Top 5 Tips for Beginning Playwrights

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This spring, I’ve offered five tips to students writing in each of the four genres covered in my textbook, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief. The final installment is on the art of playwriting.

Playwriting is perhaps the trickiest genre to cover in the introductory course. Many students may have never seen a play in a theatre. They have, however, seen many films and television shows, which don’t necessarily make great models for young playwrights. Luckily, the homemade, DIY nature of playwriting, especially when it focuses on the ten-minute play, allows beginners to jump right in. Script-in-hand performances can take place in the classroom, without the elaborate and expensive elements required for a making a movie or TV program. Indeed, even a short film recorded on a mobile phone is likely to have a more complicated production process than the staged reading of a ten-minute play.


Here are my Top 5 Tips for Beginning Playwrights:


  1. Begin with a clear and immediate conflict and conclude with a memorable ending. In other genres, readers will sometimes allow authors the equivalent of a couple of minutes to make an implied pitch about why they should stay with us for the rest of a piece. However, an audience watching a group of actors on stage, particularly when they know the play is very short, want something to happen right away. Even a minute of hemming and hawing before the conflict becomes apparent can feel like forever. And if the opening must grab audience members by their sleeves, the ending should have as much, if not more, impact. The last speech, the final gesture, a poignant lighting or sound effect—the ten minutes that have come before should feel as though they are somehow encapsulated in the final moments of the play.


  1. Don’t write a skit. Watching an extended comedy sketch on Saturday Night Live can feel a lot like watching a ten-minute play: a handful of characters trade lines in a confined space, typically with a central conflict that is immediately apparent. But a skit, where the overriding and sometimes only goal is to get laughs, is not a play. There are plenty of hilarious short plays, but they nearly always have something significant—a serious theme, a personal revelation, an unexpected epiphany—simmering below their surfaces, ready to erupt.


  1. Include the fewest possible characters necessary to tell your story. Initially, it can seem fun to have a bunch of people traipsing around on stage, but in a ten-minute play, too many characters quickly look like clutter. Can two people with similar qualities and purposes be combined into one more interesting character? Does the barista with one line or the waiter with two really need to be part of your cast? The fewer characters on stage, the more time and lines each actor has to make their character feel like a real person, someone with more than two dimensions.


  1. Read your dialogue aloud several times before including it in your play. Few of us speak without using contractions—we normally say “I don’t” rather than “I do not”—and we often speak in sentence fragments.  Naturalistic speech relies on playwrights simulating the improvised and staccato sounds and patterns of actual talk. It’s sometimes helpful to sit in a public place with your eyes closed listening to how people really talk, but once you’ve written your script, it can still be hard to hear an awkward line when it’s sitting there on the page or screen. You hear best those places that need revision when you’re listening to others read your dialogue. Even if you have to read all the parts yourself, it’s vital to do so a few times aloud.


  1. Take advantage of production elements unique to the theater. Generally, there’s a lot more dialogue in a play than there is in a film or a television program. After all, the main tools at a playwright’s disposal are actors and their words. To mitigate the “talkiness” that can sometimes consume a play, use simple light and sound cues—the sudden blare of an alarm, for instance, may startle people in their seats. Have your actors move around the stage in interesting ways; let them get in each other’s faces then stalk off to opposite sides of the stage. And allow your actors to wield props when appropriate—a real flower held by a real human being can have an outsized impact on live audience members a few feet away. But don’t go overboard. When it comes to sets and props and effects in a stage play, a little goes a long way.