events can provide structure for your play. Antigone's choice to bury both of her feuding brothers leads to her death and the death of her friend. Photo from New Albany (Ind.) High School’s 2014 ITF production of Antigone by Susan Doremus.

From writing my initial exploratory scene, I knew that Denise would be an idealistic young woman who takes religion seriously and Cliff an avowed atheist who likes to tease his sister for being too earnest. I also knew that Denise was a dedicated musician who organized a concert to benefit earthquake victims — a concert Cliff does not attend, partly to irritate his sister.

All of this suggested to me that Denise might be attracted to a fellowship active in social justice issues. It also suggested that Cliff doesn’t really understand Denise. After she disappears, he is nagged by guilt over his behavior toward her, and that guilt propels him forward. There is also the question of what happens to convince Cliff he should begin the search for his sister. Backing up one step, it became clear that Cliff must come across some clue as to her whereabouts.

With all that in mind, I looked at the events again and brainstormed answers to the questions I had identified. This resulted in the addition of more events to my original list.

  1. Denise urges Cliff to attend the benefit she is organizing, but Cliff refuses.
  2. Denise holds the concert, where she plays with her all-girl rock band.
  3. Denise goes away to college.
  4. The band breaks up, leaving Denise feeling really blue.
  5. Denise meets people at college who invite her to play music at their fellowship.
  6. Denise joins the new church.
  7. Cliff makes fun of Denise’s new church when she describes to him how they pray together and make decisions together.
  8. Denise moves out of her college dorm and into a house with members of the church.
  9. Cliff’s father goes to the church house to confront Denise and bring her home.
  10. Denise refuses to come home.
  11. Denise cuts off her family and disappears.
  12. Cliff finds out that someone has seen Denise in a location far away from where he knew she was earlier.
  13. Cliff decides to look for Denise.
  14. Cliff figures out what he will do when he finally gets a chance to talk to his sister.

Now there are quite a few more events, and a story is beginning to take shape. A critical discovery is Event 4: The band breaks up, leaving Denise feeling really blue. It’s important because it lays the foundation for Denise’s attraction to the fellowship: It fills a need in her life.

Is this the proper sequence, though? Should the play start with Event 1? And do all of these events need to be seen onstage? The point of entry depends on the story I mean to tell. Is it Cliff’s journey, or is it Denise’s? Very early on, I decided I wanted to write about the people left behind, bewildered by a friend or relative’s disappearance into a cult. That meant the play needed to depict Cliff’s journey. Therefore, it made sense to me that it should begin with the event that kicks off Cliff’s search for Denise — Event 12, where Cliff learns that someone has spotted her.

As it happens, my original draft began exactly that way. After nearly a year of silence from his sister, with no idea where she is, Cliff learns that someone has spotted her at a strip mall in New Jersey, hundreds of miles from where she last lived. That someone is Cliff’s friend Duffy, who has just come back from a trip to see his older brother at a college not far from the mall. Duffy arrives with cellphone video of some young people selling flowers, and he’s convinced Denise is in that group and that she is making a silent plea for help. Cliff is not convinced, but that’s the event that kicks off his journey to find Denise. He doesn’t agree to it at first because he knows that when his father tried to confront Denise, she cut the family off and dropped out of sight. It’s only after he is pressured by his younger sister, Jill, that he relents and agrees to go.

Tragic circumstances arise when Wendla’s mother fails to answer her daughter’s questions about how babies are made in the Denver School of the Arts 2016 ITF production of Spring Awakening. Photo by R. Bruhn.

Having made those decisions, the play developed into a story about what happens between Event 12, when Cliff learns that Duffy has seen Denise, and Event 14, when Cliff figures out what he’ll say when he gets a chance to talk to her. If that is the arc of the story, then this is a play about someone preparing for the most important meeting of his life. The story is about what happens to Cliff to get him to the point he can succeed where his father failed. This means Cliff’s journey moves from a position of judgment and intolerance to a position of humility and openness.

It also means everything that happens up to Event 11 is backstory. I decided some of it would be depicted through flashbacks, and some of it would be referred to but not seen.

As I continued to address new questions raised by these new events, I identified a three-part structure for the play, highlighting what happens from Events 12 through 14.

Part One: Cliff learns that Duffy has seen Denise. He initially resists, so this part covers the events that cause him to change his mind.

Part Two: Cliff decides to search for Denise. This part covers the events that happen on the search. Because the play is about Cliff’s learning curve, which is steep, the search can’t go well.

Part Three: Cliff figures out what to say to Denise. Cliff makes this decision after an event that forces self-reflection, so that epiphany must come very late in the play. Part Three, then, must cover the events that occur after a major turning point, when Cliff realizes he’s got to change his approach.

Knowing this, I needed to think more about what happens once Cliff gets on the road. I decided he would have a series of humiliating and disillusioning encounters that deepen his confusion and fear. It occurred to me he might seek expert help, and that it would be dramatically useful if he gets a different answer than he expected. Instead of help finding his sister, he’ll be advised to take a closer look at himself. Then he’ll have a turning point where he gains insights into his father’s failure and why Denise cut the family off. Only when he begins to understand his sister’s need and vulnerability does he acquire the compassion required to approach Denise in a way that won’t alienate her.

A second look at that three-part structure filled in more details and a few more events.

  1. Cliff learns that Duffy has seen Denise. As Chris weighs Duffy’s invitation to go back and search for her, we learn more about Denise before she went away and how her long absence has wrecked the family and left Cliff feeling confused and guilty. We learn about the concert and Cliff’s refusal to go. We learn that Cliff and Jill have different ideas about why Denise cut them off, but when Cliff realizes Jill blames herself for what happened, his guilt overtakes him, and he agrees to the search.
  2. Cliff joins Duffy in the search for Denise, kicking off a journey in which he makes a series of blunders, alienating potential allies as he tries to track his sister down. Among the events: Cliff and Duffy meet with a nun who works for Campus Ministry. She educates them about Denise’s church and why a direct confrontation will only end in failure. She directs Cliff to a meeting with a former member of Denise’s church, which ends disastrously, but Cliff gains an understanding of what happened the night his father tried to bring Denise home.
  3. Forced to face his own shortcomings, Cliff realizes that his judgmental approach is part of the problem. He comes to see that Denise’s idealism and loneliness made her vulnerable to manipulation, and his perspective begins to shift. Cliff figures out what he’ll do when he finally gets a chance to talk to Denise: He must accept her exactly as she is.

Many more events are suggested by this structure, but in getting this far, I came to an important realization. I understood that I wanted to tell two stories in the play: the story of the search for Denise and the story of what happened to Denise that led to her disappearance.

I also realized that while the events that made up the search for Denise would be presented in chronological order, the events depicting what happened to her did not have to be. Rather, it might make more sense if her story were told in a non-linear fashion, through the differing recollections of Cliff, Jill, Duffy, and people they encounter along the way. The reason for this is that the play is not just about Cliff’s search for his sister, but also about his preparation for his ultimate mission — to persuade her to come home. He starts out unprepared for that critical encounter. He is cynical and angry, not understanding why she cut the family off but fearful that his behavior toward her had something to do with it. As he meets different people along the way, he learns new information that gives him greater insight into Denise’s vulnerability, and he begins to see her as someone who needs compassion, not judgment.

By starting with a list of events, I was able to work my way to decisions regarding key plot points, and from there to a discovery about the arc of the story. By working this way, I backed into a broad outline.

From here, I need to fill in more events. But it is not enough simply to list the things that happen. Now, I must figure out a sequence that moves the action forward.

I’ll talk more about that in the final installment.

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