How to Write a Play

An excerpt from:

So You Want To Be A Writer

click on the cover to learn more

Enough prevaricating, I hear you say. Yes, we want to be writers. We understand our place in the cosmos and in posterity. Now, just tell us how to do it!

David Mamet is an esteemed playwright who has directed feature film versions of several of his own plays. Yet he had no experience of film directing. He could only do what felt right for him. If it felt right, it was right. That was how he got through it. And that, I believe, is the way to go about writing your own plays. Do it your own way.

There is a format to follow in terms of layout. Essentially, the actors – especially experienced actors – will expect your play to have a certain look. There are several ways that you can achieve this; as long as you separate the description and scene-setting from the actual dialogue, you will end up with a workable script. Ultimately, actors (at least the humble ones) often quote that their job is simply to remember their lines and not bump into the furniture!

One of your jobs is to separate that furniture from the actors’ lines in your script. It’s just a question of layout. Go to the BBC Writers Room website and search for sample scripts. You’ll instantly see how a script should be laid out. A script for radio, theatre, television, or film, will not vary too much in terms of layout. Separate the descriptions, e.g., living room, bar, bedroom, etc. from the dialogue and you’re not going to go too far wrong.

So, how do you write a play? Well, you need an idea, first and foremost, one that you are desperate to share with the world.

In my case, I read a book that I found in a library. It was non-fiction, about the murder of John Lennon, alleging that it was a CIA conspiracy, and essentially a politically-motivated assassination. Immediately, I felt that it would work on the stage. I had the requisite passion for the story, yet I had no idea how to turn it into a play. I had no idea even how to write a play. This was still very early on in my writing career, or very soon after I’d realised that I wanted to be a writer.

Eventually, having worked as a Script Editor on someone else’s play (and that play having won an award), and also having a few more years writing experience under my belt, I felt ready to tackle the story.

So, you decide which characters you need to tell that particular story. Each character will need to be played by an actor, and unless you’ve got an ‘in’ at the National Theatre, you probably want to keep numbers down to a manageable handful.

It’s not worth finding an actor just to give them one line in your play, even if that line delivers a vital piece of information. You’re going to have to give that line to another actor. You have to use artistic license. Get creative.

You have a story idea with a beginning, middle and end; you have a setting for that story, and you have characters who will live and breathe that story for the time that it’s on stage. Those are your parameters.

In the case of my first play, I needed a John and Yoko, a Mark Chapman, and three characters portraying the conspiracy side of the story. The first of these characters was a Rambo-type Vietnam vet who befriends John Lennon’s killer and who unwittingly leads him into the clutches of the CIA’s dirty-tricks department. The second was the head of operations (the man ultimately pulling the strings), and the third was a hurdy-gurdy head doctor who effectively brainwashes Mark Chapman to carry out the assassination.

So, you now have a cast of characters and a story. What happens next? Well, you do some research. What is happening in the world at the time of your story? Does any of that have relevance to your plot?

Give yourself the time and space to think about your story. Explore every angle. Who are the characters? What do they want? Are there any specific bits of dialogue you want to include, or points that you want to make?

I personally like to jot down notes of things that I want the play to say. Anything that comes to mind that you think has relevance and you wish to include; put it in your writing journal. It may take a month or two of free-thinking before you feel ready, in fact are itching, to move on to the next stage.

Then, you can make a list, a scene-by-scene running order for maybe a two-act play.

Read through it. How does it look on the page? Does it flow? Is there energy and entertainment and variety as you move from the opening scene to the ultimate finale?

Once you have an order of scenes, a roadmap for the play, you’re ready to begin writing. You write the words ‘Act One. Scene One’. You describe the setting. Then, your characters begin to speak. These characters might be based on real people, or they can be conjured solely from your imagination.

You’ll want all of your characters to play a big part, otherwise how is it going to appeal to actors of the calibre that you want to attract. You are the puppet-master, the omniscient creator. This is your time to have fun and feel empowered, because you are the master of the universe that you’re about to create.

Tell the story that you want to tell. Include all of the information, all of the nuance, all of the comedy, tragedy, music, and anything else that you have to share.

Make your dialogue interesting. This is your chance to shine as a writer. Can I say this line somehow differently? Don’t go for the obvious. Can you make it funnier, more poignant, more meaty?

Do your scenes inspire or unsettle? Do they sparkle with electricity? Will your audience be on the edge of their seats as they wait to see what happens next? This is the challenge you must set yourself and that you must meet as a writer. Have you written a great play, or simply an adequate one? If it’s the latter, can you make your story stronger, your characters more memorable, your dialogue more piquant?

Imagine if your play gets produced. There will (hopefully) be an audience to appreciate it and who will judge you on your efforts. How long does your play last? One hour? Two hours? Three (God forbid!)?

Imagine yourself as a storyteller again, just for an instant.

In the oral tradition, if you were talking to someone for an hour – even if you had their undivided attention – would you continue with a monotone story for the whole of that time?

Of course you wouldn’t. Your listener would grow bored. You have to mix it up a bit. Show them something exciting, and then maybe take it down a level or two in order to allow them to recuperate. Explore other aspects of the story or fill in the background.

Then they need shaking up again. You move back to high drama. You tell them a joke because they’ve not laughed for a while. Then, when they settle back into the more prosaic elements of the story, you burst into song or introduce a sudden burst of gunfire.

Keep your audience on their toes. And never let them get ahead of you by guessing what’s coming next.

Give your actors a script that allows them to tell the story that you wish to tell, in a way that audiences want to hear.

That’s how you write a play.

Noel Coward, the iconic British playwright, claimed that it was possible to write a play in a weekend. He said he’d done just that when he wrote Blithe Spirit, which he created while staying at a hotel overlooking the sea in the quaint, eccentric faux-Italian village of Portmeirion in Wales.

Coward also once stated that you could do anything to a theatre audience. He said that you can coax them, charm them, shock them, scare them, make them laugh, make them cry, but the one thing that you should never ever do is bore them.

Remember that one. It’s the perfect piece of advice.

* * * * *

Taken from…

So You Want To Be A Writer