Tag Archives: writing

That which we call a rose, by any other name…

This is a tip for authors.  Specifically it’s for playwrights, but it might be applied (with caution) to other fields of writing.

Our editors and proof readers keep finding inconsistencies in character names.  It’s not just an issue for first-time writers; we see this from experienced writers as well.  There are, of course, some identifiable causes.  During the writing process, names may change over time.  A character may have an official name, but (legitimately) be addressed by other characters using a nickname or diminutive.  A name may, in the wild, have multiple spellings; the writer may use several variations in the course of a script.  Misspellings of names are not necessarily caught by a spell checker.  The result is that speeches for the same character get assigned to multiple names.  Whilst a decent proof reader or editor will catch most of them, they may not catch them all, and, in any case, they should not have to.  It is the writer’s job to decide who they are writing about, to choose a character name, and stick to it.  (It’s the writer’s choice; a writer in two minds should not force the editor to arbitrate.)

So, what can a writer do to check a finished text for name consistency?
This tip assumes that you are using Microsoft Word.  (I’ve created the examples using Word 2007.  Other versions of Word will behave similarly.)  Other wordprocessors will do similar things, but you’ll need to find the controls for yourself.  (It also assumes that you’ve written a play!  If you work in another genre, you’ll need to decide how to apply this.)


What we’re going to do is to find every instance of every character name that should be in the play and we’re going to colour it red.  Any name that is left (in a speech assignment or direction) that isn’t in red is likely to be a mistake of some sort (either a mistake in the character name or a character missing from the character list.)

Find and Replace Basics

Open your script in Word and go to the Characters’ page – the one with the list of character names.
Open the Find and Replace window (hereafter, with Microsoft spelling, called a Dialog).  The keyboard shortcut to do this is Ctrl H.  It will probably look like this.

Expand the dialog by clicking on the [More >>] button.  That will get you to the options we’re going to use.

Find the Lady

In our example, we’re going to find Cinderella.  So we type Cinderella into the Find box.

I’ve also checked the “Match case” box.  In some cases, this may help.  (Firstly it may help you identify character names with case errors.  Secondly, if you have a name that is also a common word or part of a common word, it avoids most instances – for example the syllable “King” may be a character name or may be part of “thinking”.)


The Lady in Red

Now we’re going to replace Cinderella with Cinderella – but we’re going to format the text so that it appears in red.

With your cursor in the “Replace with” box, you can change the replace formatting by (obviously) clicking on the [Format] button and, from there, select “Font…”

Another dialog pops up, in which you can set the font colour.  (Although of course the dialog wants you to set the font color.)


I happen to have chosen Dark Red.  Chose something that stands out for you – and a colour that you haven’t used for any other purpose.  (And what other purpose would you have for coloured text?)
Click [Okay] to return to the main dialog.
Click on [Replace All] and all your Cinderellas will blush dark red.

Rinse and Repeat

Follow the above steps for all the characters named in your character list.
When you’ve done that, you are ready to look at the text.  What you should see, is red text at the start of every line of speech (and everywhere else a character name is mentioned).  However, what you may see is something like this…

What stands out there is a different name for the same character.  Correct it!  Check the whole script, correcting as you go.

Clean up

Finally, when you’ve checked and corrected, go back to the Find and Replace dialog.  This time in the “Find what“ box,  clear all the text but set the Find [Format] to find the font colour Dark Red (or whatever you used.)

In the “Replace with” box, clear the text and set the replace font colour to “Auto” (usually another word for Black, assuming that Black is your default font colour).

[Replace All], and you will have cleaned up all the ruddy text.

Ten Tips for Writing Stage Directions

1. Direct the actors

Stage directions are not the same as TV and film directions.  The latter tend to be written from the point of view of the camera.  They say what the audience should see and therefore what the director should shoot.  Stage directions, by contrast, direct the actors.  So, where a TV script would say “we see two men sitting at a card table”, a stage script should say “Dom and Kev are sitting at the card table”.

2. Direction before action

Imagine that Helen has a long speech.  Then we find the direction “Derek, who has been dozing throughout Helen’s speech, finally begins to snore.”  That direction tells Derek what he should have been doing for the past half a page.  It’s better to tell the actor before the action – it makes rehearsals so much easier.

3. Direct the immediate

“Tarquin enters.  He is a tall, thin man with a droopy moustache.”  The actor playing Tarquin is unable to change his height and build as he enters the stage.  Thus they are matters for casting.  If those characteristics are essential to the role, then they should form part of a character profile, either at the start of the script or (better, in my view) in production notes.  Even growing a stick-on moustache takes time.

4. Don’t direct the audience

Some shows – particularly British pantomimes – have audience involvement. However, in general, members of the audience do not have copies of the script.  Consequently, they are notoriously bad at following stage directions.  By all means direct the actors to interact with the audience, but saying what the audience will do in response will only lull the actor into a false sense of security.

5. Set the scene

The director and actors need to know the features of their environment, but only as far as it is essential to what follows.  Thus it is good practice to start a scene with a brief scene-setting direction:
A country road.  A Tree.  Evening.

6. Knock, knock…

Who’s there?  The complement to the scene-setting direction is the “at rise” direction, to say who’s on stage when the curtain goes up.  The play always goes better when the right actors are on stage at the right time

7. Remember that all the world’s a stage…

Exit Stage LeftAnd all the men and women merely players;  They have their exits and their entrances…
And it’s the writer’s job to make sure that the people speaking have been told that they should be on the stage.  If you look at Shakespeare’s directions, aside from the special effects (all those alarums and excursions) they are almost completely limited to entrances and exits, which should tell you something about their importance.  Furthermore, lights go out, milk goes off, but actors exit.

8. Value terseness

Especially in early readings, excessive directions get in the way of the flow of the script.
Don’t give unnecessary details: “Charles picks up his favourite evening newspaper, the Oswestry Herald and Argus” can become “Charles picks up a newspaper.”
Don’t be tempted to put options into a direction: “Cynthia grabs a blunt instrument.  This might be a poker or a candle holder or an ornament.”  If you want to discuss the options, do so in production notes; for the direction, the blunt instrument is enough.
“John has spent five weeks teaching inorganic chemistry to teenagers.”  Better to restrict your directions to things the actors can convey to the audience.
(I love the way that ‘Value terseness’ is the longest tip.)
Even essential directions should be stated as briefly as possible.  But…

9. Don’t abbreviate unnecessarily

Experienced actors will understand what you mean by DSL or USC, but not all actors are experienced, and going through two levels of translation – from ‘DSL’ to ‘Downstage Left’ and from ‘Downstage Left’ to ‘over there’ will cause some to slow down.  And if you think you will save significant quantities of ink by writing DSL, then you are doing too much blocking, usurping the director’s job.

10. Don’t get your up and down back to front

Exit Stage Right“The living room of Pullover House.  There is a table centre with a sofa and cocktail cabinet backstage.”
Whilst I’m sure the actors will be very grateful for this little luxury, the audience will not be able to appreciate the cocktail cabinet or sofa, as they will be out of sight behind the set.  Use Upstage and Downstage, Stage Left and Stage Right.

What did you say, Mr Bamber?

Writing plays using speech recognition software ought to be even more difficult than writing novels that way.   In this guest post, playwright Geoff Bamber explains how he does it…
Geoff Bamber
Geoff Bamber keeping quiet.

I’d like to say that my use of voice recognition software was due my being my being up-to-speed/ahead of the curve and indeed technologically savvy but no – it was and, to an extent, still is mainly down to pure laziness.

Back in the days when I thought I was a novelist, the notion of typing out a hundred thousand words or more with two slow fingers on a keyboard attached to a steam-driven computer was a bit daunting.  As I never found stream-of-consciousness babble a problem, the idea of not having to physically write it all down was very appealing.  Short of morphing into Barbara Cartland, employing a secretary and dictating to her/him from a reclining position on a chaise longue in a room that looked like the inside of a marshmallow, voice-to-text was as good as it got.

I was enticed to start with IBM Via Voice.  If I remember correctly, the publicity material showed a sharp executive leaning back his chair with his feet up on his desk dictating a business letter which he would not need to check or proof read at all before it was fit to send.  As these were the days when people still sent letters with stamps on them he would probably have to sign it himself but the general tone of the marketing was that the communication would climb into an envelope of its own accord and that was the last he would see of it, thus allowing him to take the afternoon off for a round of golf.

Unfortunately real life isn’t like that.  The software had to be ‘trained’ to be better able to recognise the speaker’s intonation though a heavy regional accent would always be a problem.  Thus my first requirement was to tone down my northern vowels (best achieved by taking the flat cap off and making sure the whippet was in the other room) and speaking slowly in standard English.

I must say my early experiences were not particularly successful but the software has got better and so have I.  I have used two or three other programmes over the years – currently Dragon Naturally Speaking.  Like the original ViaVoice, it does ‘learn’ to follow my dictation but is by no means foolproof.  It seems happier with American pronunciation and thus has trouble with seemingly simple words like ‘ladder’ and ‘daughter’.

There is a tendency to over-compensate to the point where I speak unnaturally slowly and without any expression and end up sounding like Stephen Hawking’s voice synthesiser.  In actual fact ‘normal’ speech certainly fares no worse. Even so when writing scripts, my first draft is always written on paper with a fountain pen(!) before being dictated into the software.  I only normally dictate actual dialogue.  The speaker and any stage directions are typed in by hand afterwards while the various faux pas of the voice recognition system are hopefully being picked out and corrected.

Dictating straight from imagination to screen leaves me dangerously open to reading the material afterwards and having no idea what I said as the software has concocted something that doesn’t make any sense at all.  Things tend to go haywire when I speak too quickly and when the microphone is too far away to pick up dictation clearly.  (I use a call centre-style headset.)

A good typist may well probably not find the process any quicker than typing the whole script in manually but it’s a lot less wear and tear on ageing fingers, shoulders and neck and a similarly ageing keyboard.

Over the years my typing speed has got faster but not a lot more accurate.  For me voice recognition, even with me speaking slowly, sets out text at twice the speed that I can type and makes fewer errors.  At ‘normal’ speed (i.e. how the actors might be expected to deliver the lines) the time can be halved again with only a slightly higher error count.

The major drawback is being interrupted in mid-flow, either by the dog barking, other members of the family coming into the room or me answering the phone while neglecting to switch the mike off.

I would point out that my software programme, though I am quite happy with it, is from the cheaper end of the market and that more sophisticated and presumably more accurate versions are available.

I’m even lazier now than I was when I started using voice recognition software so I’d be reluctant to abandon it and would recommend anyone to give it a try.  Just work on that Californian accent and you can’t go wrong.

[The results, in the form of Geoff’s plays, can be explored here.]

Writing with all your faculties

There is a maxim: write about what you know.  There is even a play of that name by Paul Gisby. Taken literally, of course, it is nonsense.  (The maxim, not the play.)  If people wrote only about what they knew, there would, for example, be no fantasy.  On the other hand, you should certainly make an effort to know what you’re writing about.

Despite the impression I give (on this blog and elsewhere), I don’t know everything.  Nobody does.  (Thorstein Veblen was described as the last man who knew everything.  He didn’t, of course, but it was good propaganda.)  For example, there are aspects of the Church of England that baffle me.  At one point, I understood the difference between a Vicar and a Rector, but Canons, Deacons and Prebendaries are beyond my ken.  (And never mind that the C of E has Vicar and Curate the wrong way round, with Vicars curating parishes and Curates vicarious on their behalf.)  The Church seems to take pleasure in applying specific, unconventional meanings to common words.

This is not a terrier.

What does the word terrier bring to mind?   If you have never held the rank of Churchwarden or higher, then I would expect that you would be imagining a breed of small dog.  The Churchwarden, on the other hand, envisages the real estate belonging to the church.  (Here terrier is derived from terra, Latin for land.)
How about faculty?  Commonly either a sense (as in having all ones faculties), or a grouping of subjects at a university (the faculty of law).  Not for Churchwardens.  To them, a faculty is a licence (from the church authorities) to make changes to the fixtures and fittings of the church.

Knowing that you can’t make changes to a church without a faculty is usually completely unimportant – unless you are part of the management of a church.  But if you are writing about the topic, and you don’t know, then you need to find out.  That’s why it matters that I don’t know everything.  I’m a publisher, and as such, the gatekeeper between the writer and the public.  Occasionally, on the way to publication, reviewers, editors or proof-readers will pick-up authorial mistakes in the form of incorrect uses of words or concepts: for example, the word hilt is a specific part of a sword; clinically, alcohol is a depressant, not a stimulant;  the meaning of heifer makes it a gendered noun, and so on.  But because we don’t know everything, we have to assume that the writer knows more about the subject than we do and is not making it up on the spot.

The problem for writers is that someone amongst their readership or audience will certainly know a lot about the subject.  Consequently, if you make things up, you will be found out.  Hence the following tweet from ChurchCare.co.uk ‏(@CofE_Churchcare)

Last episode of the wonderful #Rev coming up on Monday. Will anyone notice they didn’t have a faculty for taking out those Georgian pews?

Hamlet and Zaphod break the rules

There are rules.

Sometimes there are rules that are there just because there have to be rules.  The French know this.  It is important to have rules, so they have rules for everything.  On Paris Metro trains, there used to be a rule listing the order of priority of people to whom you should give-up your seat, because in France they know that there have to be rules.  However everyone ignores the rules because France is an egalitarian society, and nobody has the right to impose rules on anyone else.

Some rules are there for good reasons.  In dramatic writing, one of the most frequently quoted rules is “show, don’t tell”.  The whole point of dramatising something is to show the story; if you want to tell it, you use some medium other than the stage.  “Show, don’t tell” has been around a long time.  Shakespeare knew the rule – and he broke it:

To be, or not to be…

You can argue that the whole of a soliloquy is about telling: it’s just the character talking to the audience.  However Shakespeare’s soliloquies and the best monologues (which, by definition, do the same thing), use telling in order to show us something else: in this case, Hamlet’s state of mind.

Telling instead of showing is at its worst when characters give each other information that they already know.  If the audience can hear that an exchange is there purely to give them information, then it’s bad writing.  It’s bad because it’s distracting. It’s taking the audience away from their suspended disbelief and reminding them that they’re watching a play.  This is at its most obvious in writing for the radio – when a character says something purely to tell the listener what is going on.  I discussed this with Damian Trasler a while back and he gave the example: “The gun that I have in my hand is loaded.”  You can hear the dialogue go “clunk”.

Do not PanicOn the other hand, Douglas Adams deliberately bent that rule for comic effect – with more-or-less Damian’s example.  I can’t remember whether or not it occurs in the books, but it’s in the seventh episode of the original Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy radio series:

Zaphod:  Look, if it’ll help you to do what I tell you, baby, imagine that I’ve got a blaster-ray in my hand.
Captain:  You have got a blaster ray in your hand.
Zaphod:  So you shouldn’t have to tax your imagination too hard.

There are plenty of occasions when a writer needs to give information to the audience, but it needs to be done creatively, so that the audience hears the dialogue, not the plot.

The Downside of Directions

Rehearsal of Miss Glossop's Weekend Break. Photo by Sue ArdernThe role of director as we know it today is a relatively recent invention in the theatre.  Nevertheless it’s an important job, and a different job from that of the author.  The director helps the actors to develop a coherent interpretation of the author’s work.   If you are writing, you don’t need to do the director’s job (or the actor’s).  You don’t need to tell the actor how to say the lines.  You don’t need to direct every move.

Nevertheless, where you are giving stage directions, you do need to be clear.  To that end, I try to discourage abbreviation in directions.  If something happens Down-stage Left, then it’s better to say it that way than to abbreviate it to DSL (just because some companies include novices who won’t know how to interpret the abbreviations – and may even struggle with upstage and down).  You’re not going to save very much of your typing time or the printer’s ink by abbreviating Upstage to US – and if you find you are typing it so much that the time saving becomes significant, then you are probably doing the director’s job and blocking all the moves in the show.

Whilst arguing against the writer doing the director’s job, Peter Ayre told me a tale told to him by a festival adjudicator about a company who had been using a script from “French’s Acting Editions”.
A digression here: based on their long history, Samuel French have taken a different approach to stage directions.  Peter John Cooper tells me that their Acting Editions used to be based on the “Prompt’s Copy” for the original production.  This included any changes made to the author’s text by the director, plus the blocking of every move.  For a long-running production, the Prompt’s Copy was the definitive text, used to resolve any disputes and used by the Deputy Stage Manager to rehearse any actor joining the cast to take over a role.  Turning this into a published text assumes that the original production was definitive, that any new production will have the same set design and that there is no role for interpretation by the new director.  In my view, this is a dangerous set of assumptions.  At worst it leads to the sort of ossification for which (before the copyright ran out) Gilbert and Sullivan productions used to be famous.  There’s a 1948 Flanders and Swan parody “In the D’Oyly Carte” where Donald Swan’s lyric suggests that every move was the same as it had been for the last fifty years:-

One that with tender passion fired
(Turn, pace, hand over heart),
Woe to the day that we were hired
By D’Oyly Carte!

(A brief exchange with my contact, Steve, suggests that these days Samuel French rely on the author’s directions rather than the prompt copy in their Acting Editions.)

Anyway, back to Peter Ayre’s story: the adjudicator was puzzled as to why the production opened with an actress crouched beneath a table.  Upon querying this he was told that “the book says mother is sitting below the table”.

Was Solzhenitsyn a Synesthete?

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn - source Wikimedia CommonsDifferent writers have different methods of working – methods they employ to shape their work.  Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn used different coloured pens.  He wasn’t doing this to reflect which character he was talking about, but to convey the mood of each sentence.  Different moods got different colours.  This method seems completely alien to me, I can’t imagine it being useful to my writing, but it meant something to Solzhenitsyn.  That’s why I wonder if he was a synesthete.  Synesthesia is a crossover between senses.  Different synesthetes experience it in different ways.  Some see numbers, letters or words as having particular colours – and for one person, one number will always have the same colour – others experience words as tastes.  I wonder if Solzhenitsyn had a mild form and experienced emotions as colours and felt the need to express the feeling in his writing.

This sort of method would not help me at all, but as a writer, you have to do the things that help you to write.  (This can include habits – where you write, when you write, how you sit – it can include the tools you use, from HB pencils to computer programmes and, as in Solzhenitsyn’s case, your practices whilst thinking and writing.)  In all probability, your method will not be visible to your readers; you do it for yourself.  Solzhenitsyn’s method did nothing for his readers directly, but he thought it helped him writing, and who am I to argue?  He won the Nobel Prize for literature, so if adopting particular methods helps you to write, by all means adopt them.  However, do it for yourself, not for your readers.  When you next take down your well-thumbed copy of One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich from your book shelves, you will notice that although Solzhenitsyn wrote his stories with multiple colours of ink, his publisher only printed them in black type.