The Playgoer: Marsha Norman's Tips for Playwrights

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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Marsha Norman's Tips for Playwrights

I lost track of the the August: Osage Country "book group" over at, but it apparently went on for a while.

Among the many highlights--including a quick swipe at theatre blogs by one Frank Rich ("By the way, many of the most vicious reviews are written on theater blogs")--is a handy Playwriting 101 lecture by Marsha Norman on her "3 Rules"--but actually using August as an example of how to break the rules! Agree with her or not, I though the playwrights out there might find it interesting. (Spoiler alert, though, regarding key August plot points.)

And, okay, if you're in a rush, here's The Rules:

Rule #1: No passive central character;
Rule #2: On or about page 8, tell the audience why they are here and what is at stake, or to put it more simply, when they can go home.
Rule #3: The main character can’t be clinically insane.
In deference to Marsha, though, I do recommend reading the rationales. And it's a pretty interesting craft-analysis of August.


Freeman said...

On or about page 8? Someone's been writing for TV.

Did that happen in August: Osage County?

Anonymous said...

This is just silly. Maybe useful advice for the most pedestrian kind of writer. Beckett, Shawn, Churchill, Buchner, Kane -- all invalid playwrights according to Miss Norman. She likes really cookie-cutter plays. (I know, I was her student).

Freeman said...

I will say, though, that the article talks about (now that I actually read it) how August breaks these rules.

Malachy Walsh said...

Rules about writing.

And how to write.

However much I like some of the writing Marsha Norman has been doing recently on theatre, I'm just not a big rule person.

They've never helped me write anything. And almost none of the writers I love seem to have written anything with a bunch of rules in mind.

EelKat said...

Why can't the main character be clinically insane?

I have Schizotipal Asperger's Syndrome. For those who don't know what that is, it means I have three different mental disorders: Autism, Schizophrenia, and OCD. I am technically considered to be clinically insane.

All of my main characters are either Schizotypal Aspies, Autistic, Schizophrenic, or OCD. I can't write about "normal" characters, because I wouldn't know the first thing about getting inside the head of a "normal" character. I write what I know, as does every writer. =P

Of course, one of the most famous plays ever written was Hamlet, about a guy who walked around talking to skulls, ghosts, invisible being who no one else could see, and over all spent more time in the company of dead people that living people. Interesting.

And what about A Christmas Carol? Can you honestly say that the violent, sadistic Scrooge who spends his nights hob-knobbing with ghosts and spirits is "normal"?

How about Pirates of the Caribbean's Jack Sparrow? He boldly goes where no sane person could ever go and is not afraid to say as much.

Would you consider Doctor Who to be sane? Most say he's a raving madman.

So are you saying that main characters like Captain Jack, Scrooge, and Hamlet and I don't know, just about every other main character ever used in a play, TV show, or movie is NOT clinically insane? Or do you just not know what it is that causes a person to be classified as be clinically insane?

And are you aware that most mental health physicians would quickly classify EVERY Christian who talks (prays) to God - Jesus - Mary, to be clinically insane because they are talking to a person they can not see, never will see, and can not prove exists? So, all in all, sanity really is a question of perspective.

I have to wonder though, how did you come up with that as a rule for writing a script? Nine out of every ten Main characters from hugely successful plays, TV shows, and movies IS in fact considered to be clinically insane, in fact, it's the plays, TV shows, and movies which feature "normal" main characters that flop.