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August 4, 2014 11:25 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a ten-minute play, to be entered into a competition this fall. Although I've never before written a play, I pride myself on my concision and terseness in general. I struggle with the "how do these people know each other" aspect; I'm loathe to lay out an acre of backstory if I don't think the audience needs it. How do I get around this? Yes, I know it's better to show than to tell.
posted by BostonTerrier to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
...You could simply write about people who are only just now meeting, maybe? Like, make it an encounter between a barista and a guy at the shop where she works or something.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 11:33 AM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Do a crappy job in the draft (said Anne Lamott), leaving the backstory entirely out.
Try it on someone, and then backfill the backstory as it's needed.
posted by the Real Dan at 11:34 AM on August 4, 2014 [5 favorites]

It's been a while since I've really read his stuff, but if I remember correctly, Beckett really does well at the whole start up a play with minimal context thing. One could do worse than to emulate Samuel Beckett.
posted by phunniemee at 11:34 AM on August 4, 2014

I struggle with the "how do these people know each other" aspect

Stage it somewhere you don't need backstory, like a subway platform or an airport lounge. Or set it somewhere that provides its own totally obvious backstory, like a kitchen in a restaurant or the break room of a cubicle farm.
posted by carsonb at 11:36 AM on August 4, 2014

I would recommend getting a cup of coffee and sitting around for a while people watching at your local park or mall or university campus or what-have-you. Watch people interact when they first meet each other in this area. How are they greeting each other? What does that tell you about their relationship?

I think that's the best way to start - see what physical tells people have already.

Or, make the play be about how they met - whether it is the first time they met or they are recounting it.
posted by jillithd at 11:36 AM on August 4, 2014 [4 favorites]

You can do it through clothing - school uniforms, work uniforms or casual Friday polo shirts with the same company logo if they are coworkers. Or by location, outside a hospital room for a mutual loved one, side-by-side PO boxes, waiting for the kids to get off of the school bus, on the same bus/train or through assigned parking spots.
posted by kimberussell at 11:39 AM on August 4, 2014

Show, don't tell. People holding hands, kissing, glaring, etc.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:40 AM on August 4, 2014

Remove all backstory. I have been produced in more 10-minute play festivals than I can remember, and the point is to show a 10-minute moment in time and let the rest of the details go to the wayside. Just pluck the 10 minute piece out of your characters' lives and trust that the audience will understand enough backstory to understand what's going on.
posted by xingcat at 12:02 PM on August 4, 2014 [13 favorites]

I think the answer to "why are these people together right now during this play?" will answer the backstory issue for you. Examples:

"Are you Karen?" Don't know each other.
"I can't believe you forgot out anniversary!!" Know each other at least a bit romantically (could be 10 years married, could be crazy person talking about a one week anniversary).
"Are you still working at OmniCorp?" Used to be colleagues/professional associates, out of touch now.

I also don't think that the backstory needs to be revealed in the beginning for the play to make sense. It might be interesting to fill it in slowly or do a big reveal at the end.
posted by sfkiddo at 12:32 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Also! If you're interested, I produce and read for 10-minute play festivals in my area, and I would be happy to review whatever you've written and give feedback. Memail me if you're interested. I love helping out fellow playwrights!!
posted by xingcat at 12:37 PM on August 4, 2014

It's hard to hear this, especially if you're used to writing characters that exist solely on the page, but actors will really appreciate NOT being given a lot of detailed backstory.

Personally, I've solved this problem by writing the backstory between characters in notes for myself, so I know it and can better write the action/dialogue based on it. (I am much better at writing ABOUT what I'm writing than the actual writing part.)

What needs to be communicated (hopefully) comes out in the scene when you write it, and what wasn't necessary to be told doesn't clutter up the scene (again hopefully)
posted by MCMikeNamara at 12:37 PM on August 4, 2014

If you are in a big city, go see some improv. The whole premise of improv is that the actors need to quickly figure out who the hell they are to each other, without any previous scripting - in a really good scene, the whole backstory and relationship can be laid out in the first two lines.
posted by thelastpolarbear at 12:47 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

I dunno, I'd suggest using some really great stage effects to generate a detailed textual "roll" at the beginning, see the movie Star Wars... Then do a really tight three minute play. (oh ok ;-) )

Yep I vote for little to no backstory.
posted by sammyo at 12:51 PM on August 4, 2014

How does anybody know each other, really? Through interactions. Your characters' actions and dialogue will define their relationship.
posted by Jason and Laszlo at 12:53 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh god, no backstory. And make sure that you have a character who wants something but can't get it, then show us what happens next. Start at the most interesting bit.
posted by Sebmojo at 2:38 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I will suggest that you should write out backstory as notes for yourself, the way The Silmarillion was intended to help the author and was not really intended to be published per se. Then, once it is off your chest (so to speak), you may find that small references happen because you personally have a context in mind and it isn't really necessary to give all the details.
posted by Michele in California at 2:52 PM on August 4, 2014 [2 favorites]

Hemingway has a short story, "Hills Like White Elephants," that is almost all dialogue and where the backstory is totally through implication. One example, anyway.
posted by en forme de poire at 4:18 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Remove absolutely as much exposition and backstory as possible. "Show rather than tell" is just one aspect of it.

Read this (superb) account of Kubrick's extreme plot pruning for inspiration and greater explanation.

If your piece doesn't hold up without the backstory/exposition, then it's likely not a rich enough piece. Non-professionals tend to write "And then THIS happened...." sorts of plots. Trim exposition and nothing's left. If there's no subtext, text is all you've got, and cutting it leaves a vacuum.

It's got to be deeper. Once it's deeper, cut MERCILESSLY.
posted by Quisp Lover at 4:45 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I suggest the "What the fuck, James?" technique, where the first line of dialogue in the play is "What the fuck, James?"

James's reply will probably provide all the backstory you need.
posted by 256 at 7:21 PM on August 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Plays, especially short plays, are like photographs. You get a slice of things, and the beauty is that they are not all explained. They are not short stories with the description parts taken out. They are something else: ephemeral, rich in surface detail but also beautifully impoverished because there is no narrator, nobody controlling things, nobody to tell you where this all fits or what it means. They are flat, like scenery. You don't know what happened before or what happens after. All you see is what happens onstage. What happens there has to be enough, or, more precisely, to has to fall just a bit short of enough, so that the audience longs for the missing pieces, fills in the gaps, wants to look behind the flat painted surface, like the birds who tried to eat the grapes from Zeuxis' paintings and were left bruised and hungry.
posted by Acheman at 4:54 AM on August 5, 2014 [2 favorites]

You can tell a lot about a relationship through the dialogue:

"I see you got parole, Jim."

"You've gotten taller since our last dance class."

"I thought I told you at our Mother's funeral that I never wanted to see you again."

...that sort of thing.

But as so many have said, good acting and good staging will often render an elaborate backstory irrelevant. Your audience will fill in the blanks, often in ways far more interesting and creative than you'd think.
posted by Jilder at 6:16 AM on August 5, 2014

A sure sign of poor backstory is what I've heard called "cabbage head" dialogue; that is, when characters provide exposition in hamhanded ways: "Cindy, we've been friends for five years and you've never told me the story of your scar." Clunk.
posted by Quaversalis at 2:05 PM on August 5, 2014 [3 favorites]

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