Paul T Davies reviews new publication Playwriting: Structure, Character and What To Write by Stephen Jeffreys published by Nick Hern Books.
Playwriting. Structure, Character, How and What To Write.
Nick Hern Books.
For over two decades, Stephen Jeffreys ran a hugely successful series of workshops that attracted writers from all over the world and shaped the work of many of today’s successful writers. Edited by Maeve McKeown, the book, which he was working on right up until his early death in 2018, lovingly curates his unique voice. And one of the triumphs of the book is that you feel that Jeffreys is talking to you directly, writer to writer, theatre lover to theatre lover. He even sums up the book succinctly, “This book is the culmination of a lifetime of reading and writing scripts, going to the theatre, and teaching playwrights. I’ve provided what I believe has been missing up until now: a clear guide on structure, character, how and what to write.”
And the book is divided perfectly under those three subjects. From Aristotle’s Poetics, right up to recent hit plays, he chooses superb examples to underline his discussions. You will learn Story Structure, for example, the Three-Part Story that is Macbeth, Open/Closed Time and Place, what to write before an interval and after, the Disrupted Time play, relationships with audiences and so much more besides. The moments when he uses a play you’re familiar with to demonstrate their creation and delivery are thrilling. (He provides such a perfect summary of Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls that I wish I had read it before attempting to summarize the play’s complexity in a 500-word review of the recent National Theatre production.)
I particularly enjoyed, as a writer, the section on characters, picking up tips I have already begun to utilize, reminding me how important back story is, even if only a fragment of that sometimes finds its way on stage, and to consider what happens to the characters once the play is finished. The three dimensions of character is an inspiring section, and it’s worth pointing out that Jeffreys will also send you off to buy, borrow and research the plays you are unfamiliar with, you will want to know more. How To Write contains superb tips and anecdotes, I now know what the Peggy Ramsay test is, how the Watergate tapes can be used as a tool for constructing dialogue, and the difference between playwrights that are foxes and those that are hedgehogs. (Trust me; it’s worth buying the book to find out which one you are!). Among the exercises, you can do at home are examples of every different kind of play you can think of.
The final section contains an excellent, up to date analysis of “universal stories”, and Jeffrey’s makes a strong argument for there being Nine Stories from which all drama is created, and breaks them down here into beginning, middle and end stories. In short, this book is an absolute treat, no matter where you consider yourself to be as a writer. It’s essentially a book for all lovers of theatre, a book to return to time and time again, to use as inspiration, to cherish and to gift to other lovers of plays.