Introduction: How to Write a Play
Writing a play can seem intimidating. It certainly is not a very common art form. In October of 2014, the St Peter’s College Playhouse performed my play, The IV Station. The play centered on the last three years in the life of Jesus Christ, but reimagined in a World-War II setting. I had worked on the play through most of high school. A good friend of mine who lives in Belfast had just had a play of his own performed, the historical drama, The Audacity of Ideas, which dealt with the French Revolution. While Skyping with him, he bet me that I could never write a play and get it performed. Three years later, I proved him wrong.
I had no experience with theater, but I loved reading my friend’s plays. So, I set about writing one of my own. i found a subject matter that appealed to me and went for it in a clumsy, but determined method. I learned a lot through trial and error and eventually, thanks to my friend’s connections at St Peter’s College in Oxford, his alma mater, my work was performed twice.
Writing a play and seeing it performed was an amazing experience like no other I had had before. I hope to show you how to have a similar experience through what I’ve learned on my own journey. You don't need start out big. In fact, recognized playwright Jonathan Dorf recommends "Don't try to write the next Angels in America or Rent for your first play". Start small, but above all, start!
Step 1: Back Up Your Inspiration With Research
Inspiration, or what gives you the idea to create whatever you are creating, is a very unpredictable thing. It can come from absolutely anyone or anything and there is nothing you can do to cause it. Once you have it though, you are on your way to writing a play. During the process of writing constantly revisit your original idea. Staying true to your original inspiration will yield the best results with your play.
However, Edison wrote that genius is one percent inspiration, ninety-nine percent perspiration. Once you have your inspiration, the burden falls onto you to work hard to solidify it. For the playwright, the best tool you have is research. My play was always going to be in the historical fiction genre, so research for me entailed reading anything I could find on the relevant historical periods- biblical Palestine and WW II Europe. For me, research was just what you might imagine traditional research to be. This is not always the case, however. Even for plays which are not based on historical events, research is still indispensable. It will just take a different form. Playwrights study the people around them, “researching” the personalities of the characters in his play. And this goes both ways. For a historical play, a good playwright will not allow research into the events he is portraying to upstage his knowledge of the characters inner lives. An effective play does not exist that does not possess a deep understanding of the human mind. So, pay attention to the people around you! Channel them into your work. This will lend your work sincerity.
Step 2: Immerse Yourself in Theater
Troy Hughes wrote in his article on writing a play, "To write truly effective theatre, you must immerse yourself in the medium."
Chances are that if you are writing a play, you are already familiar with theater. But this may not always be the case. In fact, when I had the idea behind Station, I had never attended a play. But it is a necessity for any aspiring playwright to be familiar with theater. This includes reading plays, definitely, but drama is primarily a visual medium and needs to be experienced by attendance to get the true feel of it.
Attending a play will help you to realize what works and what doesn’t. Lighting, music, and costumes will not necessarily be things you deal with much as a playwright, but having a familiarity with them will help you when the time comes to visualize your own work. Listening to an actor recite a monologue will give you a feel for the speed of speech so you can determine how long your monologues should be. For most of us, the price of tickets pose a problem, but there are several solutions to this. Standing-room seats are exponentially cheaper than more convenient seats and many theaters will offer volunteer positions as ushers in exchange for free viewings of the performances.
If you are unable to attend plays, reading scripts will also help you get a feel for the medium. Online resources are invaluable here, such as the website www.playscripts.com, which has a large selection of scripts with free perusals. Works which are in the public domain, such as Shakespeare, are also readily available. As you read more scripts, the distinctive format of dramatic works will become second nature to you and this familiarization will greatly assist you in your writing.
Step 3: Get to Know Your Characters!
Alright, so you have a solid idea of what your play is going to be about. You’ve spent more money than you ever would have wanted to on attending plays you could never have imagined yourself attending. What’s next? You need to get to know your characters- you need to meet them.
Knowledge of your characters is the single most important ingredient to writing a successful play. If you are committed to writing, you will be spending more time with these people than anyone else in your life. You need to know them inside out. You literally need to know what they look like, how they stand, sit, move about. You need to know what they would say before they say it. You need to inhabit their world.
This is where research thoroughly done will pay off. While writing Station, thanks to years of research, I was able to live and breathe in the world I was trying to create. If I closed my eyes, I could see the apostles arguing amongst themselves. Peter, the loudest, trying to keep his temper under control before he forgot himself and started cussing in front of Jesus’ mother. I could hear Judas’ nervous footsteps on the cobblestones of the street as he looks back over his shoulder, as if he were being chased. He keeps rubbing his face as he gives the police directions to where Jesus is staying the night.
To achieve this level of familiarity with my characters, I wrote a separate biography for each character. Every character, from Jesus all the way to Errand Boy, got a full-length biography that went from birth until where they were when the play started. The bios covered not only their life story, but their likes and dislikes, pet peeves and favorite foods, their hopes, and their fears.This was easier for some characters than others. IN order to write their lines, you need to get into the minds of even the characters you don't like. No villain is born evil. Most arrive at their present state of evil by pursuing what they perceived as a good. Judgment of characters needs to be suspended when you are writing about them.
In any good play, the audience should not hear your voice. This sounds strange, I know, but it is true. In a good play, the audience must be lulled into a suspension of reality. They shouldn’t see an actor reciting lines. They should see a person speaking for himself. Each character must have a distinct voice. People in my life do not speak in the same manner. Each one has a slightly different vocabulary, a slightly different speed of speaking. My mom would never say most of the things my brother would say, and vice versa. This same principle must apply to your characters. This is what creates the difference between hearing a character speak for himself and hearing an actor recite lines, however effectively. A good tool to use to test yourself in this area is to take a line from one of your characters and attribute it to each of your other characters. If it does not sound foreign coming from them, your grasp of the character's language is not strong enough yet.
Step 4: Start by Ending
The finale, the conclusion of your play, is the most crucial part. It is the last image you will leave your audience with. It’s the image they will go home with. It’s the image that will be freshest in the mind of any reviewer as he sits to write his review.
You must not leave such an important element of your work to the end. Every act, every scene, every beat works towards the finale. If there is no finale when you are writing the scene, the scene is pointless and this will show in the disorganized flow of your work. So, when writing a play, work backwards. Start with the curtain dropping. What is the last line spoken? What words do you want to have in the ears of your audience as they leave the theater. The finale should sum up your work. Every theme, every character, every plot should have reached the place where you, the author, want it to be. This does not exclude a cliffhanger ending. If you have told the story you wanted to tell, end the play.
Imagine it as detailed as you possibly can. Have every line, every action in place, and then work backwards from there. Constantly ask yourself how the characters got where they are in the final scene. Keeping this question in the front of my mind carried me through many, many cases of writer’s block.
In The IV Station, the first scene that came to my mind was the ending. I wrote was the ending. It took place after Jesus’ funeral, during a blackout of the entire city. The disciples have left the city and are in hiding. The only people left onstage are the few women who cared for Jesus- the Virgin Mary and a few friends of hers. The police are patrolling the streets looking for Jesus’ followers in order to prevent any possible riots, but the Virgin and her friends are getting ready to visit Jesus’ grave. The play ended as they left their apartment. It was a very simple scene. I decided not to try to portray Jesus’ resurrection, but instead focus on the effect his death had on his mother. I had brought the focus right back to where I had placed the heart of my work- the relationship between Jesus and Mary.
Going back to that scene over and over helped me through writing each scene because I knew each scene had to get the audience closer to that finale. The last scene provided me with several questions. Who was Jesus? Why did these women care so much about him? What was his relationship like with his mother? Why was he dead? And so, in answering these questions, I wrote the rest of the play, scene by scene.
Step 5: Map Out the Structure of Your Play
Alright, so you’ve recognized your original inspiration for a play and solidified it through thorough research of the relevant subjects. You have thoroughly familiarized yourself with the theater through reading and attending plays, and you have a definite ending in your mind. Now is the time to begin the actual writing of your own work.
Just like any other writing, you must begin with an outline. Plays have a very specific structure. They are divided into acts, which are divided into scenes, which are divided into beats. The more you focus on each small part of the play, like building blocks to your finale, the more solid your play will be.
Every good play is built around what is called conflict. Conflict has been defined as simply what the character wants. According to author Stuart Spencer in The Playwright’s Guidebook, a helpful way to think of conflict is to think of it as “what the character wants”- each character always has something driving them. It is your task to focus on that drive. The actions your character perform in order to attain their respective goals, to follow their drive, are what create drama.
Now, each scene must have a purpose, driving the conflict towards resolution. The drama must be built up gradually, starting with the introduction of your characters and the conflicts which they find themselves in. Each scene must bring the characters closer towards the resolution of their conflicts, or it must not be allowed to remain in your script. You need to be brutal with yourself here. You may have written a scene you just absolutely love, but if it does not propel the story forward, believe me, you will lose the audience’s attention faster than you would believe possible.
Creating a diagram is a good way to assist you in mapping out the structure of your play. The diagram should show the importance of each scene in the play, as well as how each scene connects the respective journeys of your characters. Having a visual reference will greatly assist you in maintaining control over the many factors of your play.
Diagramming is merely the way that worked best for me, however. Explore other options for yourself, but get a physical map of your play, even if it is something as simple as a collection of notes, down on paper. You won’t be sorry.
Step 6: Create a Writing Routine
In my experience, for the first few months of writing Station, I wrote in a very haphazard way. One day genius would be burning and I would write like nothing else mattered in the world, but then for weeks I wouldn’t feel “inspired” and I would ignore my writing. Before I knew it, a year had passed and I had maybe half a scene finished.
Creating and sticking to a writing routine is essential if you want to get anywhere with your play. Sit down at a fixed time daily, or weekly, if thats all you can manage. Set a timer and write for a specific amount of time. Even if you don’t feel like you any ideas, just keep writing. It won’t all be gold. More often than not, you will not like what you’ve written. Thats what revision is for. Sticking to a routine and reaching a quota of writing will ensure that your play does not fall by the wayside and get forgotten. You can perfect it later. Just get onto paper.
Keep in mind though, that ideas will not wait always be polite enough to follow your schedule. During the process of writing my play, I also carried a tiny notebook in my pocket to scratch out thoughts before I forgot them. I could write them down properly once I got the chance.
Step 7: Get It Out There!
During the process of writing, the more feedback you get, the better. Showing your work to those who can give honest criticism is the best gift you can give yourself. But now that the play is finished and you are satisfied with it, what’s next? Do not let your work stagnate in your desk. Send your work out to be performed! If you live in a big drama community, take your work to the local playhouse. Community playhouses are often looking to patronize new theater and yours might be exactly what they are looking for. You might face rejection, in fact, you most likely will face it. But isn’t it better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all?
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