Intro to Playwriting

Intro to PlaywritingSo, you're going to write a stage play. First, what is a play? Basically, it's a blueprint for a stage production. It's performed by actors and directed, designed, and perhaps choreographed by others. As a collaborative art, a script is the cornerstone of a production from which the actors, designers, and directors all take their cues.

You've probably seen a play before, if not on stage then one that's been adapted for TV or film. The curious thing about a play is that it's supposed to appear realistic to the audience (as in, this could be happening) but of course it's a complete creation from the mind of the writer.

If you've ever glanced at the text of a play you'll see that it's pretty much all dialogue. Don't groan and think, "I can't write that much talking!" Remember that dialogue can be just like prose—there are terse, tense sections where characters battle with each other and other times when they can be flowery, seductive, and poetic. And if you're great with dialogue, well, then you've picked the right challenge!

Since a play is intended for performance, it adheres to some "unities" because of length limitations and the confines of the stage. The locations and characters are usually limited in some way, either for budgetary concerns or to make it easier on the audience to follow. Though the play may take place over a period of 20 years, only two hours of that story are shown in the "real time" of the stage. When writing a first draft though, it's best not to concern yourself too much about how it will be performed. It's more important to get your idea onto the page.


Characters - You're going to want some, or else those actors will be very confused when they arrive for auditions. Start with the basics: their age and relationship to each other. You can keep a list of these (and it even counts toward your word count), known as the "Dramatis Personae" or Cast of Characters (more about the formatting of this page later). For yourself, you'll want to know what drives each of the characters: their ambitions, their fears, and any threats to their happiness.

Setting - Where and when will your play take place? Don't worry about drawing a set; leave that to the designers. All you need to worry about is giving your collaborators what they need to know. This means the time period, items needed on stage (such as furniture or doorways, windows, etc.), as well as place in the world. You can place clues here to the style of your play as well. A children's play may be stylized in a cartoonish manner, while your melodrama may want Gothic touches to foreshadow a supernatural element.

Stage Direction - This can be very confusing for both novices and professionals. Stage directions are there to give the actors, designers, and director a clue about what they actually see transpiring on stage. They're not for the audience, who will never get to read them.

An important thing to know is that stage directions are not narration. Not every action, outfit, or attitude from your characters needs to be included. Neither does a comprehensive inventory of everything on the stage need to be included.

Do Include:

  • Basic Setting Description

  • Entrances
  • Exits
  • Murders
  • Physical Action that must be performed for the dialogue to make sense
  • Pertinent pauses in the dialogue, if not filled by action that is previously mentioned

Do Not Include:

  • Tone of voice or delivery hints for every line

  • Full description of every costume each character is wearing
  • Background on the sets or characters other than the most basic relationships
  • Characters' thoughts or intentions

Stage directions never go into the interior life of the characters or objects on the stage. In most cases, the fewer directions you have, the more concentrated and focused the actual action of the play will be.

Example of acceptable opening stage directions for a play:

            SCENE ONE
            (A secluded glen in a dark forest at dusk. It is a cold early spring and the leaves have not yet emerged. JENNY enters in a thin jacket, shivering. She is twenty-three, weak and panting as she stops to catch her breath.)

An example of the opening of a play that many readers would throw across the room:

            SCENE ONE
            (A dark and ominous opening of trees in the deepest part of the forest outside of Monmouth, NJ. A light fog lifted hours ago, but the chill and dampness still cling to the not-yet-budded trees. The glade was left in this dense deciduous forest of maples and oaks when a fire, which was started by a lightning strike, swept through the forest some fifty years ago and destroyed a cottage that stood on this site. Now it is a spot for teens to gather and perform hazing rituals on their lesser peers. There is a crackling of branches and JENNY runs in, frightened out of her wits. She knows she needs to keep running, but she's cold and tired and wearing some skimpy sandals that don't stay on her feet well. Still, the fright is palpable as she gathers her thin jacket around her neck, covering the sparkling diamond necklace she once treasured as the symbol of her deep and authentic love for Howard, who is now serving two consecutive life sentences in the penitentiary .... )

While the information in the second example may be interesting, it's nothing that the audience can SEE and does not inform what the actor who plays Jenny should actually be doing besides what was in the first example.

Don't worry about things like upstage, downstage, or left or right. Just direct your characters in relation to the objects you've placed in their world, such as "BETH goes to the refrigerator" or "AMIR closes the window by the bed."

Okay, so you've got you’re the basics together. You've set the scene and cast your play in your head. Now you've got to start it.


Freytag's Pyramid shows the very basic structure of modern drama. It's more of an observation about plays throughout the years and is only a guide.

intro_to_playwriting_pyramidIgnore'll just confuse you.

There are lots of great works that break this mold, but also many that follow it. Also remember that it is not to scale. Each leg of the pyramid can contract or expand as needed. Some plays end on the climax with no falling action. Some plays have no exposition at all. You may just want to forget you saw the diagram and go with Aristotle's structure of a play: a beginning, middle, and end.

Exposition - In the classic diagram of Dramatic Structure, things start with the dumping of information to bring the audience up to speed. This is the scene where the maids are dusting the library and discussing the impending arrival of the long-absent master of the house, or perhaps a narrator is wandering the stage and introducing the characters. This provides the backstory and context of the play. As awkward as these seem intellectually, they serve a great function. They give us what the author thinks we need to know happened before the play started. Don't worry about how uncomfortable this is when you first write it; you can rework it later and hone it down to only the essentials. You probably don't know what's relevant until you've reached THE END anyway.

An important thing to note is that exposition can be delivered at any point in your play—you don't have to explain it all at the beginning. It's essential to remember WHY your play is starting here. The audience wants something to start happening soon, so only give out what they need to know right now. You can fill in the rest later on...create some suspense!

Okay, now let's get down to it. We've got our backstory and we've got our what?

Inciting Incident – This is the thing that starts the play on the road to the plot. This is the challenge that the character is thrown. It's the starting of the clock. It's probably the reason you wanted to write the play in the first place.

Rising Action – These are the scenes where you build the story. Characters are introduced and fully fleshed out within this part of the play. Conflicts are shown and allegiances weighed.

Climax – The moment where things will never be the same as a result of some action that has come in the previous scenes. Tides turn, fortunes are won, loves are lost. Audiences gasp.

Falling Action – The conflicts and challenges in the previous scenes are confronted and resolved.

Turning Point – This is not in all plays, but this moment is usually the acceptance or rejection of everything that has come before by the protagonist.

Resolution – How things work out in the end. Is there a wedding or a funeral?

Think about what the story is that you want to tell, and what would be the best "scenes" to show of that story. How do you pick which scenes to show?

Three things drive character interaction. These are known as the elements of Dramatic Action:

  • Discovery - A character finds out that he was adopted. How does this change what he believes? What will he do because of it?

  • Revelation - A character admits that she witnessed the murder.
  • Decision - A character decides to get a divorce because her husband cannot father children.

Scenes can combine any number of these elements (different characters can go through many of them), which move the plot forward. One character's revelation is another's discovery. At the same time, what the characters do with the information and the directions they take because of it defines their characters. This is the essence of "showing" a character over "telling".

How we find out more about characters:

  • What other characters say about them

  • How they behave in the presence of other characters
  • How they behave when they are alone
  • Which characters they align themselves with
  • What they say about other characters
  • How they dress (and how the other characters dress by comparison)

Finally, a word about style. There are many genres for plays and many different styles. Much of this is determined by the way the play is put together. Comedies usually have happy endings and usually have brief dialogue. Dramas have sad endings and can have long and combative passages of dialogue. The action you portray on stage and the characters' reaction to it determine the style, for the most part. If your characters are singing, odds are you've got yourself a musical.