Gas Ring – the game
A quick exercise to show the importance of writing high stakes for your characters when writing a play.
Give yourself five minutes to plan a scene. Invent an everyday scenario in which a minor conflict occurs between the two characters. Choose two people who would know each other, e.g. friends, work colleagues or family members. The conflict should require a decision to be made. For example, Ali visits his grandma, who offers him cake. He says he’s not hungry, but she wants him to eat a big slice. Ali therefore has to make a decision- will he eat the cake or not? What happens? Conclude your scene with the decision being made, to give it a definite ending.
Now write the scene out, and enjoy writing the minor tension. Make sure it has a clear set up, middle and ending. If you’re doing this exercise with friends, try reading your scene out with one of the other writers and listen out for the way the drama develops as the scene progresses.
Now for stage two. You’re going to turn the heat up in your drama. The stakes of the conflict need to rise – not yet full throttle, but significantly increased. Go back to your scene plan, and rewrite it, giving the protagonist a much stronger reason to fight their side. Now give the second character a specific reason to rebel. For example, Ali doesn’t want the cake because he’s noticed the eggs she used have gone off. Ali doesn’t want to be sick, so he refuses the cake. His grandma, however, is entering a Bake Off competition and wants his approval to give her confidence. Once you’ve planned it, write the new version of the scene. Observe how the tone of the writing changes, now that the characters have more at stake. You will probably find that your scene has a more interesting ‘arc’ or journey, as it now shifts from a domestic level to something more dramatic.
Now comes stage three, where you get to have a lot of fun. Return to your scene plan, and this time invent a way to raise the stakes to the most dramatic that they can be. In this version, your character ought to face serious peril. For example, grandma hates Ali, and has poisoned the cake. Ali suspects her, but will he say? Perhaps his inheritance is at stake? Can he save himself? Now write out the scene in full, and enjoy creating the drama. Try and make the scene opening as domestic as possible, in order to give the characters the greatest dramatic journey, moving from very low stakes to catastrophic possibility.
After the exercise, think about how this principle applies to your dramatic writing. As you write any scene or play, identify what’s at stake for your characters, and make sure there is enough at risk for them. Drama requires drama. Don’t be scared of it!