Pat’s article Genre-Bending Transformation: Your Story Into a Play (Part 1 of 2: The Four Major Ingredients of a Good Play) appeared in the November 2020 issue of Stiletta, the quarterly newsletter of Sisters in Crime’s NorCal chapter.
Have you ever considered transforming your short story or novel into a play?
Even if you have no desire to become an active playwright, now is a good time to expand your creative boundaries and acquire another valuable skill.
Where do you start? Well, you already have. You have a genre, plot, characters, setting, and time period. You know the beginning, middle, and end, and can identify your target audience. Your readers trust you will deliver an entertaining story, as your audience trusts you will deliver an entertaining play.
How long is your play? Generally, plays take a minute-per-page to read.
It can be a flash short play, up to five minutes; a short story, 10-15 minutes; a one-act up to 50 minutes; or a full-length piece of 90-120 minutes. The theatre will have clear guidelines to help you decide the best format, and there are many play festivals that feature/include eight 10-minute plays.
I started my career writing short fiction and then envisioned how my short stories would look on a stage, being interpreted by a director and actors. My first play, “The Gatekeeper,” about the cemetery of buried emotions, won every category in the Fringe of Marin in 2012. The excitement of seeing what I visualized on stage, as well as others applauding my work, enticed me to write my next play, and then the next.
I want to share some of the important rules I learned before having my plays chosen from different theatres for productions.
Okay, you have a tightly knitted story ready and are now ready to apply these four major winning components of a good play: style, theme, characters, and dialogue.
Style sets the whole mood and spirit of the play. You, as the playwright and author of fiction, create the direction of the piece by manipulating its details: movement of the actors, gestures, tone of speech, pace. You prepare the general expectation and demeanor of the audience for either comedy or drama, or both. Through style, the pattern of the play will travel a set path and resonate through the audience; they cannot fully participate if the paths keep changing.
Theme: What is this story really about? How is it relevant to today?
We might ask these two questions before picking up a mystery novel or short story. As mystery writers, we sew up a short story or novel neatly, leaving no anxiety swirling around the heart and mind of the reader. In plays, for the most part, even when the story ends, the theme lives on through discussion. Environmental, social, political, and historical issues are the most popular universal themes. Plays often unite themes.
An example of theme is my short story, “The Downeaster,” turned into a play. The story surrounds a woman on a train who is heading north to meet her brother and sister for a holiday shopping day together. Her new boyfriend, calling several times a day, is disappointed she did not invite him to meet her family. As she complains to her sister by phone about him not giving her space, he shows up at one of the train’s stops and sits next to her. He has no intention of leaving. In the meantime, a killer, a stalker, is on the loose. Nurses are being murdered, and of course, Janet is a nurse. The mystery focuses on three personalities until it is solved.
So, what is the theme? What is the relevance to today?
How eerie, threatening, and creepy are stalkers? They are for sure, but no. The invasion of privacy/space takes many forms: personal relationships, stolen identity from a credit card theft, stolen property, internet information used against a character—all creepy and all invasive. It could grow into a theme of revenge—a very popular one—or morality, if the play were to expand into a full-length piece.
Successful plays that have explored universal themes, such as Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible” and Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire,” can be produced over and over again, and resonate with new generations.
Characters: This is where the novel and play begin to take different paths. In a short story or novel, the author can have as many characters as desired. Plays are different: the theatre and/or festival will determine the number of characters and length of a play they will produce. (Check the guidelines before submitting!) Small stages usually mean a small number of actors, hence often a small number of characters—although one actor can fill more than one role.
The animate character, the actor on stage breathing life into your play, will communicate thoughts and feelings to the audience that inspired you to write the script. It is the actor’s duty to interpret the meaning of the author’s words so that the play relates to the human experience in some way and engages the audience. Abstract concepts, such as the character Death, can be very powerful. Death often imitates human behavior. The closer the experience to our own, the greater the effect on the audience.
The character, through the actor, achieves effectiveness through dialogue. You are writing for an audience and, unlike the reader, your audience is interwoven into the play as a vicarious observer. You cannot put down the play and finish it later. You are pulled into the play through the setting (discussed further in Part Two), the style, the storyline, the theme, the conflict of the characters, and the dialogue. The audience is a participant to every moment and reacts, often as one, to your words.
There is no greater thrill for a playwright than to see their work brought to life on stage. To know that everyone in the theatre views the same set design, built from your vision, is nothing short of wondrous. Unlike reading a book, where perception often dictates what the mind sees, the play unfolds in exactly the same way to each individual. It can be very exciting.
In Part Two, I will take you through writing a short play from your short story—the format, the dos and don’ts, different types of plays, and where you can submit your play after you fall in love with it.
Gender Parity: A Road More Traveled
I was drawn to the relationship between gender parity in theatre and publishing through my work with the International Centre of Women Playwrights (ICWP), of which I am the president. We had just completed our 50/50 Applause Award honoring theatres that promote women playwrights on an equal basis to male playwrights. ICWP’s mission is to connect, inspire, and empowers women playwrights to achieve equity on the world stages.
The theatre world is dominated by men: artistic directors who choose the plays, directors, board members, decision makers, and other employees. Women’s productions on main stages is where bigger budgets are allotted for royalties, actors, and marketing. Unfortunately, the statistics for women productions has only ticked up a few percentage points in the last seven years (from 25 percent to 28 percent, and in some places 30 percent). Although ICWP reached seven countries outside of the US—Australia, Canada, Finland, Scotland, Singapore, South Africa, and Wales—our percentage of theatres promoting gender parity remained low.
In late 2017, American Theatre magazine reported that, out of 513 not-for-profit theaters across the U.S., only 26 percent of their new plays and revivals were written by women, with 63 percent written by men and 11 percent co-written by women and men.
Women playwrights were paid less in royalties, given smaller stages, and had fewer performances.
My work with ICWP and gender parity led me to ponder about women who write mysteries. Are women mystery authors paid equal or close to equal royalties to their male counterparts? Similar advances (given same individual publishing data)? Do they get equal review space in newspapers and magazines? How has the women movement impacted women mystery writers as far as equal pay and equal opportunity?
Are women mystery writers paid less in royalties, given smaller advances, and fewer reviews?
Let’s take a short look at what has happened in gender parity over 2017 and 2018 thus far.
In January, 2017, the first Women’s March, one of seismic proportions (over 4,000,000 women), created a tsunami of awareness and solidarity that flooded major US cities, as well as other cities throughout the world. Women were taking a unified stand.
Actress America Ferrerra, during the march, said, “We stand together in solidarity with our partners and children for the protection of our rights, our safety, our health, and our families.” (January, 2017)
The #MeToo movement spurred on more resistance by women. What began in October 2017 rocked the film, media, publishing, and theater industries across the world—when actresses started using the #MeToo hashtag on social media to demonstrate the widespread prevalence of sexual assault and harassment. It followed on the heels of the Harvey Weinstein sexual misconduct allegations
The #MeToo, #TimesUp, #ImWithHer movements strengthened the power of the Women’s March, 2017-2018. Issues of job discrimination and pay discrimination shared the spotlight with sexual harassment complaints. Women were asking questions, becoming bolder, and demanding recognition. Men in power were stepping back and reevaluating, while also being made to answer for sexual harassment complaints. Women, also, mind you, but men more so.
Leigh Anne Ashley, writing in Writer’s Digest, said, “There seems to be no genre that has not been impacted by women finally feeling able and welcome to tell their stories. A recent Google search with the words ‘#MeToo articles’ returned 6.6 million results. To those of us who have been paying attention, seeing the internet filled with so many women’s voices, including so many new voices, is a remarkable thing. I’ve noticed a shift in my writing; I feel gutsier and less apologetic.” The #MeToo Movement and Its Impact on Women’s Writing, March 29, 2018
Has this movement helped women mystery writers on the road to gender parity?
I say yes… even though the crime writing, mystery world has slowly been amassing female authors, the publishing world around them needed to change.
“Though overall numbers have improved, more mysteries by men than women are nominated for and receive high-prestige awards,” Barbara Fister wrote in Bitchmedia 2014, “More men than women are reviewed in high-profile publications such as The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. Women are far more likely to be published in paperback than hardcover and find the warmest review reception among book bloggers, who are increasingly important contributors to book criticism but get less respect than “professional” reviewers. “Women make up more than half of the mystery writers—but get criminally few reviews.”
Unlike plays that are divided into flash, short, one act, and full-length, the fiction world breaks down into many genres, with more delineated statistics: Gender Ratio of the Best-Selling Genres by Decade: “Bias, She Wrote,” by Rosie Cima of Pudding breaks down the history of M/F percentage in the fiction world from 1950 to 2015.
The publishing business, however: “Publisher’s Weekly’s annual salary and jobs 2016-2017 survey certainly (also) backs up the … power that men hold in the publishing industry. Despite the fact that men are a minority (20 percent) of the overall workforce, 51 percent of managers are men (2016). Publishers Weekly Survey 2017 (PW, Nov 3, 2017 Jim Milliot) Women dominate men as literary agents.
But now, after 2015, women mystery writers, as well as crime writers, have taken women mystery and women crime writers close to the 50/50 gender parity mark (55M-45W)!
Female crime writers have fared the best, with a slow but steady rise in the last ten years. Today, men are using female pen names to sell crime mystery, a real turnaround in the world of publishing! As Sophie Grant states in The Atlantic,August, 2017 “Over the last decade, female writers have come to dominate crime fiction, a genre traditionally associated with men.” “Why Men Pretend to Be Women to Sell Thrillers.”
“Also, through the work of Sisters in Crime 1986-2013, the percentage of mysteries by women reviewed in the New York Times Book Review went from a miserable 17 percent in 1987 to 36 percent in 2013. The Paris Review and the New York Times have grown more responsive to women’s writing. The New Republic and The New York Review of Books, not so much. We know women have been seriously underrepresented in high-prestige venues, and that this situation can be improved” (Fisher also wrote in Bitch Media).
And so it has … 2016, and especially 2017 sees a marked change in the number of reviews, and the number of awards, as well as the number of mystery authors on the top ten list of Times, Post, Atlantic, Kirkus, and others.
Where does that bring us? Women in the mystery and crime genres are nearing perfect gender parity and, notwithstanding gender-changing names from men, have flooded the market!
Also, in 2016 and 2017, and growing in 2018, women mystery authors crept to a near 50/50 gender split with men mystery writers for “best-mystery-books-of-the-year” choices.
The Washington Post’s 2016 “best mystery” listed seven men and three women, however the Washington Post 2017 honored six women and four men!
In 2016, the New York Times selected four women and six men on their “best-of-mystery” list. In 2017, the number for the Times remained six men and four women.
Kirkus showed an even seven-seven pick for best of 2016, 2017.
Booklist for 2017 named fourteen men and six women as their best for the year.
Although … reviews on women’s mystery books are still lower, and the recent pay differences between male and female mystery writers were not available Although … a recent article by Danuta Kean in The Guardian states: “Women fare worse, according to the survey, earning 75% of what their male counterparts do, a 3% drop since 2013 when the last ALCS survey was conducted.”
In the US, there were (2002-2012) fluxes in prices from women and men books according to genre, and women identified books (Romance) were not consider as highly as other genres. There is more to be explored on the recent issue of pay differences between men and women authors.
Top Mystery magazine recently placed 20 women in their 100 pick of best mystery writers.
Would the changes in the publishing industry have occurred without the impact of the surging wave of the women’s movement? Probably, but I believe, much slower. Also, women in the publishing workforce will hopefully speak louder and more clearly about the changes that still need to be made in the both the theatre and publishing industry.
The movement is still growing.
In most areas, though, women authors have leaped to the forefront in mystery and crime fiction: A success story, and one we hope to see in the future with playwrights.
FYI: definition and history of feminist hashtags:
Pat’s article Do Publishers Dream of Robo-writers? appeared in the Summer 2016 issue of the Mill Valley Literary Review.
The pressure is on for authors to sell books. With bookstores closing because of Amazon and other internet outlets, publishers demanding authors to do their own marketing, publishers delivering contracts with less incentive, and selling books cheaper, it’s a wonder authors don’t just pack up their pens, and close down their imaginations.
But now, we may be replaced by robots!
Robo-journalism was used to report an earthquake in Los Angeles, CA, in March, 2015. The article, however, was based mainly on data from the US Geological survey. Here’s the article: “A shallow magnitude 4.7 earthquake was reported Monday morning five miles from Westwood, California, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. The temblor occurred at 6:25 a.m. Pacific time at a depth of 5.0 miles. According to the USGS, the epicenter was six miles from Beverly Hills, California, seven miles from Universal City, California, seven miles from Santa Monica, California and 348 miles from Sacramento, California. In the past ten days, there have been no earthquakes magnitude 3.0 and greater centered nearby. This information comes from the USGS Earthquake Notification Service and this post was created by an algorithm written by the author.”
Sounds like it was written by a real journalist.
“However, as well as the earthquake report, it also uses another algorithm to generate stories about crime in the city — with human editors deciding which ones need greater attention,” the article continues (L.A. Times, March 17th, 2015).
Shelley Podolny, “If an Algorithm Wrote This, How Would You Ever Know?” (N.Y. Times, March 7, 2015)
“These robo-writers don’t just regurgitate data, either; they create human-sounding stories in whatever voice — from staid to sassy — befits the intended audience. Or different audiences. They’re that smart. And when you read the output, you’d never guess the writer doesn’t have a heartbeat.
Consider the opening sentences of these two sports pieces:
“Things looked bleak for the Angels when they trailed by two runs in the ninth inning, but Los Angeles recovered thanks to a key single from Vladimir Guerrero to pull out a 7-6 victory over the Boston Red Sox at Fenway Park on Sunday.”
“The University of Michigan baseball team used a four-run fifth inning to salvage the final game in its three-game weekend series with Iowa, winning 7-5 on Saturday afternoon (April 24) at the Wilpon Baseball Complex, home of historic Ray Fisher Stadium.”
First one by a machine, second by a human.
Next, we’ll be reading novels written by computers, a conglomerate of the best-selling authors with a simple plot, realistic (ha) characters, and a creative twist at the end that you would have never imagined.
And the “The End” on the last page will mean exactly that.
Pat’s article Mindfulness and the Power of Detection appeared in the January 2014 issue of First Draft, the publication of the Sisters in Crime Guppies chapter. You can also download the article as a PDF.
Irene Adler: Why are you always so suspicious?
Sherlock Holmes: Should I answer chronologically or alphabetically?
Ortega y Gasset: “Tell me to what you pay attention, and I will tell you who you are.”
Deep in the great minds of homicide detectives and mystery writers are characteristics that enhance the creative powers of detection. I believe one of the most important characteristics, that helps answer the who, why, where, and how questions, is mindfulness.
There is a big difference between seeing and observing. Holmes often points out his “powers of observation” and what others merely “see.” He asked Watson how many steps in his house, and Watson, who had traveled them countless times, didn’t know. Watson had seen them, but made no observations about them.
In Psychology (Philosophy and Spirtualism), this kind of observation is called mindfulness. What is Mindfulness? Mindfulness is, according to Jon Kabit-Zinn, founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction program in Massachusetts:
“Maintaining a moment-by-moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and surrounding environment. Mindfulness also involves acceptance, meaning that we pay attention to our thoughts and feelings without judging them—without believing, for instance, that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to think or feel in a given moment. When we practice mindfulness, our thoughts tune into what we’re sensing in the present moment rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future.” No daydreaming or fantasies allowed. No obsessing over what should have been done, or what to do.
My friend once called me, annoyed. She had told herself to go to the liquor store to get wine for our dinner. She even wrote herself a note during work. But what did she do? Drove right by the store, to her home, into her garage, and then cursed herself out loud for driving right passed the store—then asked me to pick up a bottle up on my way to her house. (Yes, I remembered!) So this is not an example of mindfulness, but it is an example of what most of us do everyday, probably more than we would like to admit. We give in to the routine we have established, without even a thought.
However, while waiting in my car for a light, I observed a man going into a store, and as he spoke to the retail person, his hands flew into the air, the retailer stepped back, another female retailer came over to the man who continued to point to something on what I thought must be the counter. I said to myself, “God, he must be really pissed off.” I had to move on, with the traffic, from that observation. Once I stepped back and reflected on the situation, still in observation mode (and another characteristic of a good detectives), I asked myself (and I bet you know what I’m going to say): “Hey, can I create a mystery short story around this?”
Part of the road blocks to minfulness in this “day and age” is the use of computers, iPhones, and digital media. It decreases mindfulness, and also decreases the use of attention on the whole. How often do you notice anything about you and the environment as you multi-task? It steals much of our creative powers. We don’t notice our own thoughts and thought patterns anymore. But don’t get me started on how our minds are deteriorating. Thank goodness for that extra sensitivity we have to mindfulness and the the true powers of observation.
Writing in Multiple Mediums
by Patricia L. Morin
Although short stories, novels, and plays all integrate character, setting, plot, and conflict, I’ve experienced that the skills needed to succeed in these three forms of literature are uniquely different.
Many short-story writers cannot stretch themselves, inevitably losing their way, as they attempt to complete a novel. Many novelists, conversely, are unable to be succinct enough to write a short story. Even fewer writers are capable of employing dialogue as the primary technique in the unfolding of a play.
In my experience, the distinguishing characteristic among these three types of literature boils down to one word: focus.
The focus of a short story is on an event, a plot point that affects the characters, their interactions, and their environment. Descriptions of setting, time, personal histories, and character motivations are necessarily brief, because the reader can evaluate what is transpiring in the characters’ minds.
For example, my short story, “Homeless,” concerns a homeless man sitting on a bench at a busy intersection and a woman stopped at the traffic light. She has just moved into the city and also feels homeless. What matters most in this story are the woman’s thoughts and feelings; “Homeless” unfolds mostly in her head, as she attempts to finds sixty seconds worth of solace while sitting at the red light. However, the story focuses on the one event.
I started my writing career, like so many other writers, with short stories. My nature is to be direct and short stories seemed a natural avenue for me to follow into the written word.
The focus of a novel, of course, is broader, deeper, higher. All aspects of the protagonist are explored—his or her past, present, friends, ideals, problems. The plot can take many twists and turns while the antagonist, along with the minor characters, impedes or thwart the protagonist’s journey to a resolution. The protagonist travels a rocky road and the reader experiences all the bumps along the way. As Stewart Spencer states in The Playwright’s Guidebook: “We lift the veil off level after level after level.”
The novelist, naturally, creates the long and rocky road, always faced with the threat of dead ends. For me, sustaining the focus on a novel is an arduous task, made ever more demanding by the constant concern of keeping the reader engaged. Currently, I’m forging my way through Seniors, Inc., centered around a temporary employment agency for seniors. It’s a world of many personalities, their front and back stories, and their goals. My characters and I have been traveling together for quite a while and we have a long way to go.
Other novelists, however, see the craft in a broader focus. They delight in the details and drawing in the reader to accompany their characters down a life’s journey. It’s a more natural way for them to write.
Finally, a play is focused on character. As my teacher and workshop coordinator Will Dunne (The Dramatist Writer’s Companion Tool) instructs, “The character is the scene. The character is the story.” And the character is developed through dialogue. The power of the spoken word drew me to writing plays. In my career as a psychotherapist, the spoken word had been my livelihood. Being a shrink, I was at home with this kind of art form.
The setting, the time period, and the problem in a play can be depicted as the curtain opens. In The Piano Lesson by August Wilson, the audience sees old Salvation Army furniture in a small apartment. The kitchen has ripped dishtowels. A shabbily dressed African-American man is sitting at the messy kitchen table. An old upright piano with beautifully carved masks in the legs stands in the scant parlor. All that information is disclosed with one glance at the stage. From there, the dialogue reveals the relationships this man has with his family, friends, students, and himself, as well as the central conflict. On stage, the direct acting out of the emotion accompanies the dialogue.
When the idea of my play The Gatekeeper, in which people can bury unwanted emotions, came into my mind, I saw only the gatekeeper. Though proud of his cemetery of buried emotions, he was anxious to evolve to a higher plane. My main focus was on only him. It broadened a bit when a woman who blames him for burying the wrong emotion wants it back. I added a cape to his black outfit, an all-black costume for her, and a few gravestones with feelings etched on them, but the main focus of the play was on the spoken interaction between the two characters.
Although all stories involve characters, events, plot, and conflict, what is your primary focus?
Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan:
The Chinese Legacy
by Pat Morin
The Chinese-American detective of early 20th century fiction, Charlie Chan, was conceived in the mind of Earl Derr Biggers in 1923 after reading an article about two Honolulu detectives, Lee Fook and Chang Apana, and their exploits in squelching an opium deal and arresting a Chinese dealer in Hawaii. Biggers, who had visited Hawaii in 1919, had already developed the plot of his first Hawaii-based mystery, The House Without a Key, before he stumbled across the story about the opium bust.
In an April 10, 1931, interview with the Syracuse Herald, Biggers recalled, “I went to the New York Public Library and glanced through a huge bunch of Honolulu newspapers in order to refresh my memory about the islands …. I came across a small unimportant item to the effect that Chang Apana and Lee Fook, Chinese detectives on the Honolulu force, had arrested one of their countrymen for being too friendly with opium. … I decided at once that … a Chinese detective would be a good idea in The House Without a Key. Sinister and wicked Chinese were old stuff to mystery stories, but an amiable Chinese acting on the side of the law and order had never been used up to that time.”
Biggers referred to the Orientals as “Japs” and “Chinamen” and described Chan as looking like a big ivory-skinned Buddha. He knew little of the more than 40,000 Chinese living in Hawaii at the time, immigrants who were contracted to work on plantations and roads and, after their contracts expired, opened businesses, fostered education for their children, and shared their culture and herbal medicine with Hawaiians and visitors.
Biggers admitted his lack of familiarity with the Chinese in the same Syracuse paper, in which he described an imagined discussion between Chan and himself. “Said Biggers in a mock dialogue with Charlie, ‘but how can I write of the Chinese? I know nothing of same. I could not distinguish Chinese Man from Wall Street Broker. To which Charlie answered,
‘Chinese would be the one who sold you the honest securities.”
Earl Derr Biggers graduated Harvard in 1907 and worked for Bobbs-Merrill Publishers before ending up at the Boston Traveler Magazine in 1908 as a daily columnist, then a drama critic. There he met his future wife, Eleanor Ladd who, together with living in New England and learning more about journalism, influenced his writing. After he was fired, due to a change of ownership in 1912, he wrote his first novel, Seven Keys to Baldpate, one chapter a day. It was published in 1913 by Bobbs-Merrill Publishers. George M. Cohan secured the dramatic rights to Biggers’ book and produced the play on Broadway. He finished a second novel, Love Insurance, which was turned into the play See Saw.
The Biggers lived in the cultured worlds of Boston and New York. Earl Derr loved food, travel, and golf. He and his wife vacationed in Waikiki in 1919. There, he imagined the perfect murder—as he sat on the beach watching the cruise ships come into port—and he immediately started The House Without a Key, based loosely on the Grey’s Hotel cottages where he and Eleanor stayed and where the doors were never locked.
However, when he arrived home, he wrote ten short stories for the Saturday Evening Post and continued with his theater interests. He didn’t return to his murder novel until four years later. Biggers recounted in the Honolulu Police Journal in 1931, “Charlie appeared in the Honolulu mystery, starting as a minor and unimportant character. As the story progressed, however, he modestly pushed his way forward, and toward the end he had the lion’s share of the spotlight.” Biggers saw most of his novels made into movies, starting with The House Without a Key.
Earl Derr Biggers did not want Charlie Chan to be his legacy. He’d planned to write other books until the stock market crashed in 1929. Needing money, he continued with the Chan mysteries. He finished six Chan mysteries before he passed away from a heart attack in August 1933 at age 48. Several obituaries praised Earl Derr Biggers for promoting an international understanding and paying tribute to the Chinese. Charlie Chan not only entertained readers, but also opened a door to people’s curiosity about a culture half a world away.
The Charlie Chan books:
The House Without a Key – 1925
The Chinese Parrot – 1926
Behind That Curtain – 1928
The Black Camel– 1929
Charlie Carries On – 1930
The Keeper of the Keys – 1932