PLAYWRITING: BRIEF AND BRILLIANT, by Julie Jensen, Smith and Kraus, 89 pages, $14.95 (softcover)

Julie Jensen, resident playwright at Salt Lake Acting Company, writes that it has been said that "more people have tried to write a play than have tried to write a story, a poem, a song or a novel."

If true, it means that a lot of writers really like the idea of hearing their own words spoken aloud. And if it is a play, the key factor is dialogue, which becomes action.

Dialogue, she says, "should be lean. As lean as you can get it." Occasionally, characters should have the option of "saying nothing and doing something instead."

Her first solid suggestion is to "disguise exposition," meaning that taking a few minutes to just explain something will kill a play. It will become a boring mess. So exposition has to be worked into the rest of the play, skillfully.

In Jensen's words, "I always choose to risk obscurity rather than flat-footedness."

She stresses the need to make the characters "sound different from one another ... Playwrights ain't Noah. They don't take on characters two by two."

Characters, Jensen writes, should also "want something from a scene" and it should be "definable" and at odds with the other characters.

Plot, says Jensen, "answers questions" that are important to get the play from beginning to end. To keep yourself on the right track, ask yourself, "And then what?" She suggests that "plot points are challenges or complications, things that impede the progress of the hero or heroine, things that cause danger, things that go bump."

Jensen's easy, witty, conversational style makes for fast, enjoyable reading and will make a great reference work as a person tries to write a play. She talks about images and issues. "Images make a play turn over in the pit of my stomach. They appeal to something deeper than the story or the characters."

About sound, Jensen writes, "For me finding the right sound is the most satisfying search. Going after the fewest number of words to say the biggest thing, finding those very words, and then hearing them said right, sung right — that is one of life's great pleasures."

To the question, "What comes first?" Jensen replies that "It doesn't matter." But it does matter that at the end, character, story, issue, sound or image all engage in a way that makes the play work.

One of Jensen's most effective statements is "I typically write dozens of scenes in quick succession. I know that most of these scenes will eventually end up in the play, but at the time I'm writing them I do not know where. I feel very free, at this stage, to wander all around, experiment with all sorts of places, character combinations and styles. It's fun, I'm excited, I feel like a genius."

Finally, Jensen lays it on the line: "If I were you, I would not become a playwright if I wanted to be either rich or famous. And I would not become a playwright if I needed a lot of positive regard all the time. On the other hand, being a playwright is good if you like public humiliation now and then, and if you are good at swallowing hard and going on. In other words, playwriting is high-risk behavior."


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