Have you got a brilliant idea for a play? Will it be a comedy? A tragedy? A tragicomedy? There are as many types of plays as there are ways of writing them, and the more you write, the more you will develop techniques that work for you.
In this post, we highlight seven key considerations for writing a play:
What is the story your play will tell?
When and where is the action set?
Who are your main characters?
What will they say?
What will they do?
How will the play be structured?
Have you remembered to check for errors?
We will explore each point in more detail below. Writing a play is a complex process, but the reward of seeing it performed makes all the hard work worthwhile!
1. Outline Your Story
Before you begin writing, you should have an idea of the story you want to tell. You don’t have to know every intricate detail of the plot before you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but you should know roughly what is going to happen.
Most stories have an arc known as a three-act structure. As such, you may want to outline your plot in terms of its beginning, middle, and end:
Beginning: The first part of your story should be where you introduce the main character(s) and the central conflict or problem they have to face.
Middle: In the middle part of your play, you should include plot points that will increase in the conflict and tension, culminating in a point where your protagonist hits a low point (known as a ‘crisis’).
End: Finally, your plan should end with the protagonist overcoming the challenges they face and resolving the conflict set up in the beginning.
It is also important that your main character changes in some way during the course of the play. The audience should understand that the protagonist has been on an inner journey that parallels the visible events of the play.
Of course, not all plays follow this structure. If you are new to playwriting, you might want to start with something shorter (e.g. a one-act play). And plays can be divided into any number of ‘acts’, not just a beginning, middle, and end. But this three-act structure is a useful starting point for planning any story.
2. Establish the Period and Setting
When writing a play, you need think about when and where the story is set. And this applies regardless of whether the story takes place in an English boarding school in the 1950s or on a settlement on Mars in the 2050s.
It is essential that the language and action of your play are consistent with the time and place in which it is set. So you wouldn’t have your 1950s school girls texting each other or your interplanetary pioneers discussing the price of petrol!
Costumes, set design and music can all help to establish the play’s period in the audience’s mind. But you will also need to use the words of a narrator or the characters themselves to indicate when and where the action takes place.
3. Develop Interesting Characters
The interaction between characters is the driving force of a play. So, to make the play interesting, your characters must be as fully formed as possible.
If you want the audience to root for your hero (or long for the villain to get their comeuppance), you must make the characters believable. Think about their strengths and weaknesses, their insecurities and fears, and what motivates them, even if you don’t directly refer to these things in the script.
Try to make your characters memorable, perhaps by giving them an exaggerated trait like a fiery temper or a terrible sense of humour. Alternatively, they could have a distinctive way of speaking, a nervous laugh or a twitch.
Find this useful?
Subscribe to our newsletter and get writing tips from our editors straight to your inbox.
4. Make the Dialogue Authentic
When writing a play, dialogue is perhaps the most important element of your script.
Try to mimic real conversation when writing dialogue. When you listen to people speaking, you’ll notice that they rarely give long monologues, and verbal communications often consist of incomplete sentences. Reading your dialogue aloud, or asking others to, is the best way to check that it sounds authentic.
Keep in mind, however, that there is one crucial way in which stage dialogue is different from real speech. In a play script, there are no wasted words. Every line the actors say should either reveal something about their character or move the story along. On stage, there is no ‘um-ing’ and ‘ah-ing’ or meaningless small talk.
5. Give Your Characters Something to Do
Your play will not be convincing if your characters just stand there talking to each other. Where possible, then, make sure they are doing something that is both relevant to the story and consistent with their character.
Even if your plot doesn’t call for dramatic action every moment, the characters should still be active in some way (e.g. writing in a workbook or polishing a laser gun). Just keep in mind that the actions you describe should be something an actor will be capable of doing on stage (and within the budget of the production).
6. Structure the Play into Acts and Scenes
Plays are traditionally divided into acts (i.e. a section of the overall story) and scenes (i.e. events taking place in a particular location at a particular time).
As we’ve mentioned above, many stories can be conceived as three acts (a beginning, a middle, and an end). However, contemporary full-length plays more commonly have only two acts, conveniently allowing for an intermission. As such, you may want to think about how to divide your story accordingly.
Once you have worked out how many acts your play will have, you can break each one down into a series of scenes. Typically, scene changes occur when a new location, event or character is introduced. When doing this, bear in mind how scene changes will work in terms of the stage itself. It could be challenging for stagehands to transform the setting from a classroom to a gymnasium in just a few seconds!
7. Redraft and Proofread Your Script
Writing a first draft of a play is a great start, but you’ll want to make sure it is polished before you send it to an agent (or put on a production). Likewise, you’ll need to make sure your script is formatted correctly.
As such, make sure to review and redraft your script once you’ve got a draft ready. And don’t be afraid to seek a second opinion if you’re unsure about anything.
Here at Proofed, for instance, we offer specialist script editing services. This means you can have your script checked by an expert editor or proofreader, who will correct errors and offer advice on how to polish your writing. Why not try out our services today by uploading your first 500 words for free?