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Playwriting Lesson Plan: “The Runaway Story"

written by: S.S. Caine • edited by: SForsyth • updated: 9/11/2012

With this lesson plan, teach students how to give life to their plays by remaining open to story possibilities. In so doing, you may also encourage them to broaden their imaginations, deepen their characters and, at the same time, exercise generosity as writers.

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    Playwrights are in a unique position. Those who are keenly observant and equally as open-minded have the opportunity to bring rich, captivating characters and stories to life. A picture, for example, can say a thousand words, but supplementing the visual by actually writing those words can turn up the volume quite a bit, and take the characters present in the picture on an imaginative and unexpected journey.

    To demonstrate this, present on the board for the students a work of art (perhaps a classic painting or photograph). Explain that this picture, this one little moment in time captured two-dimensionally in its still, static state is a launch pad from which to build an entire story, many stories--plays, from any number of perspectives.

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    Explain that no matter how different one student’s perspective might be from another’s, they may all be inspired to write a play that journeys from a sense of stability (real or imagined) that is disturbed by an interference, which creates an obstacle, the inevitable precursor to conflict. Once that conflict is resolved in some fashion, the play returns to stable conditions, although this sense of stability may be drastically different than those with which the play began.

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    Before beginning the following exercise, work together with students to creatively chart an example of a dramatic journey inspired by the picture by identifying the components above. Be sure that multiple students have a chance to help shape the story.

    Now the students should have an opportunity to create their own stories. Explain that no matter what the initial inspiration for their plays, it’s important—and most rewarding—to be open to the not-necessarily-so-obvious possibilities as to who their characters are and how their stories may evolve.

    1. Distribute (ideally a diverse lot including fine art or photography) magazines and slips of paper. Then pass around scissors and a stapler. Ask students to take 1-2 minutes to select an image with which they identify from their magazine and clip it. (The clippings shouldn’t be pictures of any celebrities familiar to the students.) Then have the students write down in two or three sentences on the separate slip of paper what they perceive as the sense of stability within that picture and what they imagine would be an example of interference upon that stability. Have them staple the slip of paper to the picture. When that is finished, collect the magazines as well as the clippings in a collection hat.

    2. Then, because theatre at its best is not self-centered and rather a generous art form that celebrates and invites shared experiences, redistribute the clippings randomly, making sure that everyone gets a clipping other than their own. (Clippings may not be shared at any other time during the exercise, unless prompted by specific instructions.) Then ask the students to look over their new pictures and consider the stability and interference previously identified by their peers. Have them continue the story by adding to the slip of paper what might be the obstacle and the conflict as they imagine it. They should remember that inherent in the conflict is the “want" of one or more characters. Collect the clippings in the hat.

    3. Next, redistribute the clippings one final time, attempting to ensure that every student has a new picture (make sure they don’t read the slips of paper when determining whether or not they’ve seen it before). Ask students to conclude the story by offering a means of reestablishing a sense of stability. Then have those students present orally to the class, one by one, the picture they have and the corresponding story.

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    Engage the students in questions regarding their experience in working through this exercise, writing any noteworthy responses on the board: How did the stories evolve? Was it similar or different from the way you’d imagined that evolution? Was it difficult to let go of your sense of the story? What did you learn about the characters that you didn’t know in your original scene of stability and interference? How did you feel about that new knowledge? What details came to light? Did the scenario seem believable? What made it a good story?

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    This exercise is designed to get students’ minds working in the playwriting and storytelling mode while encouraging them to be open-minded about the journey and the possibilities their stories and characters may explore. Characters, like people, are not always who they may appear to be. They take on lives of their own. Stories, too, often have a way of charting their own courses. They still need guidance, management, a degree of craftsmanship, if you will, but not dictatorship. We must be open to letting go of fixed ideas about things—about boys, about girls, about family, friendship, love, death, the future, about who we decide in one second as our eyes scan a crowded room we “like" and “don’t like," who we think is like us and who isn’t, how the story will develop, how it might end. We should allow these things, these revelations, to unfold before us. Sure, our stories may start with us, or with someone we know (or think we know), but they can expand, broaden. When we release the need to control or to judge and open our minds to the possibilities and the intricacies of our stories and our characters, we may find their depth and appeal to be greater than we might ever have sensed or imagined.

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