So You Want to Write a Play! Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

So You Want to Write a Play!

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A man in green with a feather in one hand and drawing a theatre curtain with the other

Welcome to the world of playwriting! With your play you will pay homage to the illustrious group of people before you who history calls dramatists. Most people will never consider writing a play. You should be commended for choosing to step forward among the few who have. The writing of a play is a long process and you have boldly taken the first step. In short, whether your play is a first draft or the tenth, more likely than not, it still has a long way to go. But don't worry, for many a brilliant evening at the theatre has started out in just this way.

The first thing you should know before embarking on the voyage of playwriting is that it takes hard work. From the start, understand that playwriting is re-writing. A play you see when you attend the theatre will have gone through sometimes hundreds of re-writes before it was ever put into the hands of actors and directors. Writing plays requires enormous patience and hard work. You cannot sit down and write a play in an afternoon and have it ready to be performed that night. A play is a delicate flower that needs pruning and re-potting, with just the right amounts of sun and water. Even the most famous and experienced of playwrights spend the majority of their time with any one script in re-writes.

The play you have begun is in the most delicate and needy of stages. A new play needs lots of care and attention to help it grow into a play that will someday boom forth from the mouths of actors on a brightly lit stage. The purpose of this entry is to help you determine whether you feel you are ready to nurture a new play, or any other play in the future. It takes a certain kind of person to write a play. In working with your new play, you will discover whether or not you are that kind of person.


Many novice playwrights mistakenly set their sights on getting their plays into the hands of publishers as quickly as possible. However, the goal of playwriting should be to have the play produced, not published. In the arena of playwriting, publication does not come without production. Most of the play publishing houses will not in fact accept unsolicited plays at all, much less ones that have not been produced. So your goal should be to send your play to theatres and playwriting contests before you ever worry about publishing. Moreover, these theatres and contests will usually not accept plays that have already been produced or that have already been published. Another misconception among less experienced playwrights is that the publisher or theatre who rejects their script will send a critique of their manuscript explaining why they did not want it, and how the playwright could turn it around. While you may be lucky enough to find a fellow playwright to critique your play, a theatre or publisher will not send you a critique. They will send only a rejection notice.

Page Formatting for Playwriting

The main point to remember when you are writing your first play is that more white space on your page will make rewrites simpler for you as your play nears its final draft. If you have extra white space in your script you can easily make notes regarding changes in the play or, in a more extreme example, cut and paste different sections of your play together in a new way that better suits the story your play is telling. The format plays take when they are published in books is not the same as the one that will prove best for a new playwright to use.

The format you write your play in is also the format which is preferable to theatres when they perform your play. The extra white space in this instance serves for the director, production crew and actors in the play to take notes that aid them in better carrying out their duties to the production. Here are the basic elements of a standard playwriting format.

  • Scene headings should be set at the left margin with the text underlined and in caps.

  • Stage directions you have written into your play are best left centred on the page. The text can be in italics if you like, or can also be left in plain text.

  • The bulk of your play will consist of lines of dialogue each introduced by the name of the character speaking the line. The character names should be centred on their own line and in uppercase. The actual lines of dialogue are aligned left beneath the character names.

If you pursue playwriting seriously there are many software titles that can do all of the above described formatting for you, leaving you only with the task of creating your play. These can easily be found by pointing any search engine at 'playwriting software'.

Character Descriptions

Try not to leave unemployed the make-up, hair and costume designers for your play. If your character descriptions tell every last detail of what you want the characters to look like, then your creative team has no reason to work on your play. Also consider your auditioning actors - is it really vital to the characters that they are a certain height and weight and hair colour? And do you realistically expect anyone to fit very specific physical criteria, and also be able to act?

Say as little as possible in the character descriptions. Theatre is a collaborative art and you must leave room for your collaborators to add their creative input into your play.

In your character descriptions, should you feel compelled to describe personalities, places of origin, accomplishments or failures, and ambitions - think again! The audience becomes acquainted with your characters only through their actions and words on stage.

One of the main points to remember in playwriting is show, don't tell.

You don't really need to tell us anything in the character descriptions other than the name of your characters. If the name makes it unclear you can certainly mention the sex of the character, and if it is absolutely vital, and pertinent to the story you are telling, you can make note of the occupation, a particular physical attribute, hair length or colour, or the wearing a particular garment that your play will be changed for the worse without the revealing of this information up front. But, everything else should be revealed within the action of the play.


It is best to only specify a certain year or date if it is directly necessary to the story. Obviously, if your play is about Christmas, you can mention that it takes place in December, or even the week of Christmas, or whenever. But basically, unless the audience will need to know the day and/or date to understand the action of the play, leave it out.

Limitations of Playwriting

When you set out to write a play, you must keep in mind that theatre is a very different medium in which to tell your story than television or film. There are limitations in the theatre that cinema and television do not have. First, while a television programme or a movie can have the action take place in many varied locales, sometimes all over the world, in the telling of one story, this cannot happen in the theatre. Most plays limit the setting of the story to one or two locations, which can be represented on a stage. All theatres have a crew of designers and builders who must create the world of each play. Your play will have a better chance of being produced if you do not expect the utterly impossible from these artisans.

Another thing to remember is that your actors are but human, and if you expect them to change into a whole new set of clothes each time they leave the stage for but a moment, then you are asking too much of them. They work hard enough bringing your characters to life to be expected to also perform costume changes with the ease of a paper doll.

Beyond the demands of the obvious physical possibilities of the theatre, there are also financial considerations. Apart from the glitter of London's West End and New York's Broadway, the average theatre has to produce their plays within a modest budget, so it is wise to consider this when you are writing costly and grandiose elements into your play, because it is these modest theatres who are most likely to accept plays from beginning writers.

The Structure of Your Play

A well-made play must be constructed on the basis of a firm story structure. Taking the time to arrange the action will save you many rewrites. When you pre-plan the story structure you are setting up your play to have all the plot elements befitting a well-told tale long before you write a word of dialogue. As a guide it might be helpful to model the plot for your play upon the following elements:

  • Initial incident - The event that begins the action of your play.

  • Rising action - A sequence of events in which your characters are developed and the 'plot thickens'.

  • Turning point - The event which makes what follows inevitable.

  • Climax - The point of highest emotional tension. This is where the audience should laugh or cry the most - or even both, depending on your story.

  • Falling action - The tying up of lose ends in the action of your story.

  • Resolution - The event that ends the story and sends the audience into spasms of applause.

Apply the action of your play to the list. If it fits smoothly, you have a well constructed story and are well on your way to writing a play. If not, take the time to see what other possibilities your play may have in store for you. Take a moment to explore your plot and see what changes can make a stronger and more compelling story for your future audience. This makes for very sane and sensible playwriting, though it can be daunting and hard to adhere to at first. But, give it a go, you'll be glad you did.

Character Motivation

Everything your characters do and say must be motivated by something. Your characters must have wants that are driving their actions in the play, and you must know what those motivating factors are. It is often helpful before you begin writing your play to take stock of your characters' actions and reasons for doing them. Some questions you might ask yourself while doing this are: what does he/she want, and how will he/she try to get it? What are the greatest lengths he/she will go to in order to achieve that goal, and what will he/she not do, under any circumstances, to achieve that goal? In reviewing these character motivations as you write you will find that your play now has a stronger foundation on which to be built.

The Opening of Your Play

The main thing to remember when writing the opening of your play is that you want the audience to feel like they have arrived at just the right moment in the story, just when things are beginning to happen! If the first characters the audience will meet in your play do not already know one another, there must also be a compelling reason for that meeting to take place.

The World Offstage

Whatever you do, keep the action of the play on stage. Let the audience meet all of your characters, and see everything that happens to them. To those new to the art of playwriting, the temptation is great to have characters offstage that the audience hears about but never sees, or to have characters run into the wings and then return bearing news, but these are devices to be avoided. The audience wants to see the action taking place, not hear about it in the next scene. When you tell what happened offstage enough, your audience begins to think that the really interesting play for which they purchased tickets is taking place in another room, and that they must have come through the door to this play in error. Your play needs to happen on-stage, where your audience is certain to witness it!

'The Play's the Thing!' - Hamlet Act 2, Scene 2

In the writing of your first play, choose one clear story to tell, without hindering yourself with offstage characters your patrons will never meet, or offstage scenes for the audience to miss outright. These things detract from the action, the story that you are telling. When you put words into the mouths of your characters, remember that every word of dialogue in your play should serve one of two purposes (and hopefully both); it must advance the motion of the plot of the play, or lend to the development of the character.

Congratulations on taking the first steps towards writing your first play, and good luck! Your play is reaching for the sun, stretching in every direction it can, needing pruning, re-potting, a sunny spot and so much more water. You have access to all the tools you need, now don your gardening gloves and get to work!

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