Writing a One Act Play: Writing Strategies

Get Tips for Putting Together One Act Plays

When people think of plays, many things come to mind. One of those things can occasionally be "Man, that was long!" While great plays sometimes make time fly, many full-length ones do in fact last for at least two hours. Some, like well-known plays by Shakespeare and Eugene O'Neill are a lot longer - much longer. Some, however, come in under the hour mark and don't have any sort of intermission or mid-point curtain.

These plays of half an hour to an hour in length are generally referred to as one-act plays. Writing these can offer challenges to first-time writers, playwrights used to the full-length format and screenwriters used to considering stories in a three-act structure. On the other hand, it can be a great experience.

Here are some ways to get started writing a one-act play. But keep in mind that writing a play, like most things, requires more than just following a process. Practice, experimentation, study, writing strategies and help from experts - and did I mention practice? - will be necessary, too. 

These tips will help get you started.

  1. Read and/or see some one-act plays. My first suggestion to anyone taking up a new writing skill is usually to get some examples to follow. There are many one-act play compilations available where you can read work by both  famous playwrights and up-and-coming writers. Study these scripts for their construction - what happens when? How many settings and characters are used? What is the time frame of the play's action - a day, a year? Plays vary greatly in content and form, of course, but that's just another reason to read, and if possible see, a lot of one-act plays if you're going to write one:  You will know a variety of ways you can proceed with your story.
     
    One-act plays often differ from full-length ones in their scope. They will have fewer characters, perhaps, or a more simple setting. Mainly, though, they will be very focused on a main character and a single incident or goal - there will be little time to go to subplots or scenes not involving the main character and his story. This is something you will notice as you read one-act plays, and something you will want to keep in mind as you go through the writing process.
  2. Pick your main character. I really think there are a few main questions a writer should ask when she sits down to tell her story, unless the story is incredibly unconventional, in which case, you're on your own. The first question is "Who is your main character?" A story, even one with a sizable ensemble, needs that one lead focal point. In a short play, chances are your cast will be small, maybe 4 or 5 people. Finding your lead should not be difficult. Ask "Whose story is this? Whose point of view do we see through?"  That's your main character.
  3. Give the character a goal. Once you decide on your main character, figure out his goal. A character, in any work, should have one goal that he pursues throughout the story. Hamlet wants to do right by his father. Dorothy wants to get home to Kansas. To write your play, you must choose a goal for your main character. To get what he wants, he may have other subsidiary things he needs to do, but the main, overarching "want" should remain the same. In a sense, what your character wants is what your play is about.
  4. Brainstorm for obstacles your character will face. They always say the heart of dramatic writing is conflict. Once you know who your main character is and what she wants more than life itself, you need to do the hard part, which is to figure out the obstacles she will face and how she will overcome them (if she does...). Keep in mind, each obstacle should be harder than the next:  You don't want to see someone kill his arch enemy and then have to look up directions to a house. You want the guy to find the directions - an easy obstacle to overcome - and then kill the enemy (perhaps the climactic moment of the story, depending on your character's goal).

    While you plot the obstacles - basically, your story- also keep in mind some other things. You want to start late in the story, in other words, when Dorothy gets in trouble with Miss Gulch, not on the day she comes to live with Auntie Em. You also want to make sure to give us some time to meet the character before we rush off down the Yellow Brick Road. But remember, you want conflict in every bit of the story, and with one act, you don't have nearly as much time to introduce things as you would in a full-length play. This means you will want to get to a turning point moment pretty quickly, a moment where the character makes a decision that puts her on that Yellow Brick road, whatever the road might be for her specific pursuit.

  5. Work on the characters. As you work on the story obstacles, you always want to develop your characters, both the main character and whomever may support that main character. Think about what the supporting characters might want - they should also have goals. Think about how they function as obstacles for each other. Think also about how they can be "multi-dimensional" or in other words, have strengths and weaknesses, shades of gray, etc. See how characters in your favorite plays are revealed by how they deal with conflict, how they interact with others and how others describe them. Use those same techniques as you build characters.
  6. Work on the setting. As you work out the story and characters of your script, also consider setting. Often, one-act plays will have simple settings which require an audience to use some imagination. Other times, one-acts may have elaborate sets. Keep in mind, if you're a beginning playwright looking to get your work produced, elaborate sets can sometimes be a strike against you - but, of course, do what best serves your play. Sometimes, setting is important. The Wizard of Oz needs Oz. Other times, you may be in a generic café or living room that doesn't have any particular effect on your characters. Consider the setting of some favorite plays - how it works in the story, how important it is, how the playwright describes it.
  7. Outline your scenes. A scene is a basic unit of drama. It can be roughly described as a chunk of the play that happens in one time and place. If you read some plays, you can analyze how the playwright breaks the act into scenes. Some may have one scene, others may have many scenes, even in a short one-act. The key is for each scene to move the story and/or character revelation forward. In other words, each scene should involve a conflict, not just simply people chatting it up. And each conflict should, in some way, involve the main character pursuing his or her goal. (In a multi-act play, you might well have scenes where the main character isn't present, but you won't want to spend that kind of time away from them in a one-act.)  
     
    Your job becomes transforming your list of obstacles that stand in your main character's way into scenes. For instance, Wicked Witch becomes "Dorothy fights off the Wicked Witch and gets her broom." Some people prefer to go ahead and write the scenes instead of outlining them first. Sometimes I do that, but it is much more difficult to rewrite a whole scene than it is to rearrange a few lines of an outline. 
  8. Write and rewrite. Once you know where your main character is going, it's time to actually write the play. There is no easy way to do this. If you've written anything before, you know that everything good takes several drafts. If you haven't written before:  Everything good takes several drafts. So when you write, bear in mind, it won't be perfect the first time through. That's fine. Just go for it!
     
    Also take into consideration that creative writing of any form is a craft that has to be worked on over time and polished. I suggest taking a playwrighting course if you don't have a writing background. If you do, you may find that analyzing plays is sufficient for "getting the hang of it."
     
    Writers also often go back to the basics to see if they hit their marks:  Is there a clear main character pursuing a goal? Are the obstacles and characters interesting? Is the dialogue authentic-sounding? They also might look at more intricate pieces of the play:  Is the theme coming across? Are the metaphors working? In any case, it is almost impossible to objectively judge all of what you need to improve. You should go with your gut on most things, but don't work in a vacuum. Find a teacher, fellow writer, paid consultant, or other trusted associate and have her tell you what she thinks could stand to be changed. Since this is dramatic writing, it might also help, as you go through different drafts, to have actors read your script in a workshop setting. This is often done with writers-in-residence at professional theatres and in academic sessions, but if you're just starting out, you can potentially find a community theatre where the company will be happy to help you.
  9. Look for submission opportunities. There are many playwrighting contests looking for one-act plays. There are also many theatre companies who eagerly take one-act submissions. Whether any of these opportunities offer any money is another story, but if you write for the love of it (and have a decent day job...), the joy and thrill of seeing your work produced will be payment enough. Some websites have databases of playwrighting contests and theatre submission guidelines. See the links below for more information.

Writing a play of any length can be a challenge. Writing a one-act show which covers all the bases in limited time - but which also has nuance, depth, and offers the audience a memorable experience - is no exception. These writing strategies can help, however. Following good examples and writing tips, taking time with the pre-writing portion of the process, and devoting yourself to rewriting as needed, will help you put your best foot forward and your best script on stage.

 

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