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The Basics of Playwriting



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. 

Headings

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

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 way possible.

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

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.

Notes

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 play.

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.

The Scene


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.

The Stage

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.

The Set

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

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 and/or evil.

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 exact details.

Action


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


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.

Resources


Shaparenko, B. "Focus on Focus"
Bartholomae, D. "The Study of Error" 
Greig, Noel. Playwriting: A Practical Guide. Psychology Press
Downs, William M. Playwriting from Formula to Form. Harcout Brace College Publishers
Cassady, March. Characters in Action: A Guide to Playwriting. University Press of America
Frome, Shelly. Playwriting - a Complete Guide to Creating Theater. Mcfarland
Lawson, John H.  Theory and Technique of playwriting and screenwriting. Garland Publications
Smiley, Sam.  Playwriting: the Structure of Action. Yale University Press










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