Playwriting is a very distinctive form of fiction. Unlike poems, short stories, or novels, a written play is usually not intended to be the final creative product. Rather, the play is meant to be put into action. It is placed in the hands of directors, technical theater crews, and actors. Their role is to take the written play, the script, and convert it into a stage performance before a live audience. This process sets playwriting far apart from other forms of fiction in that it presents unique opportunities and challenges. These must be taken into account in order to create a play that is both successful as a work of fiction and as a script for a performance. This page outlines some of the basic considerations that must be taken into account, including formatting, creating a scene, action, and character development.
An effective format is essential in good playwriting. You need to be able to clearly communicate to
directors, actors, and technical crews what exactly is happening in your play. General playwriting convention is to organize
your writing into distinct sections that each communicate a certain sort of
information, in order to facilitate better communication.
The heading sections of a play are naturally found at the
beginning of a scene or an act. These
should consist of a single line of text, and contain a short list of very basic and/or
abbreviated information on the setting of the scene or act. A heading can specify the location of the
scene, whether it takes place inside or outside, what time of day it takes
place, what season it takes place in, or even what time period it takes place
in. Generally any basic information on
the setting that doesn’t require any further explanation can be placed in the
heading. This will give whoever is putting on your play a basic understanding of the setting of the scene before they get into the scene itself.
Since the heading indicates the beginning of a new scene and
a possible change of setting, it should stand out from the rest of the
text. You could make the heading bold,
underlined, all-caps, or in a larger font.
As indicators of transitions, headings are very important
in producing a play, so you should be very overt with them.
Stage Direction sections contain the broadest variety of
information. They can provide a much
more detailed description of the setting of a scene than the heading. This description can include what props or backdrops
are present on the stage or even the weather of the scene. Really any pertinent information that cannot
be placed succinctly into the heading can be put into actions sections. You
should be very clear with you descriptions.
There is no real need for flowery or creative prose in these sections;
it should just be getting the details of the scene across in the most effective
Stage Direction sections also describe the actions taking
place on stage. They should contain
information on characters' movements, behavior, and moods. They could also include any special effects happening
in your play such as sound, lighting, or other visual effects. Detailed and clear information about all
these actions will make it very easy for the actors to perform their respective
characters, and for the technical crew to set up and execute necessary effects.
You need to make stage directions sections stand out from
the heading. This isn’t that difficult as
action sections can and will mostly be longer and more in depth than
headings. However, you could add visual
cue to clearly set them apart from other sections of your writing. You could put stage directions in italics, or
have them indented in a distinct way. It
should be immediately clear to a reader that the section they are about to read
is stage direction.
Dialogue sections provide actors their spoken script for your
play. These contain any speaking parts
for any of your characters, including soliloquies, asides, voice overs, or
conversation. It is best to make it very
clear at the beginning of each dialogue section exactly which character is
speaking. It also should be made clear whom
the character is speaking to if it is not certain in the context of the scene.
It also may be necessary to specify something about how
someone is speaking in a dialogue section, such as if the character has a
speech impediment, is yelling, or is speaking with some distinct quality. This information can be expressed in stage
direction, but it can also be incorporated directly into the dialogue
sections. This can be done with the use
of parentheticals. Put this information
in parentheses and place it where you want to in a dialogue section. You should make it clear that parentheticals
are not the dialogue itself by putting them italics or a different font.
In headings, stage direction, and dialogue sections, you are
providing very direct information to your primary audience. In effect, you are describing the surface
level of your play, what can be easily seen and heard. However, you may find a need to communicate more
detailed, behind the scenes information.
If you really want a certain theme or motif or mood to be present in a
scene, you should put it into the notes section. In the notes sections, you can express the
deeper ideas of your play to the performers. This information could help them put on a
performance that is more focused on the significant themes and ideas of your
You should make it very obvious that notes sections are not giving
specific instructions or directing what is happening onstage. Preface these sections with: AUTHOR’S NOTE. Don’t
forget to be clear in what you are trying to say.
Establishing a scene in a play is very different than in a
written story. You are giving
instruction as to how certain elements, such as the stage, the set, and the
lighting, are used to create a scene, rather than creating the scene in itself.
There are spatial, practical, and technical limitations that must be factored
into creating a scene in such as way.
You also must take into account how you can use the sensory elements of
a live performance in creating your scene.
In writing the scenes of your play, remember that the stage on which it
will take place is a confined space.
There is only so much room to place objects and scenery, and for
characters to move about. If you set
your scene in a vast expansive environment such as city scape with a multitude
of people and cars moving about, the technical crew will have a very difficult
time bringing that to life in a limited space.
Simplifying and confining very complicated settings to better suit the
stage will make your play much easier to produce.
However, depending on the needs of your play, you can alter
the stage itself. While it may be
impossible to expand it as to fit in a vast cityscape, you could radically
change its shape. You could state in
your stage directions that the stage should be in round, sloped, multi-leveled,
or even jutting out into the audience.
By changing the stage itself, you can change how the audience views the
action of a scene. You can give them a
360 degrees viewpoint of the action, bring the action into the midst of them,
or give the action a level of verticality.
When you’re writing out your stage directions and explicitly
describing the setting of a scene, take into account that the technical crew
will be making that scene through the use of a set. They will be adding structures, props, and
other objects to the stage to create, or at least represent, your written
setting. Like the stage, you need to
consider the limitations of a set. The
more complex and intricate your scene is, the more complex and intricate the
set must be. This could make producing
scenes highly impractical and difficult.
Try to focus on what is really necessary in your scene. Limit the setting to what is needed to
establish the mood, or to props and objects necessary to the story. The setting of your scene should be focused,
not overly and unnecessarily complicated.
Scenes with far too complicated sets can not only be impractical to set
up, but can also distract the audience from the main action of the scene.
Lighting in a stage performance provides opportunities to
create very interesting and effective visual effects in a scene. The color, brightness, and number of lights
can help set up a scene. For example: blue
and purple lights create the appearance of dusk, while orange and yellow lights
create the appearance of dawn. Lights
can not only set the scene, but they can also set the mood. Flashing lights of many colors can create a
feeling of confusion or intensity, while dim red lighting suggests terror
Lighting is also very technically complicated. If you don’t have an extensive knowledge of
stage lighting, it’s probably best to leave the specifics of it to the
technical crew. Give them some basic
direction for the lighting you want in a scene, and then let them take care of
Theater is a performance art, and the core of performance
art is the action. The live action of
characters on the stage is what drives the story forward and separates it from
other art forms. Writing the action of a
play requires similar consideration as writing a scene. There are limitations and opportunities in
live action. Effective action must take
this into account.
Limitations of Live Action
There are technical and practical constraints on what a
character can do in a play. In a written
story, a character can literally jump into a rocket and fly to the moon if the
writer wants them to. On stage, it is pretty much impossible for a
character to literally jump into a rocket and fly away, and very difficult to
create a very realistic representation of this action. This is an extreme example, but you should
think about how the actions of a character in your writing would translate into
a live performance. You should avoid unnecessarily
complicated action, and focus on that which is key to the story of the
play. If a crucial action feels overly complicated,
look for ways to simplify it for the technical crew, or possible alternative
actions that could take its place in the story.
Opportunities of Live Action
Watching a live performance is a much more sensory
experience as compared to reading a piece of fiction. The action is not something that is read and
then envisioned by the reader. The
audience can plainly see the action in front of them. Everything is much more
alive, present, and tangible to the audience.
As a playwright, this aspect of a performance makes your
work much easier. You don’t need to go into
intense detail over every action that takes place in your story. You can write a straightforward and simple description
of what you want to happen on the stage, and the performers bring it to life
with great depth and feeling. You are
providing direction for others to interpret, and the relative simplicity of
this frees up more time and effort to focus on more important aspects of your
work such as character and plot development.
Character development is an important part of any good
fiction. It creates believable
characters with emotions and motives that the audience can understand and even
identify with. What makes a character
real and more human also helps the audience to become more invested in that
character, and concerned for his or her role in the story. In writing a play, you must create a
believable and emotive character that an actor can bring to life on the stage.
Development Through Action and Dialogue
Unlike in written fiction, there is little room for explication or for telling how exactly a character is feeling. A character must instead be developed through what the audience can see and hear: through dialogue and action. The character must do and say things that do not simply say how he/she feels, but rather things that reveal such details. There is no first person, no diving into a characters head. Their actions and words show who they are and why they are who they are. In every action and piece of dialogue you give to a character, think to how it helps develop that particular character. If it doesn't have emotion or reveal something about who that character is or what they are thinking, then try to rewrite it in a way that it does.
Guiding the Actor into a Character
Beyond writing out the dialogue and the actions of a character, there is more that you can provide an actor to better perform as their character. Using the notes section, you can explicate a character. You could explain his motivations, his objectives, the personality you are giving him. You can give this character a backstory and a history. This information might not appear in the final product of the play, but they can help an actor fit into the role. The actor will have tools to approach and perform their actions and their lines.
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