This is the fourth and final article 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. The third piece detailed how to map the major events of your play.

I WROTE PREVIOUSLY about working out the structure of a play by thinking in terms of major events — the things that happen to your characters — then organizing those events into an outline. It is not enough, of course, to list the events as they occur to you.

Getting to an outline requires you to organize those events in a sequence that will advance the action. That may sound like a no-brainer, but unless you have a good sense of where you want to take your character, it’s hard to know what that sequence should be.

The sequence of events can have a powerful impact on your story and the nature of its characters. By way of example, consider this simple three-act romance.

1. John meets Mary.
2. Mary falls in love with John.
3. John buys a diamond ring.

If all we see of this story are these three events onstage, we have a traditional (if not very exciting) love story that ends happily for the characters. But suppose we flip those events around.

1. John buys a diamond ring.
2. John meets Mary.
3. Mary falls in love with John.

Now we have something more interesting, with potential conflict baked in. Obviously, John has bought that diamond for someone else, so Mary has an uphill battle on her hands. Maybe it won’t work out for her. I’m immediately more interested in this story than in the first one. Let’s flip the events again.

1. John meets Mary.
2. John buys a diamond ring.
3. Mary falls in love with John.

What does this sequence of events say about John? Even before he knows where things are headed with Mary, he’s rushed out to get that ring. And this time, it’s John who has the work to do, if he is to win Mary over. Once again, this sequence immediately gives us more to work with — and for me, it’s also more interesting than the first.

To render any of these scenarios into a play we want to watch, we’d have to add a lot of meat to the bones, but the point is clear: The organization of events will determine the story you tell. To take that list of events and shape it into the story you want it to be, you need to know whose journey audiences are following. Is it John’s or Mary’s? And where do we want to take that character? What is the takeaway at the end of the play?

Did John meet Mary or buy the diamond ring first? The sequence of events determines the story you want to tell.
Did John meet Mary or buy the diamond ring first? The sequence of events determines the story you want to tell.

In writing Salvation Road, I knew that my main character was the brother of a girl who disappears into a religious cult. Cliff literally is on a journey to find Denise, but in the process, he finds out a lot about himself. In particular, he comes to his spiritual awakening. The play ends with Cliff preparing for a confrontation with Denise. Though we never see them speak to each other, we see Cliff’s imagining of how that conversation will go, and we have a strong sense that he is finally ready for it.

In the previous article, I walked through the process I used to map out the major events of the play and develop a three-act structure that became a preliminary outline. For our purposes here, I’m going to focus on the first act.

Cliff learns that Duffy has seen Denise. As he 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 benefit concert Denise has organized and Cliff’s refusal to go. We learn that Cliff and his younger sister 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.

This section of the play takes Cliff from his initial resistance to Duffy’s plan to look for his sister to agreeing to it. How do we get him there? By breaking down these events and revelations into a series of smaller events that build to that turning point. We want a sequence of events that puts more and more pressure on Cliff.

Let’s consider the opening scene of the play, in which Cliff learns that Duffy has seen Denise. This scene breaks down into roughly five events.

1. Cliff, his younger sister Jill, and his best friend Duffy look at a video Duffy shot of kids selling flowers at a shopping mall in a college town about 100 miles away. Duffy brought the video as proof that he has seen Denise. He insists she is one of the kids selling flowers.

2. Neither Cliff nor Jill recognize Denise at first, but Jill recognizes one of the other people in the video. It is Elijah, a friend from Denise’s church, who was the group leader in a house she lived in before she disappeared. Elijah, she says, is “the one who said Daddy was toxic.” This revelation triggers an argument with Cliff.

DUFFY: That’s the dude?
JILL: Said our whole family was toxic.
CLIFF: Dad was pretty volcanic, you gotta admit.
JILL: He just wanted to talk to her.
CLIFF: Correction. He wanted to yell at her.
JILL: So she would come home!
CLIFF: And you see how well that worked out.

Duffy’s sighting of Jill sets the sequence of events for Salvation Road in motion.

This conflict is pivotal to the play and Cliff’s journey, so we must learn about it very early in the action. It explains Cliff’s hesitation to get involved. Earlier attempts to corral Denise failed miserably; why would the kids succeed where their father couldn’t?

3. Duffy interrupts the argument to tell the story of what happened at the mall, how he spoke to Elijah, and as the flower sellers were leaving, how Denise conveyed her need to be rescued. Cliff is unconvinced.

CLIFF: You don’t know what she wants. You didn’t even talk to her.
DUFFY: It was in her eyes, man.
CLIFF: Oh. Her eyes said what her lips couldn’t?
JILL: Don’t be such a dork.

4. Despite Cliff’s resistance, Duffy and Jill agree they need to do something to help Denise. As they make plans, Cliff throws cold water on them.

CLIFF: I hate to break it to you guys: She knows where we live. If she wanted a ticket home, she’d have one.
DUFFY: Might not be that simple, dude.
JILL: She might not have the money.
CLIFF: She can pick up a phone.
DUFFY: Maybe she can’t get to a phone.
CLIFF: Who in America can’t get to a phone?

5. When Duffy counters that they can’t simply drop the idea of helping Denise, Cliff has another rejoinder.

CLIFF: Like, what are you going to do, man? Kidnap her? Hold her hostage?
DUFFY: At least think about it, OK? Cause if it were my sister — I would at least try to do something.
CLIFF: Like, what am I supposed to do, man? Neecie doesn’t take orders from me.

Thus, the opening scene presents three characters aligning on the opposite sides of a question: Does Denise need help? If she does, what should they do about it? Cliff’s objections to Duffy’s plans are practical and rational. They can’t be sure Denise wants their help or even wants to come home. Neither Jill nor Duffy can reasonably counter Cliff’s objections, so they respond with strong emotions: Jill blows up at him, and Duffy lays on the guilt.

However, something is missing from this sequence, and it took me several drafts of the entire play to realize what it was. At this point, we haven’t seen Denise; she’s only referred to. We will see her soon — in the next scene, Cliff recalls the sister he knew before she joined the fellowship, and we meet Denise as she was in high school. But if we were to see Denise before Duffy shows Cliff the video, it would add more power to that moment and put more pressure on Cliff. It also would explain Duffy’s urgency, Jill’s anxiety, and Cliff’s disbelief. So, this event from my original outline — We learn about the benefit concert and Cliff’s refusal to go — which I thought would occur in the second scene of the play, now takes place at the beginning. The play now opens with Denise performing at the benefit concert.

In this brief opening scene, Denise finishes a song, then searches the crowd for Cliff and realizes he has skipped the concert. She makes a joke about it, but it’s clear she’s disappointed. She concludes her set by dedicating her last song to her father, who is in the audience and who, she says, taught her to play.

Adding that scene achieves a few important things. It gives us a clear sense of Denise before she went away, it sets up the brother-sister conflict in a humorous way, and it reveals a closeness with her father that is later belied by her refusal to come home with him.

So, when we move to what is now Scene 2 — set up by Cliff in a monologue to the audience — we know who Denise is. We’ve seen a bright, talented, independent, and socially conscious girl. When we get to Duffy’s video, the contrast between the Denise at the concert and the girl selling flowers could not be stronger. And it puts more pressure on Cliff, because he cannot acknowledge the change in his sister without realizing that something has gone seriously wrong. Duffy’s assertion that Denise needs help now has much more credibility.

Girl with guitar
A new opening scene for Salvation Road better sets up the conflict of the play and adds urgency to the events that follow.

From there, the rest of the first act plays out in two distinct scenes.

1. Cliff’s memory of Denise before the cult — on the Sunday morning before the concert — in which the nature of their relationship is revealed more fully, and Cliff acknowledges his regret over his behavior toward his sister.

2. Jill’s recollection of the visit she and Cliff made to Denise at college, where they saw how radically their sister had changed after she fell in with Elijah’s church. Jill’s distress at that memory and her fear that she contributed to alienating Denise is the final straw, and Cliff agrees to join Duffy on the search.

If you choose this approach to working out the story of your play, it’s helpful to keep a few things in mind. Like the exploratory scene, the events map — and the outline you develop from it — are tools you can choose or discard. If they work for you, use them. If they don’t, try something else.

For me the outline is a dynamic document. I often go back and forth between writing scenes and adding more detail to the outline as I go. Sometimes I reorganize the outline completely, rethinking the sequence of events as I make discoveries writing the scenes. It makes rewriting easier if you have this road map in hand.

If you can identify five major events of your play, you know that you will have to take your character from A to B to C to D to E. But if you don’t know what A is just yet, that’s not a problem if you have a good idea of what E is. You can work your way back and figure out the sequence that takes you there. And if you don’t know what A or E is, it’s not necessarily a crisis either, so long as you have a really strong sense of what C is. Then, you can work your way out from the center.

Happy writing!

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