Week five study diary – Advanced Creative Writing
This week we moved from prose to scripts and looked at the craft of the playwright.
I received my marked assignment from weeks 1 – 4. This is a short story I need to develop into a script over the next few weeks with a traditional three act structure.
Although I am not allowed to share the tutor’s feedback I can say that I have my work cut out. What came through most clearly was that instead of fulfilling the brief of the assignment and creating a short story, I wrote the start of a longer piece. The bane of a novelist, I suppose. Before I can start writing my script for the second assignment, I will need to complete the story. This process shall take me beyond the limit of the original assignment’s word count. At that point I’ll have to cut it ruthlessly and focus only on the important parts of the story when it comes to writing the play. However, as promised, I’ve included the piece of writing in this post.
Last week I managed to write, edit and submit a short story “The Sundowner” in two days. It was for an anthology that intrigued and attracted me, so I went for it and forced myself through the brick wall to complete it in such a short time. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first draft also suffered from being the start of something longer rather than a complete short story. Thankfully, I had a more generous word count to play with, but the repetition of an identical issue made me more aware of my weak spots.
Back to what I learned about playwriting this week. It is essential to create contrasts between the voices of characters. When reading a play as an actor might, speaking aloud only one part, that voice should be consistent and unique. What the character says and how they say it is the basis for understanding both their personality and conflict.
Conflict is shown rather than told and must be concrete not abstract. A script can be seen as a set of instructions for director and actors. The writer must ensure all the necessary narrative elements are in place, but at the same time leave the performers room for artistic interpretation. Writing a play is a form of condensed storytelling, where any excess/unnecessary words must be removed. And most importantly – in plays, dialogue is action.
We looked at idiolect – the words characters might use and the way in which they say them. We were advised that using idiosyncratic words is more effective and easier for actors that using phonetics for accent and dialect. We were also warned against writing stereotypes. We considered the differences between written and spoken English and how ellipses and repetition might be used to great effect. A grammatically correct speech is likely to sound unnatural.
In summary – the voice should reveal individual sensibilities/class/ethnic background/experiences and traumas/fears, and it must be consistent and sound natural.
I went down a bit of a rabbit hole when listening to voices and conversations. While I live in Scotland, my stories tend to take me back to my home town of Bristol. Instead of hanging around local cafes and bus stops I listened to regional voices online. This led me back to Revolver Records, St Pauls, racial tension, dubstep and the Bristol Blag. It was a fun week.
Mum knelt before a flowerbed, trowel in hand, and wrist-deep in dirt. Her wide-brimmed sunhat cast shadows across her shoulders. A dirge filled the garden, originating from a battered CD player that squatted on a rusting table in need of a fresh coat of paint. Pinned beneath the stereo was an envelope; its exposed corner fluttered in the breeze. A jug of green liquid, full of shredded mint leaves and drowning flies, sat beside an empty glass.
A flash of black and white attracted my attention. A magpie landed on the upper branches of an old apple tree that no longer bore fruit. Mum might not have noticed my arrival but the bird did. It blinked enviously at the sparkling rock on my left hand. Rotating my wrist, I meditated on a myriad of rainbows painted across my fingers by the refracted sunlight - traditional symbols of hope and second chances. I removed the ring and hid it in the pocket of my jeans before speaking.
She spun round on her bare feet. Her painted lips widened as she attempted to rub soil off her fingers.
‘Lily! Home already? Would you like some lime juice?’
I recoiled. ‘No, thank you.’
Mum’s smile dropped. ‘How was your day?’
I avoided the question, unable to offer any amusing anecdotes. I worked in a clearing bank, counting out their money. Was she worried I might follow in my father’s footsteps and put my hand in the till?
‘What are you planting?’ I spotted half a dozen bulbs in a cardboard box.
I focused, beyond her, on the thorns of climbing roses encroached upon by ropes of ivy. The small courtyard garden with its barren tree was Mum’s sanctuary. The music, which grated my nerves, gave Mum a sense of tranquillity that I found hard to comprehend.
Love’s umbilical cord tugged me out of the doorway. The makeshift breezeblock step, pitted and ugly, shifted under my weight. I made a mental note to replace it, imagining my future daughter or son scraping knees and shedding blood on its rough surface as they crawled. Children? Dare I? The diamond ring in my pocket felt enormous: a life sentence.
The magpie rose from the tree. It soared overhead and settled on the low wall beside the freshly-dug hole, looking for insects probably, but it felt like an omen.
Mum poured herself a drink, seemingly unaware of the dead things tumbling into her glass. Repulsed, I watched the magpie pull a wriggling beetle from the disturbed earth. Registering the noise of the music system being moved, I glanced back and saw Mum straightening her shirt. The envelope was gone. Had she stuffed it in her bra, beside her heart?
I saw him, simultaneously beside the garden table and on a filthy mattress in his prison cell, scribbling a love letter. His black hair was white at one temple. Older than Mum, but handsome. His eyes held no warmth and his smile was cunning. It had taken years to recover from the chaos he created. We stayed, Mum and I, after our house was emptied by police. Mum created a home inside the shell, working double shifts so I could stay at school then college, while quelling her rage with antidepressants to keep her compliant enough to hold down a job. When I protested, haunted by the dark shadows of exhaustion beneath her dull eyes, I would hear the same response.
‘I’ll be damned before I let your father ruin both our futures.’
I knew the letter was from him. What I didn’t know was why Mum hadn’t torn it to shreds and made compost with his lies. The only thing that kept me going after his betrayal was knowing he was gone from our lives. It was why I didn’t know how to tell Mum about my engagement. Men couldn’t be trusted. I could tell her that Tom was a good guy, that I could rely on him, and maybe Mum would believe me if she didn’t stare into my eyes and see the doubt I harboured there.
‘Who’s the letter from?’ I glanced at Mum.
She licked her lips. Her fingers twitched, still rubbing at the soil. The glass of lime and insects was back on the table. Had she noticed the menace or taken a sip and swallowed the corruption?
‘Is it from Dad?’ I asked, offering a lifeline.
She nodded. Colour bloomed beneath Mum’s pale foundation. Her kohl-rimmed eyes stared at the chipped flagstones, avoiding my gaze.
‘He’s getting out next month. He doesn’t have anywhere to stay.’
‘Well he can’t stay here!’ I ground my teeth. A vein pulsed in my temple. My hands became fists that twitched to strike Mum’s gullible face. ‘Do you still love him?’
‘I’d say it’s pretty simple. He took everything from us.’
‘He gave me you, and he’s not a bad man.’
‘He gets to leave his prison, but I’m trapped within my walls forever. I can’t trust anyone.’
‘You can trust me,’ she said.
‘Not if you think you can invite him to live with us.’ I reached into my pocket and pulled out the engagement ring. I waved it in front of Mum’s downcast face. ‘Tom asked me to marry him.’
I’d expected Mum’s response to be tainted with worry. But her face glowed and her wide smile seemed to make two halves of her head.
‘Congratulations, darling. That’s wonderful news.’
I grunted, not willing to surrender my anger.
‘Yeah and we won’t share a bank account; I won’t give up work, and I can’t sign for a joint mortgage. We’ll have to rent.’
All these things, which had once served as protective amulets, became cause for complaint, ammunition I hurled at my mother.
She didn’t return my volley. Tears smudged her make-up. I peered at the breezeblock step and doubted I would ever have children who might scrape their knees on its surface. Even as I pushed the ring onto my left hand I imagined pulling it off again to throw in Tom’s face, enraged at the slightest provocation and running, running and never stopping.
‘You deserve better, Mum.’
She didn’t reply.
‘What about your friend Cat? She makes you laugh and you like the same music.’
Mum’s eyes met mine. They sparkled and a mischievous grin fluttered across her lips.
‘Oh no, she’s married with a grandchild on the way. You are funny, Lily!’
It wasn’t intended as a joke. I was grasping at straws. My skull was a brace around my thoughts.
‘Okay, but you can’t trust him. You can’t be that naive.’
‘He’s my weakness. I know where I am with him, no nasty surprises. And well… he’s an attentive lover.’
I blushed. ‘Mum!’
‘Tell me about Tom. Can I meet him?’
‘Only if you tell Dad to fuck off.’
‘Lily!’ Her hands fidgeted again. They always did when she was nervous.
I saw her through the soft-focus lens of my tears. Why didn’t she understand?
‘It isn’t always easy, Mum, but Tom’s patient with me. He knows about everything, and he thinks I’m worth the trouble. It will take some time. I’m not sure I’ll ever trust him completely. I guess, if I expect the worst at least I’ll be ready when it happens.’
‘I’m so sorry, Lily.’
She didn’t owe me an apology, but we both knew the one who did would never utter those words. Nothing had ever been his fault. He always found excuses for his wrongs or blamed them on others, even me sometimes and, more often than not, my mother.
‘It wasn’t your fault, but don’t take him back, please.’
She nodded. Her rabbit-like teeth chewed her bottom lip. ‘If you can be strong enough to give Tom a chance, I guess I can turn your father away. Invite Tom over. I’ll cook your favourite, lasagne.’
I grabbed the jug and her glass.
‘Let me get you some fresh juice. I’ll phone Tom from the kitchen. I love you, Mum.’
‘I love you too, Lily. We’ll celebrate tonight, and tomorrow you can help me reply to your father. I need an angel on my shoulder. That devil talks too much.’
Would a letter to prison change anything? The ring and its dancing rainbows dared me to hope that we might be okay. A kernel of fear in the base of my brain screamed at my stupidity. It warned me I was powerless to stop my father if he decided to return. I stared at Mum. If only I could swaddle her and keep her safe. Her wide-eyed innocence terrified me. I had to protect her. Would Tom help?