how to right a play

Playwriting 101


This playwriting tutorial was written by playwright and screenwriter Jonathan Dorf, whose plays have been produced in every US state and on every continent but Antarctica. Co-Chair of the Alliance of Los Angeles Playwrights and longtime playwriting advisor to Final Draft, he co-founded YouthPLAYS, the publisher of plays for young actors and audiences, and has served as US cultural envoy to Barbados and Visiting Associate Professor in the graduate playwriting program at Hollins University. He received his B.A. magna cum laude in Dramatic Writing and Literature from Harvard College and his M.F.A. in Playwriting from UCLA. Creator of the book Young Playwrights 101 and the course Introduction to Playwriting, Jonathan Dorf is available as a script consultant.

Table of Contents

  1. The Play’s the Thing and Types of Plays
  2. Different Theater Spaces
  3. Story Structure and Write to be Read
  4. Story Development
  5. What Does a Play Look Like? What Should My Play Look Like?
  6. Manuscript Format Elements and Play Page Layout
  7. Title Page Element
  8. Cast Page Element
  9. ‘Musical’ Numbers Page Element and Act/Scene Heading Element
  10. Setting and At Rise Description Element
  11. The Stage and Character Name Element
  12. Dialogue Element
  13. Lyrics and Stage Direction Element
  14. Transition Element
  15. Page Break Rules and Binding
  16. Submitting Your Work
  17. International Submission Formats and Conclusion

Recommended Tools

  • Final Draft 9 Screenwriting Software
  • Online screenwriting software

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Playwriting 101 Introduction This playwriting tutorial was written by playwright and screenwriter Jonathan Dorf, whose plays have been produced in every US state and on every continent but

How to Write a Play

Writing a substantial piece of theatre takes time. And edits. Edits from yourself, from actors, directors, friends, edits that pop up when it comes to production – the process can often be enough to make you give up pretty easily. But edits are a tool, not a hinderance. Don’t let your great idea come to a stonewall because you can’t bear the thought of it changing.

It takes more than a great idea to have your show come to fruition. Different processes work for different writers. Some may have little snippets of ideas they want to meld together into one, and others an overall concept that is lacking in detail. The writing lies somewhere in the middle. While the freedom of being a writer is stemmed in an individual’s creativity, below are some helpful tips to get you started if you’re struggling to make it beyond an idea.

Know Your Audience

Who is going to respond to your play? What demographic will be interested in the themes you’re going to confront? While you don’t want to pigeon-hole yourself into writing for one group, it’s a good idea to think about who you want your play to resound with.

Not every play is for everyone, and the more you commit to your writing without worrying about how certain critics will respond to it, the more chance you have of creating a stronger message to those who will respond positively. Where are you hoping this play to go? It’s extremely difficult for a first-time playwright to get something published, particularly without production.

Approaching independent theatre companies is a great way to get your work up, and – given a hopefully positive response – to pave a pathway towards eventual publication. Therefore, if you’re pitching to an indie-theatre audience, know who is going to come to see your show. Are they young or old? Are they liberal or conservative? And perhaps most importantly – what other plays are being written in your environment. The one thing you don’t want to do is go where everyone else has been, and have your work pushed into the pool of every other play being produced at the moment. Pay attention to your theatre-scene.

Know Your Issue

I’m a fan of non-preachy theatre. I write to entertain, make people laugh, and to not have my audience bored by the first hour. Regardless, your play must be about something. Sitting down with your iPhone notes and chucking in every funny little social situation you’ve written down will leave you lacking. You should always approach your over-arching issue first. It’s not enough to just make it funny, or sad, or abstract without meaning. You want the audience to walk away and have a conversation about it. Much like screenwriting, it can help to come up with a sort of log-line. Or, to put it another way, a one sentence answer to the question “what’s it about?” that isn’t going to make you tongue tied and embarrassed.

If you are completely blank, go through a process of looking at what’s topical and relevant, what’s going to get people excited to read it because of the current political environment we live in. Even the best new farcical comedies and musical theatre pieces are able to have the audience relate to the characters or themes.

Know Your Plot

Many writers love their characters. Love their characters so much that they want to start there, and come to the plot later. For example, creating a hilarious dynamic between a brother and a sister of two opposing political preferences is a good idea for dialogue and character development. It will not carry through to making a scene. It is of course important to have fully-fleshed out characters in mind, but without going through a timeline, a low, a climax, etc, you’ll find that you will be writing dialogue for days without any progression. Organising your story into Acts and Scenes can often get you started here, and makes the shaping of your characters all the more pleasant. Whether your story is linear, non-linear, abstract or straight down the line, that’s up to you, as long as your piece is able to peak where it needs to, and allow for you characters to develop and resonate with your audience.

Know Your Characters

I find character development the most fun and creative element to playwriting. These are people made of the people we observe day-to-day (or figments of our imaginations that haunt our nightmares – either way). There are no real rules to writing characters, but for a useful tip, I find that putting your character in a situation of which is alien to them is a good impetus for development. for this to work, fleshing out your character is vital. Find their traits in people you know, understand how they would react in any situation, not just those in your play. The theatre will therefore stem from the audience’s understanding of how that character is feeling in that certain situation. The best plays that conquer this simply place a character in an alien situation with limited action or dialogue, and in response, receive groans, laughs or sadness from the audience. It’s great to watch.

Know Your First Few Seconds

Make you first scene an absolute banger. Get your reader, director, audience – whoever – involved from the get go. The best way to gage whether you’ve created an opening moment that will suck everyone in is whether you could put that moment somewhere else in the play. if you can, change it. You want your opening few seconds to setup the mood, but to also immediately entice. A slow bleed into a play will have your readers putting the script down after a few pages.

Know Your Voice

It’s incredible how much a playwright’s voice is able to carry over to stage, even with multiple actors portraying the story. Think about what kind of dialogue and pacing you want to show. Do you want it to be completely new? Or do you want to reference David Mamet or Oscar Wilde? sticking to a style will get your writing noticed, rather than forgotten about in the face of actors or directors. It’s a great idea to read a s*itload of plays and understand how their voices work. This might include the use of pauses, abbreviations, quick scene-changes, whatever it may be. Have a think about how you imagine seeing your play on stage, and what you can do to own it.

Playwriting is all about building. What starts out as what you think is a solid idea, will chop and change until you have an even better one, provided you go through the process. That process is where the beauty comes from – it’s your path to pave. Pin-pointing the elements you want to put up on stage and building upon criticism are the tools to help you get there.

Are you trying to write your first play? This is a step by step guide for how to write a play. Learn the process of playwriting.