Overview of Playwriting

Successful playwriting depends not only on dialogue, but on intelligent plotting, credible characterization, and the ability to develop a theme through 70 to 90 pages of encounters and exchanges (in a full-length play). The pleasures of writing drama can be significant. Writers for the stage can have the satisfying experience of watching an audience hang on every word, laugh at every witticism, and show their appreciation at the play’s end with grateful applause.

Writing for the theater also allows the playwright the advantage of having actors, designers, and a director with whom to collaborate; it’s the rare playwright who hasn’t learned more about their play during rehearsals. Of course, there are difficulties too: at first, the necessity of writing only what can be seen or heard within the walls of a small theater may seem to limit the playwright in comparison with, say, a novelist or screenwriter. But with practice, it turns out that there are solutions to most of these problems and that the ingenuity with which the writer finds these answers can be part of the magic of the stage experience. In fact, “magic” is the right word to describe a successful play: somehow it rises above its flesh-and-blood interpreters and becomes urgently important, funny, inspiring, or devastating. The writer who chooses to work in dramatic or comedic plays can, at best, deliver an experience that will never be forgotten.


Intelligent plotting is essential. Most plays are constructed around the idea of someone who wants something, who faces an obstacle (external or internal) and then struggles with this obstacle until a result is reached. For example, Hamlet wants to kill his uncle Claudius but faces obstacles within himself (Hamlet, Prince of Darkness); Blanche DuBois wants to settle down in a conventional marriage in New Orleans but is opposed in this by Stanley Kowalski (A Streetcar Named Desire). The playwright must provide desires for their characters and then determine which ones will be fulfilled and which stymied. If the obstacles are too small, the play will lack suspense; if they’re unreasonably great, the play will lack credibility. In a play with more than a few characters, the playwright must manipulate the action so that all the various desires and struggles on the stage can be interwoven. It’s no coincidence that one of the definitions of drama is “conflict.” The playwright must know how to write thinkable conflicts and grab the spectator’s attentions therewith.


Characterization is another skill that the writer for the stage must come to master. In realistic drama—still the most popular sort—characters must be “round” and not “flat,” meaning that they must have multiple dimensions, a thinkable combination of virtues and vices, as well as the needs, hopes, inhibitions, and fears of real human beings. Every good playwright is a good psychologist, understanding that, for example, despite all his anger, Biff Loman still loves Willy Loman (Death of a Salesman); Amanda Wingfield is not merely a harridan (The Glass Menagerie); and Iago’s varied explanations for his hatred of Othello (Othello, the Moor of Venice) are the products of a man who fundamentally doesn’t know himself. With less than a hundred pages to work within, the dramatist must learn to sketch characters in such a way that a whole personality can appear once a performer takes the role. This is a talent best developed when working with the actors and the director: there’s no substitute for the writer of seeing their characters actually on stage. Still, much can be learned from the comments of intelligent readers or even from a cold reading with non-professionals taking the play’s parts.


And then there’s dialogue. Here the playwright must strive to find a credible form of discourse that avoids cliché and artificiality and that varies just as characters do: a professor of philosophy shouldn’t sound like a dog trainer, and a harried urban shop girl shouldn’t sound like a wealthy heiress. The secret of good dialogue is selectivity—finding the conversation that most reveals the lives of the speakers, finding the expression that means more than itself, finding the word that the audience can instantly absorb and interpret. The playwright needs to be aware that “realistic” dialogue isn’t always the most suitable choice–that that the absurdities of Ionesco, the elegance of Shaw, the repeated expletives of Mamet are sometimes more appropriate than the more “authentic” sounds of the real world outside the theater. Further, “on-the-nose” dialogue, with which characters say precisely what they mean, isn’t nearly as interesting as “off-the-nose” dialogue, that which proceeds through indirection and ambiguity. Some playwrights, like Chekhov and Pinter, employ what might be called “pause-and-effect.” Others, like Beckett, use a highly charged poetic diction that packs far more energy than a more conventional vocabulary. Every play, the playwright will find, makes its own special demands where dialogue is concerned, and the writer must learn to readjust with each new work.


Finally, there’s theme. It’s not enough to present characters speaking interestingly with each other while engaged in some action; the playwright must have something to say. A typical play might demand two precious hours from a busy, burdened spectator. In this regard, the playwright is no different from the novelist or poet: they must have a purpose that the literary work embodies, a theme or conviction that the drama communicates. Sometimes the idea might be socio-political, as in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House; sometimes it’s psychological, as in that same playwright’s Hedda Gabler, or even metaphysical, as in his late play The Master Builder. The primary commandment for playwrights is “Thou shalt not waste the audience’s time.” Theatergoers, like readers of short stories or novels, want to be rewarded for investing attention (and often money) in a play: if they’re lucky, they’ll find that the dramatist has illuminated some area of human life, perhaps made existence a little more comprehensible. A playwright who’s able to shed a little light on a spectator’s life has lived up to a high calling. Such a writer need not worry that their efforts are misspent.

“The Play’s the Thing”

The art of the dramatist has been practiced in the Western world for 2,500 years and has given us the great works of Sophocles, Shakespeare, Strindberg, and Shaw. But this history is not enough: every age has its own truths and needs the artists who can express them in a contemporary way, employing recognizable characters. If they will learn to develop plots that express a well-considered theme, characters that win the spectators’ credence, and dialogue that leads an audience to think and feel deeply, the result can be riveting. Four hundred years after the Bard first said it, the play’s still the thing. The scribe who chooses to write for the stage is taking on a venerable—and potentially powerful—occupation.