Playwriting For Dummies
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Playwriting is an exciting and accessible performing arts scriptwriting discipline. Anyone can write a play, round up some friends as actors, and gather an audience to present original theatre at its most fundamental level. But to write great plays that enthrall audiences, you may want to explore playwriting in more detail.

To be a successful playwright, you need to know where ideas for plays come from, the lingo writers speak, how to create fully dimensional characters, how to write dialogue, where to start your play, how to develop your storyline and reach the story’s climax, and how to bring your play to a satisfying conclusion.

Speaking like a playwright

When you’re ready to develop your idea for a play, you need to express it in terms that other playwrights and theater people understand. Here are some of the more common playwriting terms:

  • Protagonist: The main character of your story; the character with a mission

  • Antagonist: A character or thing that stands in your protagonist’s way

  • Conflict: The opposing objectives of your protagonist and antagonist

  • Arc, spine, or through-line: The story line; what the audience is waiting to find out

  • Stakes: What the characters stand to gain or lose if they succeed or fail

  • Inciting incident: The event that launches the protagonist and gets the plot going

  • Backstory: Events that have taken place in the past

  • Exposition: The motivated revelation of the backstory through dialogue

  • Actions: Things said or done by the characters to achieve their objectives

  • Rising action: The protagonist’s uphill journey, alternating gains and setbacks

  • Climax: The final confrontation between the protagonist and the antagonist

  • Resolution: The aftermath of the climax; how the dust settles

Putting lifelike characters on stage

The characters in your play must be fully developed, as close to real people as you can make them. The keys to creating believable characters are details and specificity. If you know your characters as well as you know your best friends, you’re more likely to know what they will do under the circumstances of your play.

So, write mini-biographies of all your characters. The time you invest in doing this will pay off later. Here are some of the things you should know about all of your characters and why:

  • Parents and childhood: Parents, even absent ones, have a profound influence on their kids. Also, a person’s childhood impacts their adulthood in many ways.

  • Siblings: Relationships later in life can be influenced by experiences with siblings.

  • Schooling: Education, or the lack of it, can influence a person’s daily life.

  • Work: People often measure themselves by their work and earnings.

  • Relationships: People who are married or in committed relationships usually behave and think differently than single folks.

  • Religion: People’s choices and behaviors can be powerfully influenced by religion.

  • Politics: Political beliefs can strongly affect what that person chooses to do.

Making character dialogue sound natural

Dialogue is the primary and most important component in playwriting. The principal purpose of dialogue is to advance the action of the play. Though dialogue sounds like natural conversation, every word of dialogue you write for a character — whether it reveals his aspirations, frustrations, motivations, or intentions — should be crafted to help him achieve his objective.

Here are some of the dos and don’ts of dialogue:

  • Use the “rule of three” for important info. If the audience needs to know and remember some bit of information in order to understand what’s going on, repeat that information three times in different ways to cement it in the minds of audiences.

  • Characters shouldn’t, you know, talk perfectly. In life, people don’t speak perfect English when they converse. Listen to how people speak and try to recreate realistic-sounding speech patterns, flaws and all.

  • Avoid using clichés in dialogue. Not to “beat a dead horse,” but clichés make dialogue sound dull and uninspired.

  • Don’t overuse character names in dialogue. People don’t address each other by name in every sentence they speak, because it sounds silly. (Mary, you look great. Thank you, Tom. Do you want watch a movie, Mary? Yes, Tom.) Use character names in dialogue early and then sparingly.

  • The beginning of a line shouldn’t echo the end of the prior line. The dialogue of one character need not repeat what was said by the other.

  • Avoid dialogue that’s really speechifying. Avoid having characters speak lines and lines of dialogue without interruption. In life, people usually alternate sentences in conversation, even cutting in on each other. Try to capture the rhythm of real speech.

  • Keep your agenda out of the dialogue. Let the theme of your play be conveyed by events, not dialogue. If you have to tell the audience what the point of your play is, then the play probably isn’t working as well as it should.

  • Avoid phonetically spelling out accents and dialects. Just spell the words normally and make sure you cast an actor who can speak with a Spanish accent, for example.

How to start your play

The opening of your play needs to grab the audience; otherwise the battle is lost before it begins. Following, are some of the elements of a strong start:

  • Start your play as far into the story as possible. Pick a point of attack (opening scenario) that’s well into the story, just before the inciting incident.

  • Upset the status quo. Be sure that something happens early on (the inciting incident) to upset the world of your protagonist, launching her on a mission to set things right.

  • Give your protagonist a critical mission. The audience will get behind your protagonist if what your protagonist is after — the goal— is urgent, important, and crystal clear to the audience.

  • Be sure that the antagonist provides strong obstacles. The more even the battle, the greater the suspense.

  • Get the backstory in. Throughout the play, when it’s necessary to do so, gradually weave into the dialogue the backstory, relevant events that happened before the start of the play.

How to end your play

One of your responsibilities as playwright is to deliver a satisfying end to the play. You don’t necessarily have to write a happy ending or even an ending audiences would have wanted. You need an ending that seems truthful, plausible (given the circumstances), and, in retrospect, maybe even inevitable.

Use the following tips to build to and execute a satisfying ending:

  • Make the obstacles tougher and tougher. Be sure the setbacks your protagonist has to deal with are not easy and that they get tougher as the story progresses.

  • Create a cause and effect structure. Each moment and scene should lead to the next. (Although they happen in life, random events and particularly convenient coincidences aren’t dramatically satisfying in plays.)

  • Create a climactic moment that brings together your protagonist and antagonist in one final showdown. The entire play builds toward this moment when the protagonist meets his fate and the story line, if not the play, is concluded.

  • Come to the earned conclusion. The conclusion should be justified by the events that came before. An earned conclusion is a relevant and plausible ending that’s appropriate to the story you’re telling.

  • Avoid cheat endings. The deus ex machina ending involves a person or thing that appears suddenly and out of nowhere to provide a contrived and convenient solution to the problem of the play. Audiences don’t like this “cheat.” They expect the protagonist to find (or not find) their own way out of the situation.

  • Tie up loose ends in the resolution. The resolution, which comes just before the curtain falls, provides the opportunity for the audience to see the landscape in the world of the play after the climactic storm, big or small. This is where you should tie up any unresolved strands of the story.

About This Article

This article is from the book:

About the book author:

Angelo Parra is an award-winning playwright who has received national acclaim for several of his plays. He teaches theatre and playwriting at SUNY Rockland. Angelo is the founder and director of the Hudson Valley Professional Playwrights Lab and president of the board of Penguin Rep Theatre in Stony Point, New York.

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