Whilst Playwriting may sound like it is an easy hobby, it is more complicated than it looks. There are many techniques to writing, and a variety of formats to master. It also helps to have an idea of how a stage production works, i.e. how long or wide the stage is, or how long it takes to move from one area to another.
However, if you have a creative mind or a great idea, it is an inexpensive hobby to have and can be very rewarding. If you want to learn how to write a play, there are a range of courses and workshops available to help you, or you could join your local theatre club to gain a valuable understanding of how to produce a play; getting to know actors, directors, producers, and other members can be very beneficial and a great asset for your playwriting hobby. They will be a useful source for information, as well as constructive critiques of your work.
Techniques and Style of Playwriting
There are some simple steps you can follow to make the process of writing your play easier. Start by getting to know your characters; how old are they, their occupations, their relationship to other characters, are they happy or sad, driven or melodramatic. You can do a list of the characters, a ‘Cast of Characters’, which can help the actors get to know their parts. Set the scene; decide where your play will take place, what time of the year, over what period of time, what items are needed on the stage – all this information helps actors, directors and producers in producing your play. Don’t forget to include entrances and exits, any physical actions that need to be performed, any significant pauses in dialogue, but you needn’t include detailed descriptions of costumes or set backgrounds, or even tone/delivery hints for actors.
The plot structure is similar to that of writing an essay; it needs a beginning, middle and end. The introduction, or ‘Exposition’, introduces the audience to the scene, the characters and context of the play, but you don’t have to introduce all of this at the beginning, i.e. additional characters can be added later. Next is to tell the audience what started the principal plot of the play, i.e. what is the catalyst that starts the action? Then build on it, introducing characters if necessary and expanding on the plot. This is known as the ‘Rising Action’. The ‘Climax’ is the audience gasping moment, the moment the action reaches its crescendo, i.e. people/love/fortunes lost. Following this is the confrontation and resolution of the Climax, or ‘Falling Action’, and it can also include turning points, accepting or rejecting the results of confrontation, and any actions accordingly taken. The final part of the plot is the resolution, or ‘Denouement’, giving the audience the answers; is it a happy ending or a sad ending?
Think about how your characters interact with each other; there are three elements that make up character interaction, known as ‘Dramatic Action’ and they are:
1. Discovery – the character makes a startling discovery; how does this change his life or what he believes? What is he going to do about it?
2. Revelation – an admission by a character, i.e. they’ve witnessed a murder.
3. Decision – the character’s action as a result of discovery and/or revelation.
Your scenes or ‘Acts’ can incorporate all or some of these elements as the play progresses, and the character elements can interact with and affect another character’s discovery, revelation or decision.
There is a basic format to follow when writing a play:
Top line centred: TITLE of PLAY
2nd line centred: AUTHOR(s)
Name #1: a short description of the character, name of the actor playing the part.
Name #2: etc.
A short description of the location and time period of the scene.
(Then set out stage directions to inform the actors and director what the audience should see when the curtain goes up. Also note any actions/movements prior to dialogue commencing, and try to make it from the actor’s point of view, i.e. what is the character doing?)
NAME: (this format is for each character, i.e. JONATHAN:). Set out the dialogue. You don’t need to use speech marks and all dialogue lines are indented. If you are including any specific instructions, i.e. any actions while the actor is talking, they need to be written in italics and placed in brackets, i.e. (fills a glass with water from the kitchen sink tap.)
To help you with formatting, there are a range of writing software tools which you can purchase (supplied on disk or downloadable from the internet), such as Final Draft. You can also download from the internet, scriptwriting software that incorporates much of the planning, storyboarding and outline tools, such as Celtex. Also available are web-based software tools, i.e. you don’t need to download it to use the software. These software tools are accessible from any location that has an internet connection, saves time, and is easy to use, but you do need an internet connection!
There are a variety of styles, or ‘genres’, that you can use for your play. The basic genres are comedy, satire, mystery, historical, farce and tragedy, and from these you can develop a whole myriad of variations, i.e. a black comedy, a political satire, a comical farce, etc.
Comedies are plays which are designed to be humorous. Comedies are often filled with witty remarks, unusual characters, and strange circumstances. Certain comedies are geared toward different age groups. Comedies were one of the two original play types of Ancient Greece, along with tragedies.
A generally nonsensical genre of play, farces are often overacted and often involve slapstick humour.
A satire is a play which takes a comic look at current events and famous people while at the same time attempting to make a political or social statement, for example pointing out governmental corruption.
These plays often involve death and are designed to cause the reader or viewer to feel sadness. Tragic plays convey all emotions, and have extremely dramatic conflicts. Tragedy was one of the two original play types of Ancient Greece.
These plays focus on actual historical events. They can be tragedies or comedies, but are often neither of these. History as a separate genre was popularised by William Shakespeare.
Resources and Equipment
Playwriting is not an expensive past-time, you can start with just a pen or pencil, and paper, although you might get writer’s cramp! Most people nowadays have access to a computer, which makes writing a lot quicker and easier with a range of tools, i.e. spell checker and thesaurus, to help with spelling, punctuation, words, etc. You can also save your work safely, and back up on a disc, hard drive or USB stick.
You may wish to invest in a writing software package which can be purchased for around $150-$200, or a web-based package which may charge a monthly fee. As previously mentioned, there are free of charge, downloadable writing software packages available, i.e. Celtex, but most of these don’t have as many tools as the purchased or web-based packages.
If you wish to join a theatre group to learn more about how a theatre works, and how to stage a production as well as making valuable contacts, there will be a monthly or annual membership fee, but it would be well worth it. You may also want to got and watch some plays of different genre to get an idea of what genre you wish to use and a ‘feel’ of the audience’s point of view. This will involve purchasing tickets which will range in value from $10 upwards, depending on the play and where it is being performed.
Where to Learn
There are a variety of workshops, courses and seminars you can attend where you can learn more about playwriting; the format, scripting, genres, style and techniques. These can be sourced from most theatres and via the internet, but there will be a fee to attend.
Promoting Your Play
So, you’ve written your play and want to promote or sell it for production. This can be quite daunting and where do you start? The Writers Guild is a great source of potential outlets. You can register with them for a small $20 fee, which will also help you to protect your work.
Before you promote your play, make sure you’ve gone through it in detail (you will probably have gone through several re-writes!). Use your contacts, friends, family, etc and ask for their feedback. They may see repeats or mistakes that you have missed. If you are looking for professional feedback, check out the Writers Store. Their professionals will offer you Development Notes on your play/script.
Once you’re revisions and/or re-writes have been completed, there are many places where you can submit your script, or you can organise a reading, or enter a competition! Festivals take place worldwide, such as the Bay Area Playwrights Festival, The Blank
Theater Company’s Young Playwright Festival (for people under 19 years of age), and the Comica: London International Comics Festival. Also, check out the Warner Bros. Writers Workshop.
A popular annual competition for play writers is run by Bottle Tree Productions. It is for a One Act Play and closes in November. There is an entry fee of $25 per script you submit or, if you are just looking for critique, there is a $50 fee per script. You can also submit a script for both critique and entry, for which there is a fee of $75.
Tips and Recommendations
1. Before your start writing, decide on the plot, genre and setting.
2. Don’t worry about a title to start with.
3. Write a shortened version first and ask for feedback from friends and family. This will help you to decide whether to go ahead and write the full script, or throw that idea away and try another one.
4. Make sure you proof read your script. It is a good idea to have a professional proof reader to cast an eye over it.
5. Don’t forget to include your dramatic moments, i.e. happy, sad, funny, slapstick, punchlines, emotions. Your dramatic moment could also be the conclusion or end.
6. Try to limit it to two main characters only, and only one principal villain, although he can assistants!
7. Read it through, and again, and again. It is also helps if you know an actor who can read it through and offer advice.
8. Now you can start thinking about a title. It can be witty, explains the basic plot or doesn’t, or just relates to the play.
9. Don’t worry if you can’t get all the characters sorted at the beginning. Most of the time, characters develop as you write the play.
10. Don’t worry about names in terms of rhyming or linking, it really doesn’t matter.
11. As you write, picture the scenes in your mind.
12. Try to avoid using too many of the actors in one scene, but don’t use one actor in just one scene – they don’t like it!
13. Avoid gun battles, and if there is a gunshot, restrict to only one or two scenes.
14. Avoid quick scene changes and give the crew time – some set pieces are heavy and hard to move around!
15. Be careful what you write, avoid offence to actor or audience (no racist or religious comments/jokes, keep children’s dialogue simple, avoid swear words unless necessary, and avoid sexist comments/jokes). Try not to make the character too nasty or bad – otherwise you might not be able to get an actor to play the part!
16. Make sure you have enough characters – very, very few plays get away with less than 4 parts.
17. Finally, enjoy the experience – this is a hobby!