How To Write a Play

Writing a play can be a daunting task, but a very rewarding one. Putting words on the page with the goal of seeing them acted out in front of a live audience is an exciting pursuit. If it's one you'd like to try, here are some writing pointers I've picked up and would like to pass on to you. Playwriting, like any craft, takes practice and lots of study. These are just a few  basics. I hope they help you get started.

  1. Read and view a lot of plays. You may already be very well-versed in stage drama. But if you're like most people, you're more familiar with TV and film. Plays are different in what they can show and how they can show it. The basics, you'll find, are the same: someone wants something and overcomes obstacles to get it. But note the emphasis on dialogue, the breaking into scenes and acts through use of lighting, the places from which people can enter and exit. There's a lot to take in! So, if you're not already familiar with how the stage works, or how plays are built, reading and watching them is a very important first step. You can also get a crash course on formatting a play this way.

  2. Find the "essential elements" in your idea. Sometimes a writer begins with a character he or she really likes. Other times, it's an incident, an action that starts a writer down the path of creating a story. Wherever you prefer to begin, make sure to pinpoint the essential elements: who is the main character? What does he or she want? What must he or she overcome to get it? What is at stake (why is getting this important). Then consider the supporting characters and answer the same questions for them.

    When I used to teach English, we studied "A Raisin In The Sun". This is a great play for considering these key elements: every character wants something, is blocked from getting it, and has to overcome something to get that goal. This is almost always how great drama is built.

  3. Brainstorm and outline. Once you have the major elements, spend serious time pre-writing, figuring out who each character is, what should happen and when, what needs to happen and when. At this point, you will also need to think about how long your story needs to be. Are you looking to write a quick ten-minute play or a four-act opus? Don't go crazy with the length if you're looking to actually sell this play, but do consider how long it's going to take to tell your story.

    Also, think more about your characters -- what are they really like? What is each character's history? How do they interact? Discover who your characters are and plot out how (or if) they will change over the course of the play.

  4. Break the story into acts then scenes. As you may know, the act is the major unit of drama in a play. It's sort of like a big chapter, if you want to think of it like a book. A play can be one act, three acts, four acts, or more. Again, don't go crazy with length, though. Each act is comprised of scenes - sort of like mini-chapters. Usually, a scene takes place at one time, in one place, and is about one goal: the scene where Hamlet's father's ghost wants Hamlet to learn the truth about his death; the scene where Hamlet wants to drive away Ophelia; the scene where Hamlet wants to confront his mother about her betrayal.

    Sometimes, scenes can be broken into pieces: one character enters, pursues one goal with another character, then leaves; in the next scene a new character comes in and wants something different. The time hasn't jumped ahead, the place hasn't changed, but the goal of the scene is different. A scene should be somewhat complete within itself, with a beginning, middle and end on a small scale.

    So, look at your story and decide what happens when and where. Think of each moment of the drama in terms of what conflict is present. One hint: use big moments in the story -- cliffhangers, turning points -- to end your acts. Don't rush this step. You will be thankful when it comes time to write that you spent time pre-writing!

  5. Consider dialogue. Dialogue is central to stage plays which cannot rely on special effects, film tricks or technology to tell their story the way movies and even television can. Think about the kind of dialogue you want to write: highly stylized? Gritty and realistic? Are you going to use a dialect like American Southern or cockney? As you begin to write, consider how your characters are going to sound.
  6. Write! Eventually, you can't put it off any longer. With your outline, your character bios, and your desire to write a great play, you have to sit down and put the words on the page! Plan on rewriting, too, because nothing's ever perfect the first time around. Enjoy -- good luck -- oh, wait, no, break a leg!


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