10 Writing Tips for Beginning Playwrights

Written by Ashleigh Gardner

November 27, 2018

So you’ve decided to give playwriting a try. Congratulations! You’ve made the commitment to put pen to paper every day! Now that you’re ready to sit down and write, review these helpful tips so you can create a well-written, clearly formatted, producible play.

1. Review the Dramatists Guild guidelines for formatting plays.

If you’d like to submit your play in the future to competitions and festivals (or even to theatres), it’s essential that you review the Dramatists Guild’s formatting guidelines. This includes the title page and the pages of the play’s text (dialogue, stage action within dialogue, and stage directions). You may also choose to include a second page with character information, setting, props, and a synopsis. (Though the second page is optional, it is ALWAYS a good idea to include it, as it helps theatres and companies get a good idea of what your play includes before they even start reading it.)

2. Understand the story you want to tell.

Before you even write the first line of dialogue, think about the story you want to tell. Usually, asking yourself a few questions will help you come to this realization: do you want to make a statement about something? Do you want to tell a story that asks questions (about social issues, personal relationships, environmental issues, a human’s purpose, etc.)? Do you want to write a play that teaches something? Do you want to write a drama or a comedy? How would you ideally like the play to end? What feeling do you want to leave the audience with?

3. Have a good grasp on who your characters are.

If you don’t know who someone is, how can you write their dialogue and understand their motivations? Once you’ve come to understand your story, you can start on your characters. What do they most want in life? How do they feel about the other characters? How do they react to problems in their life? Are they honest? Marcel Proust, a French author, established a great list of questions for characters. Have a look at them here.

4. Try using an outline.

If you have trouble seeing a full story from start to finish (and how all plot points are connected), then try using an outline. Structure your play into three acts: beginning (exposition), middle (rising action and climax), and end (falling action and resolution). Then, pencil in events in between in their appropriate slots. (And I do mean pencil. Things always change.) You can do this in a notebook or on the computer in a Word doc.

5. Make sure that your characters’ voices are different and distinct.

One of the most common flubs first-time writers make is writing their characters with the same voice. Characters, like everyday people, speak differently from one another. For example, you don’t speak like your grandmother, do you? Your best friend doesn’t speak like your mom or dad. Ask yourself these questions to get started: does this character speak in long, wordy sentences, or do they use as few words as possible? Do they use large words or smaller, everyday words? Do they use colloquialisms or specific turns of phrases? Do they like to cuss? (See # 8 below.) How can you make your characters distinct by giving them different voices?

6. Is the action of the play (the events that happen) plausible for the narrative you’ve established?

Can you imagine watching a production of The Crucible and, in the final act, a spaceship descends and carries John Proctor away? No? Yeah, me neither. “Plausible” and “implausible” actions make or break a play. If your show is established as a realistic piece, and a very plain character walks onstage, figure out why they’re there. If your play is established as a realistic piece, and suddenly a walking, talking skeleton shows up, the play takes the audience out of their willing suspension of disbelief because the event is too out there. This goes for events that aren’t supernatural or fantastical in nature, too. If your character is anti-gun, but they wield a revolver for the whole play, there needs to be a good reason that they wield that revolver.

7. Make sure you write a producible play.

Even if you aren’t submitting your play to a contest or a theatre, your play needs to be producible for you (because you might be the person putting it on in the future). A producible play means that technical elements are simple (set, costumes, props, lights, sound) and that whoever is going to produce it doesn’t have to pay a huge amount of money to put it up. This also means setting your play in only one or two simple locations. Set changes can complicate things and slow down the pacing of the show.

8. Choose your profanity wisely.

As a writer, I’m a huge believer in profanity; I’m also a huge believer in using it for a purpose. In real life, nearly everyone cusses at some point during the day, whether in private or in the company of others. But sometimes, when a play starts with profanity immediately, it causes audiences to either be shocked (which distances them from the piece) or to dislike a character (that you may not mean for them to dislike). Occasionally, plays do this to great effect, but usually, it’s to solidly establish character or atmosphere. It’s effective because it is done with clear intention. If your characters use profanity, ask first why it’s important that they do.

9. Be careful with getting too self-referential.

Breaking the fourth wall has become increasingly popular in film and television. It’s a way for the film/show to connect with the audience in a clever way and, sometimes, excuse itself from the judgments of the audience or to apologize for the writing. Breaking the fourth wall for the purposes of narration is fine if it’s being used throughout the play. Being self-referential is fine, too, if used in a playful way (two characters in a comedy talking about how comical their situation is). However, apologies or self-deprecating comments (“the writer doesn’t know what they’re doing” “the words I’m saying don’t make any sense!” “the plot is contrived!”) weaken a script and pull the rug out from under the audience. Stray away from these apologies.

Ashleigh Gardner received her M.A. in Literary, Cultural, and Textual Studies (with concentrations in Contemporary Film, Psychoanalytic Theory, and Gender Studies) and her B.A. in English Literature (with concentrations in Early American Literature, Victorian & Gothic Literature, and Feminisms), both from the University of Central Florida. She is a playwright, a Shakespearean trained actor, a dramaturge, and a photographer.
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