Write Stuff: How to Write… a Play Script

play script

Is dialogue your favourite part of a story? Are you particularly interested in the way your characters develop throughout your writing? Do you have an idea for a story that is set all in one place or can use simpler, less realistic set pieces? Then playwriting might be the next thing for you to try! Here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Character is one of the most important parts of a play, so spend enough time thinking about the qualities your main character possesses. You can use qualities of people you know as a starting point to make him/her realistic. Equally important is character development, or how your character changes throughout the story. Outline key moments in which you will see the process of his/her change due to things that happen in the plot of your play. Once you have developed your main character, the next step is to develop secondary ones and the effect they will have on the main character.
  • Pay attention to what is feasible onstage. Flashbacks, epic action scenes, and rapid costume or setting changes are popular in movies but will be difficult to act out onstage. Some things that are popular in novels will not work so well either, like having many characters and converging plots, covering a large portion of a character’s life, minute descriptions of details. Simple, pared down scripts allow the audience to pay attention to the central character.
  • Show, don’t tell: novels often describe the tiniest (but nonetheless important) details or tell you what a character is thinking. Plays require you to make key moments easy for the audience to see. For example, if a character is eavesdropping on a conversation, he/she must “hide” in plain sight to the audience, and if this causes a big emotional impact, this must be shown to the audience through action. If the character hears that her parents are throwing her a surprise party, perhaps she does a little gleeful dance once her parents have left the stage. Monologues—long speeches given by a character to the audience or another character—are sometimes used for this purpose.
  • Stylistic details: Divide your play into acts. There is no set rule for how many acts your play should have (some are just one act long!). It may help to start with three: 1) the beginning, in which you introduce the characters and central problem of the play. 2) the middle, in which most of the action happens, ending with the climax, the most dramatic moment of the play which serves as the culminating point of the action. 3) The ending, in which the solution to the play’s central problem happens. Then divide your acts into scenes which allow you to separate important moments or to mark a new time or place. Stage directions (which dictate a character’s physical actions as well as describe how the set—furniture, backdrops, anything onstage besides the actors—looks) are written in italics and are found at the beginning of each scene and throughout the scene as necessary.
  • Finally, read your play aloud periodically as you write, or have a group of friends read it aloud for you. Plays sound very different when read aloud, and this will signal to you where the dialogue doesn’t sound quite right.
  • Terms to know:

o   Downstage=towards the audience, upstage=away from the audience. Right/Left in stage directions is written from the perspective of an actor onstage.

o   Props= any objects an actor uses in the scene (i.e. a telephone, a cup, a notebook).

o   Set= everything else on stage – furniture, backdrops, etc.

o   Stage directions= tell the actor what to do and where to move, describe what set, props, and costumes look like.

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