If you've ever been to a play (or helped put one on), you know how exciting it can be as the lights go down and the curtains come open on a story performed in real time.
Stage plays are a special kind of magic, but they also have a lot in common with novels and even movies. Still, if you've never written a play before, there are some significant differences that you'll need to be aware of. I'll cover those differences and everything else you need to know in this article on how to write a play.
- What to do before you write your play.
- How to format your manuscript.
- Tips for writing the best play possible.
Table of contents
- What Makes a Play Different From a Novel or Movie?
- The Benefits of Writing a Stage Play
- Immerse Yourself in Stage Plays
- Different Types of Plays
- Plays with Different Structures
- How to Format Your Play Script
- Tips for Writing a Great Play
- How to Write a Play: Curtains
What Makes a Play Different From a Novel or Movie?
When you're writing a novel or even a short story, you're limited only by your imagination. You can get as fantastical as you like. You can have buildings explode, helicopter chases, giant creatures whose heads touch the clouds, and pretty much anything else you can think of. There is no limit.
When writing a movie, you can also put all these things in. But unless you have the backing of a studio with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend, you may not be able to translate everything from your mind to the silver screen.
If you want to write a play, there are even more limitations than writing a movie. Since a play takes place on a stage with live actors, there's only so much you can do. While there are some elements or settings that can be accomplished on a stage, every fantastic element that goes into your play means a bigger budget for the production.
This is the reason why most plays are character-driven stories. You generally won't see a play that takes place in more than two or three locations, and usually, these locations are fairly common, such as offices or homes.
So as you think about the idea for your play, keep this in mind.
The Benefits of Writing a Stage Play
Any creative writing endeavor has certain benefits. Creating something out of nothing can be very fulfilling, and writing a play is no different. It can also be a cathartic process, helping you to work through strong emotions.
But since the main drivers of a stage play are character and dialogue, writing a play can really help you strengthen your skills in both those areas. So no matter what kind of creative writing you do, taking the time to learn how to write a play can strengthen your ability to write novels, short stories, or movie scripts.
If you don't ever foresee having your play produced with actors and a director, feel free to get as creative as you want. If it's purely a creative writing exercise, you need not worry about production limitations.
Immerse Yourself in Stage Plays
Before you begin writing a play, it's important to become intimately familiar with the storytelling medium. This means going to see plays in your local community theater, as well as reading play scripts.
While it's best to go see plays in person, this isn't possible for everyone. If you're limited in your ability to see a live play, you can watch some on YouTube. Or, you can watch movies that are based on plays and think about how they would look on stage. This is actually a good exercise to help you get in the playwright's frame of mind.
Play Script Examples to Read
- Hamlet by William Shakespeare (A list of plays wouldn't be complete without one from the GOAT.)
- The Theory of Everything by Prince Gomolvilas
- Disgraced by Ayad Akhtar
- Oedipus Rex by Sophocles
- The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
- Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett
- Ruined by Lynn Nottage
Movies based on Plays
- Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
- Death of a Salesman
- Glengarry Glen Ross
- 12 Angry Men
Different Types of Plays
Before we dive into writing tips (and then play script formatting details), it's important that we take a look at the different types of plays. First of all, there are genres to be aware of:
- Tragedy – In which the main character spirals out of control thanks to a fatal flaw (and almost always dies at the end).
- Comedy – In which the tone is light and the goal is to get the audience laughing.
- Farce – The stage play's version of a “late night” or “slapstick” comedy, often nonsensical and irreverent.
- Tragi-Comedy – These skirt the line between tragedy and comedy, tackling tough subjects and following a flawed protagonist in a more lighthearted manner than your average tragedy. Often, the protagonist doesn't die at the end.
- Melodrama – A melodrama will often have clearly defined heroes and heroines with character flaws that are overcome by the resolution. These will often feature larger-than-life storylines.
- Historical – A play based on an event in history.
Plays with Different Structures
There are three primary types of stage plays: one-act, two-act, and three-act. Let's discuss their differences briefly so you can decide which type you want to tackle.
- One-Act Plays – One-act plays are commonly limited to a single location (so there are no set changes) and feature only a handful of characters. They're on the shorter side than two- or three-act plays, ranging from ten to sixty minutes on average. As a result, they're necessarily less complex than longer plays.
- Two-Act Plays – Two-act plays are more common these days. They're longer than their one-act counterparts, anywhere from an hour to two hours. Because of this, they may feature an intermission. You'll often see multiple set pieces or (locations), a larger cast of characters, and more nuanced character development.
- Three-Act Plays – Three-act plays are the longest type, sometimes ranging up to three hours or more. While in days past, these plays may have had two or more intermissions, this isn't usually the case these days. Most three-act plays (unless they're really long) will only have one intermission. Given their length, they'll often have large casts, multiple storylines, and many set changes.
It's important to note that these “acts” aren't really the same thing as the acts in plot structure diagrams like the Three Act Structure.
Really, talking about plays in terms of their acts is a way to differentiate longer and more complex plays from shorter, simpler ones. This is also a way to think about how much it will cost to put on a given play.
How to Format Your Play Script
Play script format is similar in many ways to screenplay format, but there are some key differences to be aware of. So whether you know screenplay format or not, this section will help you with your play format.
When writing your first draft, don’t worry too much about the format. Just get the story and the dialogue down without stopping to format everything correctly. You can always format it later as or after you edit.
The Title Page
The title of your play should be in the middle of your title page, underlined and in all caps. Below, write your name. Like this:
THE PLAY TITLE
In the bottom left corner, print your address, phone number, and email address. If you have an agent, print their name and contact info in the bottom right corner.
The Dramatis Personae (Cast of Characters)
On this page, list each of your characters along with a very brief description of them. This can include age, sex, and notable physical attributes.
Next, set the stage (literally) with the time and setting. It should look something like this:
Briefly describe your setting. It could be an office building, a home, a hotel, etc.
Briefly describe the time. This includes whether it's day or night and whether it takes place in the present day, the past, or the future.
Next, you'll want to start with Act I and Scene 1. All act and scene settings should be centered.
All character names should be in all caps. And those above dialogue should be centered. Character names in stage directions won't be centered. But the stage directions themselves should be indented once and italicized.
Like screenplays, play scripts are written in the present tense.
Here's what a scene will look like in action:
Living room, early afternoon.
JIMMY, a slovenly criminal dressed in black clothes and a ski mask, works on getting the large TV off the wall. LEROY suddenly comes through the front door.
What are you doing?
What's it look like? I'm stealing your TV.
What do you care? You don't even watch it.
And so on.
It’s important to note that there is no one right play script format. As you’re reading plays, you’ll probably see several different formats used across different plays. Really, you can choose one. Just remember to be consistent with your play format throughout the entire play.
Tips for Writing a Great Play
Writing an entire play—even a short play—is no small feat. While every writer is different in their approach to storytelling, I've tried to make the following tips broad enough yet specific enough that you can incorporate them into your own writing process, even if you're still discovering what it is!
Start Simple and See Where It Takes You
If this is your first time writing a play, I suggest starting with a simple one-act play structure. Once you have something down with a beginning, middle, and end, you can expand on it from there. So shoot for a fifteen-page script, which will be about a fifteen-minute play (it's roughly one page per minute when all is said and done).
Keep this fairly short play as your goal, but don't let it limit you when the creative juices start to flow. See where the story takes you. If the story needs a third or fourth character to show up unexpectedly, go with it and see what happens.
Whether you end up with a 60-page stage play or a 10-page one isn't important. The important thing is making that play as good as it possibly can be. And that's what the following tips will help you do.
Focus on Character and Conflict
Character and conflict are what drive the plot of any play. Focusing on these two factors together can really help you flesh out your story. After all, the conflict needs to be directly related to your characters.
An interesting main character battling an inner demon won't do you much good until something happens to make that inner conflict clear to the audience. In a play, this is usually some form of external conflict brought about by another character—even if the other character doesn't at first realize what he or she is doing.
In Hamlet, the protagonist is struck with indecision throughout the whole play. He wants to avenge his father's murder, but he continues to put this off, philosophizing and ruminating on death and suicide. Eventually, he drives himself insane. Things spiral out of control and many innocent people die directly or indirectly due to his inaction—including himself.
As with any other story, characters need to be somewhat believable and the audience needs a reason to empathize with them. Interesting characters are great, but it won't matter how interesting they are if the audience doesn't really care what happens to them. So in the beginning, give the audience a reason to empathize with your protagonist.
Let the Dialogue Drive
The dialogue in a play is incredibly important. While you can technically have a narrator to tell the audience things, you'll need to be careful to not use this as a crutch. Really, the dialogue between characters should tell the bulk of your story through subtext.
Not only does this mean writing realistic dialogue, but it also means ensuring that the dialogue isn't too on the nose. For example, you wouldn't want your main character to say out loud to someone, “I'm angry right now because my love life is a mess!”
Instead, you'd want that anger to come with a little more nuance and subtext. Maybe she makes a snarky remark to a friend who is talking to her about the great relationship she's in. And if your character delivers a monologue, it should be true to her voice and give the audience a deeper insight into her character.
Make Each Scene Important
As is the case with novel and screenplay writing, each scene in the play needs to have a purpose. However, when writing your first draft, you may end up with a few scenes that don't seem to have a clear purpose. That's okay. Sometimes you need to write through meandering or unclear scenes to get to the ones that your story needs.
So when you're going through and editing your play, make sure each scene serves to drive the story forward. If there's no point to the scene, it doesn't need to be in the play.
Don't Go Overboard on Stage Directions
Stage directions in a play entail everything from setting and lighting to the movements of the actors and their body language. But since plays are a group effort and each actor will bring their own unique touches to their characters, you don't need to go overboard with stage directions.
If you were writing a novel or a short story, you would want to describe important things in fairly vivid detail. But when writing a play, you need not worry about going into great detail. Instead, a few words here and there will do for stage direction. Of course, if something is really important to the story (like a prop or a location) and you want to emphasize it, it's completely fine to go into more detail.
It's also a good idea to consider the type of stage your play will be performed on. You may be writing for a theater with a traditional stage, but you may not. There are “theater in the round” stages – a round stage surrounded by seats. Then there are thrust stages, where certain parts of the stage are surrounded on three sides with seats.
If you're not sure which kind of stage your play will be performed on, that's okay. You can always add pertinent stage directions later.
Edit and Rewrite Ruthlessly
Editing and rewriting are vital parts of any creative writing endeavor. Many professionals suggest getting your first draft down and then putting it aside for a week or a month before you pick it up again with fresh eyes.
Whether you wait a week or a day before editing, try to see the play from the audience's perspective. Think about your ideal audience member and what you want them to get out of it. Then use this to rewrite and edit ruthlessly until you have a play that is as good as you can possibly make it.
How to Write a Play: Curtains
Writing an original play is not only a rewarding experience, but it can help you become a better fiction writer in general. And if your play is performed in a theater, you'll be able to watch it come alive as few people ever do. The more you write, the better your chances of success. And you may even want to turn your play into a novel eventually.
No matter your specific writing process, a play can help you strengthen your character development and dialogue writing skills. And it can also help you learn how to write a screenplay, as well!