A Playwriting Primer by Matt Ewens

Matt Ewens

Matt Ewens

When I first attempted to write a play, I approached it like I would write a novel; rich with creative juices and big words and dramatic language.  This was completely wrong. A play is essentially a script, therefore primarily dialogue.  I found this out whilst on a short playwriting course, which I found brilliant.  The reason it was brilliant was because the two people running it provided us with many excellent word games, and they helped me to focus on how to write in the style of a play.  It took a couple of weeks, but I soon learned that I needed to concentrate on writing dialogue, and think about how this would translate onto a stage.

And so here are my top 5 beginners’ tips for writing a play:

1. Research, research and research some more; go to sites like the following:




These all provide great resources and help for beginners to start playwriting.

2. Check community colleges and writing groups for any courses on playwriting or screenplays in your local area.  Contact your community theatre or performing arts center, and research the web for courses, tips and coaches.  Watch independent plays, so that you can see how they are produced and directed; pay attention to the dialogue to see how the writer built the scene.  I would recommend seeing local plays as opposed to Broadway or touring companies, because although these are highly impressive, they have a much bigger budget than you will have.  Also independent or local plays, particularly by amateur groups, may choose more sensitive topics or be experimental in their performances.

3. Add comedy to your script; I realize that it may be difficult for sensitive issues, but if you can make an audience laugh, that’s quite a powerful tool.

4. Do the following:

Set a timeline.  Such as a ten minute short play or 20 minute single act.

Set a theme and style.  An easy example might be a murder in the style of a Sherlock Holmes mystery.

Create your characters: Who is the killer?  Who is the detective?  Who is the victim?  Who are the supporting characters?

Make each person real: Write up each character’s traits; personality; name; age; style; sex; clothes. Add as much detail as you like.

An important point: You need characters who contrast with each other.  Differing personalities, likes and beliefs, amplify each character, creating the all-important conflict and adds depth to your play.  This is known as the tarot tool.  Using the 78 unique cards in a tarot deck as a model, you create each character in discordance with the others and spotlight their contribution to the plot, scenery, conflict and resolution.  There is more information on the tarot tool at: http://writetodone.com/the-tarot-as-a-tool-for-writing-your-novel/

Build the Scene and Setting: Give the director the information he needs about location, time of year, time of day, landscape or room layout.

Think about how you will take the viewer/the audience through your play.  What are they going to watch?  Is it just one big long scene, or will there be separate scenes?  Are they at different moments in time?  How do they relate to each other?  What is the connection?  How is it engaging?  What story do the characters tell? Will you need props?  Will your characters need to change halfway through?  These detail will help you, the director and the cast from difficult lapses in continuity and timing.

Now write the play!

Read it over and over again for errors!

5. Practice your play with friends and family, or a writing group.  It’s a great way of actually seeing other people speak the words you have written, they may not be actors, but you can time it using a stop watch and get an idea of how long it actually is.  And if you’re happy with it try your local theatre companies, contact them and see if a local group would be willing to read what you’ve written or indeed act it out.

Just give it a go. It’s a very different way of writing, and for myself I never imagined that I would: a) be any good at writing mainly dialogue; or b) find it of interest, as I am a creative/descriptive person with a big imagination.  I was very wrong, and in fact, it might just be what I am best at, alongside my lyrical poetry.  Don’t let doubt, misconception or confidence pigeon hole into one form of writing; try them all and test the water, you may just be surprised!

An added point by David Kent

Matt’s suggestions are all poignant and perceptive, but I would like to add one small observation gleaned from numerous classroom experiences.  Remember that script writing, whether it be for the stage or the screen, is entirely visual and dependent on the SPOKEN word.  So often the novice playwright becomes tempted to use the tools of prose fiction by adding internal dialogue and unseen emotion to help set a scene.  You can’t show a characters thoughts or internal feelings; it all must be done with gesture or dialogue.

Consider a scene where one character is telling another some set of facts that is not being taken for the truth.  In prose, we might reveal this through internal feelings, Josh knew that could not be true, or through internal dialogue, “Who is this guy trying to fool?”  In a play, you must use another way to present that perception.  Often you can develop it in a spoken format, “I can’t help but feel you are lying to me.”  And sometimes present it visually with direction, Josh turns to the audience, shrugs his shoulders and rolls his eyes.  In either case the audience will get the message that one character doesn’t believe the other.

Matt’s suggestion of an acted-out read-through will help find any areas where you have accidently allowed this to happen.  The ONLY things that can be said in the read-through will be the spoken words and the “director” can vocalize and change in scenery or setting. And while you are listening to your “cast” reading the play, listen also for the flow of words.  Rarely, if ever, does a script make it into production without last minute tweaks in the dialogue.

Follow Matt on his Self Named Blog

This entry was posted in Plays and Screen Plays by David Kent. Bookmark the permalink.

About David Kent

I promote and encourage the advancement and education of writers everywhere. I dream of a society that once again incorporated literature into the acculturation of their children, replacing the empty calories of 22 minute sitcoms and mindless reality TV. But first we write, then prod them to read, and finally hope for the best. Read more at http://writerinthemountains.blogspot.com/

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