To the fellow and future storytellers!
In this easy-to-use, easy-to-understand guide, I’ll show you the basics of how to write a play.
To make it easy, I’ve divided this guide into commonly asked or wondered about questions. So if you just want a specific topic or query answered, just search for that keyword and it’ll pop up somewhere in this guide hopefully.
It should be noted that these are just helpful suggestions to get you started or out of a creative rut. There is no real formula for writing, no matter what some books or paid courses try to tell you.
So, let’s get started? Here’s what you should know about playwriting.
Playwriting is easier than you think.
Seriously. If you know what to write – i.e. the story – then structurally, plays are the easiest thing to write.
A play is basically any fictional setting where one or more people talk or perform something for an audience.
When you’re writing a play, you don’t need to be too descriptive, like short stories or novels. There’s an urgency to get to the point when writing dialogue, which means you can get to the point without having to describe or set up the scene.
There are some rule-ish guidelines. Sure, you could say that plays come with a certain set of rules, but they really are just helpful guidelines – they were all made up based on what has worked or been appreciated historically. You think that when Shakespeare wrote his plays he cared about structure? So write freely, and if you want to follow a ‘structure’, here are some previously-used formulas:
These stories are limited by no breaks, it all takes place in one setting (i.e. location), and usually just involves one to five characters. Time length is between 15 minutes to 45 minutes. The idea here to explore a scene or series of scenes that gives the audience a taste of what life is like for the characters, without going too deep into an over-arching storyline.
These stories are the usual ‘three-act plays’ you might have heard of. Usually running anywhere between 75 minutes to 3 hours, a three-act play features a complete beginning, middle, and end storyline.
Since this is an introduction to playwriting, we’ll stick to these two types of plays for now.
The Three-Act Structure
You DO NOT have to follow a standard three-act structure, but it is a good way to ease into writing full-length plays, so here’s some tiny guidelines on them, just in case.
The First Act
In the first act, you introduce your characters and basically ‘setup’ the story. The first act is what hooks the reader – which is more important at the writing stage. When your play is performed in front of an audience, it’s rare that the audience will decide to get up and leave at the end of the first act. But a reader can choose to stop reading your play whenever she pleases, so hook ‘em up right at the beginning.
The Second Act
The second act is where things really start to get complicated for your characters, and hopefully interesting for your audience. Whatever your story is about, you should let all of that fun out in this act.
The Third Act
The third act can be many things – it can be the resolution to the story, or the entire climax, or a completely crazy whiz-has-hit-the-fan bonanza of twists and turns.
Just a helpful suggestion – plays usually don’t have sequels, so whatever stories or side-stories or conflicts or threads you started in acts 1 and 2, resolve them all by the end of act 3.
Basically, you can write any thing you want, any way you want. Let the story be the first priority, and your structure will figure itself out around it.
The hardest part is the beginning
This goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway because I’ve already typed the title – the story you want to tell is all that really matters, and coming up with that is the hardest part. The structure and form and style of your play is just the presentation of how to tell that story. If you don’t know what you’re trying to say and why you want to say it, even the most perfect looking play will crumble.
That’s what storytelling is all about – once you have the story figured out, the telling of it is the fun part. Try to enjoy it!
The story figures itself out eventually
You must be (or should be) thinking this: All this sounds good and fine and easy, but how does any of this help come up with the story?!
Yes, we know, and we’re getting to that.
Here’s what you shouldn’t worry about at the beginning: having the entire story figured out before you even write the first stage direction.
What’s a stage direction, you ask? We’ll get to that too. Be a little patient! It’s an important part of being a writer.
Fine, I’ll just tell you now: a stage direction is just a fancy way of describing what’s happening physically in a scene or play.
Anyway, back to not worry about everything from the beginning: think of it this way – if you’re planning to go on a vacation for two weeks, do you plan out every single minute of that trip in advance? I hope not, because that would be a really boring, uneventful, and altogether mechanical vacation.
What you probably do in that instance is plan out the overall bird’s eye view of the trip, and then probably the first couple days, and let the rest work itself out as you live through it.
Basically, always leave room for spontaneity. Characters can surprise you, just like people.
Take advantage of the medium
What is a stage but not a giant, 3D megaphone for your artistic expression? There is a reason people still go to the theater to watch a live play. Being face to face with a character, who’s only performing for you and to you, is a unique experience.
Plays were there before television. Before film. Shakespeare’s words were spoken out loud on a stage long before there was even a United States of America. A ‘screenplay’ is a play written for the screen, and a ‘teleplay’ is a play written for television.
Theatre has stood its ground for thousands of years. A stage is where words are at the center – words are the action, words are the emotions, words are the expression. The live nature of play gives the audience a personal connection to the story, and even though there is a sense of repetition when the play is performed night after night, there are still no two identical performances – each performance lasts only for one night, making the theatre a truly remarkable medium.
While all of that might sound heavy, it brings with it a sense of liberation – when you’re writing a play, you have a fixed structure that gives you the one thing writers take for granted: limits. Plays are grounded in reality, which means you can limit your story to a certain set or a few locations. You can limit your characters to the key players you need to tell this story, instead of having to create an ‘ensemble’. Exposition and setting up the story take a backseat when writing a play – your one and only focus being writing the dialogue.
The characters do all the work
Almost everything in a play is run by dialogue – due to the location and prop limitation – so if you love writing people that just talk and talk, you’re going to love playwriting.
Being a storyteller is like having the ability to live another life for a few brief moments. Once you come up with some sort of a character sketch, write in their voice. Before you know it, you’ll be thinking stuff like “No, she wouldn’t say that” or “I think he would react like this when he sees this”. As a writer you’re always going to love your characters, but here’s a secret – your characters love you too! And they’ll be trying their best to impress you by letting their personality drive a scene.
Think of it this way. Characters are just real people who don’t exist outside your mind.
How to write dialogue
Enough about the ‘what’ and ‘why’, let’s get into the ‘how’.
Before a play is performed, it’s read. That means that at the time of writing it, all you need to ask yourself is this: do I want to read this?
Writing dialogue is about communication and realism. Your characters don’t have a backstory montage or chapter. The only way the reader knows who your character is by listening and reacting to what they say.
Here’s an example from I Want A Divorce, a short story I wrote sometime ago.
SHE: Love wasn’t our problem.
He starts to say something…then stops. She notices, and her expression hardens again.
HIM: Nothing. It’s just that mentioning what isn’t the problem is usually when you tell me what is.
SHE: I’m tired.
HIM: I know. It’s been a long week. This vacation hasn’t been what we wanted.
SHE: No…I’m tired..of this.
When I wrote that story, I gave myself a challenge: start a story with the line “I Want A Divorce”. Where does the story go from there? Why would someone say that? What happened to this fictional marriage that it’s come to such a point?
The result was a 10-minute story with a back and forth of words – words that show you, the reader, exactly who these two characters are, why they are fighting, what went wrong; more importantly, these words makes you question whether this will be their last fight.
These two characters use words to show you how they communicate to each other. The ease with which they talk and no-filter language suggests that this couple has been together for years. This is what their marriage sounds like, something that should immediately be relatable to your readers.
As the writer, you have to do justice to your vision – if you’re going to write a story about an honest and dark conversation like “I Want A Divorce” – you have to think like your characters. What if you were in this position? What if your wife or husband said this to you? How would you react? Would you make a joke? Would you get angry? If you believe your characters are real, what you make them say will be real.
Write what makes sense to you, and it will for sure make sense to the reader. The story and the plot is irrelevant until you know your characters in and out. Once you’ve created them and made them realistic, then they are the ones who drive the story.
And while all of the above sounds like a lot of ‘work’, I’ll let you in on a little secret – I wrote that story (from start to finish) in a matter of two hours, while sitting in a hotel room balcony as it rained. Sometimes characters just come to you, and you have to be patient with that process too.
Knowing exactly who these two people were is the reason why I felt I was able to do justice to this fictionally realistic couple who’ve been together for 12 years. Having their entire life figured out over the course of one evening is why I was able to revisit SHE and HIM again and again in later stories such as An Honest Date, I Don’t Want To Sleep With You, and The Blind Date Experiment.
What you should figure out before you start
While most of the ‘work’ in playwriting comes during the writing process, some things must be as clear as possible to you before you start. Here’s the starter kit:
Time and Space: Think about where and when this story takes place. If location or year aren’t that important, go with the simple route and place your story in the present time in whatever city you live in or like.
Who is this story about: If you’re having trouble with ‘what’ this story is about, think about the ‘who’. Sometimes breaking something down to a human level emotion or experience can get you out of a writer’s block. If you want to write about feminism, but don’t know where to start, then just think about the person whose viewpoint you want to tell your story through. Your audience is human (as of the year 2018), so giving them a character to relate to rather than a concept is a good way to begin.
Why should anyone want to read/see this: Creativity is a gift that you should handle responsibly, so before you do much writing, give your audience the courtesy of knowing why they should ever consider reading or seeing your play. Why is this story important to you? What are you trying to tell people through these characters? Going with the above example of feminism – everyone knows what it is and why it’s important. Don’t just tell people a story, but show them why the story is important and relevant to them. A writer, just like any other storyteller, has one weapon in her arsenal that is unique to each: perspective. Show the audience how you see the world, and they will happily spend time in yours.
The above shouldn’t be surprising because I basically just laid out (with more words) – what, where, when, and why.
Trust your audience
Sir Patrick Stewart (X-Men, Star Trek), and Ian McKellan (X-Men, Lord of the Rings) are seasoned theatre performers. Their trick to performing the same play every night week after week? They believe that every time they step out on that stage, they are saying those words for the first time. They are listening to these words for the first time. Everything is happening for the first time.
Write with that in mind. You may have taken days/months/years to perfect your writing, the scenes, the dialogue, the characters – but the audience/reader doesn’t know that. To them, whatever you put on the page (in your final draft) is all they’ll ever see. While to you these characters and this dialogue and the plot all makes sense, you have to read and re-read your story like you’re reading it for the first time. That’s how good stories work.
In the end, before you hit that publish button, all you need to do is reassure yourself that your audience will see what you were trying to do. First trust yourself, then trust your audience.
Don’t imitate someone’s style
For all you Tarantino, Sorkin, Mamet fans out there – let your favorite writers inspire you, but don’t let them in to your stories. You don’t want someone else’s voice in your head, do you? That would be freaky. Find your own voice, as the cliche goes. Only you sound like you, so why wouldn’t you want the world to hear what that sounds like?
Remember this though – as much as you admire your favorite writer, you only read their finished work. Everyone writes a first draft, or a fiftieth draft, that they aren’t proud of. Let yourself have those moments. Write freely. Let the pen (or keyboard) be the vessel to let out your soul. No one can write like you. 26 letters in the english alphabet, but the way you put them together, is completely new and unique. Own that. And perhaps some day, your name will be on someone’s favorite writer’s list!
When in doubt – write
I hate (love) to break it to you – the only way you become a good writer is by writing.
Have you ever heard of an athlete that doesn’t practice their skill or sport? Same goes for writers.
And you’re probably going to have to write a lot before it starts to make sense. But that’s okay.
The good news is that if you’re reading this you probably do love writing. So don’t worry, you’ll get better as you keep honing this skill.
Still need convincing that you can do this? Fine, I’ll let you in on one more secret: there is a bonus reward at the end of a finished play…
People who write plays get a fancy title
Novel writers are called novelists. Movie writers are called screenwriters. Essay writers call themselves essayists.
Everyone else is just a writer.
But a person who writes plays gets the coolest title of all – Playwright.
How great does that sound?
And guess what? You’re just one step (click) away from calling yourself one.
Become a playwright. You know you want to.
Start writing now.
By Lakshya Datta