Nina Mansfield, author of Erasing the Brain, writes both plays and fiction. Here she discusses her process, with particular emphasis on the differences between writing fiction and writing for the stage.
Many times I have been asked how the process of writing plays is different than and/or similar to writing fiction. I’ve always had trouble answering this question. I don’t really think about the writing process while it is happening. But for the purposes of this blog post, I decided to do a tad of self-reflection, and attempt to really answer this question. I’m not going to get all technical and discuss things like structure, and why playwrights are called playWRIGHTS instead of playWRITES. Instead, I’ll just share a little bit about where my writing comes from, and why sometimes my words form plays, and sometimes not.
My fiction is frequently inspired by an image, often a smell. Ocean air has inspired me on more than one occasion, which is why I habitually set my stories (and my novels) near a body of water. Once, the scent of sawdust served as the launching point for a short mystery story. Smells work well in fiction. Not so much in theater. I mean, I would love to write a play where I get to lull the audience into submission with the aroma of fresh baked bread, and maybe one of these days I will write a site specific play that gets staged in a bakery. But for now, smells will probably continue to play a far more significant role in my fiction.
My plays, on the other hand, tend to be inspired by a line of dialogue that pops into my head and simply won’t go away. In order to figure out which character has taken over my brain, I must plant myself at my desk, or couch, or dining room table, and start writing. That’s often the only way for me to determine who is speaking, what they want, and what they are willing to do to get what they want. At that point, usually at least one other character appears, and the banter begins. Much of this dialogue will get cut down during my revision process, but when I start writing, I just let my characters talk.
Whether I am working on a play, a short story or a novel, I end up spending a lot of time in each character’s shoes; but it is only with my fiction that I write down exactly what a character might be thinking. Much of my fiction is written in the first person, so there is plenty of opportunity for the narrator to expose her hopes, fears and doubts to the reader. And yes, I know there are many excellent plays where characters share their inner struggles with the audience. Hamlet comes to mind. But I tend to write a lot of ten-minute plays. There simply isn’t enough time for a character to divulge her inner turmoil through a serious of lengthy soliloquies. Instead, this needs to be revealed by her actions, by what she says to others, and by what she doesn’t say.
When I am in the throes of writing a first draft, however, I don’t think about these similarities and differences. I also don’t think about structure or stage directions or chapter length. I just write. And on a good writing day, the words—be they part of my next novel or my next play—spill onto the page. I am transported into the world I am creating, whether this world will eventually be created on a stage, or simply in a reader’s mind.
Incidentally, while writing this blog, a line of dialogue popped into my brain:
“What is that smell?”
Is it the beginning of a play or a short story?
Well, this time, I’m not sure.