How to Write a Play

Thinking about writing a play? Here's how to get started, and some common pitfalls to avoid

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In spite of the gradual adoption, by the more well-funded theatre companies, of a more cinematic approach, the fact remains that a play still lives or dies by the quality of its script.

I say this, not least because, in my experience, many people confuse the two disciplines, and consequently produce a film script with the stage in mind. This will never work, if for no other reason than the stage, being a live experience, must deal with distances (close ups are out of the question), making it necessary to approach intimacy in an altogether different way.

Whatever emotion the stage actor is attempting to communicate, there will always be a basic level of volume beneath which you cannot go and remain audible. In directing plays, this is something I have had to address many times. People raised on film and television sometimes fail to understand that a subtle gesture, a wounding look or a whispered promise all must be amped up if the audience are even going to register them.

“But this has nothing to do with writing a play!” you may think. I believe it has. A play performed on a stage, or even in the round, must be written with the consciousness that there will be people watching from 30, 80 or even 200 yards away, depending upon the size of the theatre. Lines must be writ large. This doesn’t hinder anything. All the emotions and experiences are still attainable, no matter how intimate, but they must be approached differently to anything upon a screen.

A play in general must thrash out the arc of its telling in one sitting. It requires a thread to be drawn by its dialogue, as if the tongue were a needle, through to its conclusion, whereupon it can be pulled together into a satisfying hole. It cannot be padded out with widescreen pans and it must approach instant changes of scene with clarity.

In spite of all this, like most of the other arts, there is no definitive way to approach writing a play. But I will attempt to make some helpful suggestions.

Firstly, I would suggest that you make a preliminary list of the characters you will need. I would advise going for the minimum number possible, simply because the fewer people involved, the simpler the whole process. Actors are, after all, people, and people can severely complicate matters.

But consider this as you write: is there such a thing as true realism on stage?

To me, the answer is no. Partly, I suppose, because real life has no fourth wall, but also because in real life, we pad our speech out with grunts, repetition and pointless “you knows” and suchlike, which really would not be that interesting when subject to the ‘in vitro’ experience of the stage. Subsequently, no matter how ‘street’ your characters may be, no matter how damaged, how ineloquent, they must still be poets, no matter how intangible. Shakespeare, of course, was fully aware of this, and as such every character, every grave digger, every gate keeper, had something of wit and depth about them.

Current television trends, I would suggest, forget this. Presenting a character as a policeman, or a doctor or whatever, forego an opportunity to connect, choosing instead to present stereotypes in order to further yet another formulaic story. And when people like Phoebe Waller-Bridge or Quentin Tarantino achieve success in their chosen fields, it’s generally because they haven’t overlooked this.

This is the start of a series of essays on how to become a playwright. In future pieces I will consider staging, characterisation, plot, dialogue; and, next, how to get the best out of your actors.

Mr Todd is a published playwright and Director of Hags Ahoy Theatre Company.

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