First, let’s get one thing clear: there is no one right way to write a play.
Every writer has their own method, and we all learn and grow as we progress in our playwriting careers.
What I’m sharing is how I write plays, and my tips can be modified to fit your writing style.
How to Write a Play
Before I began writing plays, I thought it made sense to create a main character and then simply tell a story through his or her viewpoint.
After writing many plays, my process has changed, and each play has followed a different trajectory.
These 15 tips gleaned from my experiences can serve as a general blueprint to follow for any aspiring or experienced playwright.
1. Start with a Broad Idea and an Open Mind
At the beginning of the process, I have a general idea what a play will be “about.” For example, I know that I’m going to present Emma “Grandma” Gatewood’s life story, or that I’m going to reveal the family dynamics among a mother and her three daughters during the 1930s and 1940s—or show Frances Ellen Watkins Harper late in life as she reminisces about being a black woman who fought to overturn slavery.
2. Orient Yourself in Time and Place
Before I go much further, I determine when the main character(s) lived and where they lived. Skipping this step means you risk writing in anachronisms, perhaps having a character save the day by using a cell phone…10 years before they were invented.
If the play isn’t taking place in contemporary times in the location where you live, you’ll need to consider additional factors. How much freedom would a woman, say, have in the era in question? What role would weather play in that locale? What traditions would these characters observe?
When you’re writing about historical characters, as I often do, you’ll want to recreate their world as best you can, even when also introducing elements of fiction into the play. When creating purely fictional characters, you’ll have more freedom but still must create a believable time and place.
3. Research the Main Character’s World
Now that you’ve got a general idea of the time and place of your play, focus on your character’s surroundings. Picture Step Two as being like when a movie camera pans the scene from the distance, and Step Three as being like when the movie camera focuses on the main character’s more immediate surroundings.
Here’s an example. When I started to envision my first play, Freedom’s Light: A Stop Along the Underground Railroad, I knew that Robbins and Eliza Burrell, two historical people who served as conductors on the Underground Railroad in Northeast Ohio, were important characters.
So I read what I could about the risks faced by people who broke the law to transport escaping fugitives, the demographics known about people who participated in this dangerous activity, what happened when they got caught, and more. I also read about what was happening specifically in Northeast Ohio and, whenever possible, about what was recorded about the actual activities of Robbins and Eliza. Your mind’s “camera,” you see, is focusing in more closely now.
4. Fill Up Your Subconscious Brain
Have fun during the discovery process! Let everything filter in and don’t be too targeted…enjoy the process.
At this point, it’s hard to know what will ultimately be important. When I was researching Emma Gatewood—the first woman to solo through-hike the 2,050-mile Appalachian Trail—I read a story about how people known as “trail angels” would leave jugs of water and other practical items to help hikers who came after them. It was interesting when I read it, sure, but this fact ultimately became a central point of the play…and I had no idea at the time it would be so important.
For Freedom’s Light, I read about the Quakers’ role in the Underground Railroad, especially the women’s. I later decided to create a Quaker character in Freedom’s Light whose life circumstances profoundly affected the runaways’ fate.
5. Write With Your Subconscious
If a certain piece of information or symbol or phrase keeps coming to mind, slow down and focus your attention on what keeps surfacing.
In Freedom’s Light, for example, I kept imagining how a certain character would sing a certain song at a certain point in the play, but I wasn’t sure why. I later realized that the phrases about a freedom train in that song were bitterly ironic, as some of the fugitives were going to be put in chains at that time in the plot.
When the play was actually performed, multiple people told me that was the play’s most captivating moment—and my conscious mind didn’t conjure that up. It came from a deeper part of my brain. Trust yourself!
6. Identify Your Burning Question
By this point, you should understand enough about your characters’ world to have a question you know you want to answer. Identifying that burning question helps you to stay on track as you write your play, serving as your guiding light.
When writing Emma Gatewood: Are You Out of Your Bloomin’ Mind?!, I wanted to know why a woman in her late sixties would want to take on such an immense challenge, as well as how she was physically and emotionally capable of hiking the Appalachian Trail. With Freedom’s Light, I wanted to know what the final straw would be to impel an enslaved person to try to escape. Why now?
7. Free-Write Your Characters
With all this groundwork in place, it’s time to trust my instincts and begin freewriting.
With Bound Together, I just started writing in the persona of black abolitionist Frances Harper as she remembered how two slaves she knew tried to learn how to read. I’d read some of Harper’s poetry where she addressed this subject and then I simply started writing about those memories in a conversational style.
With Sisters Forever: The Burrell Family Letters, I started writing about the 1949 funeral of Tempe Burrell and how each of her three daughters—Doris, Eleanor, and Virginia—responded to this event. I then returned to 1929, when Doris was leaving her rural Ohio home to head to her new home in New York City. In both cases, my early intuitions ended up being the structure of the finished play, but that isn’t always the case.
8. Welcome Surprise Characters
When I started to write Sisters Forever, I thought that the only historical Burrells who would be included in this play were women. But as I continued to write, one of Tempe’s sons, Ken, began to play an increasingly significant role in providing commentary, which included humorous asides. In fact, he ultimately played a pivotal role in the play, something I definitely didn’t expect!
In Bound Together, the character of a fictional nurse started out as a secondary character but as I wrote, her evolving backstory made her a more crucial part of the play than I’d expected.
9. Plot Arises from Character
As you create your plot, it’s crucial that you have your characters do what’s in their natures to do. In other words, don’t think: Oh, I need someone to punch the bad character in the nose right now and, since Susan is in the scene, let’s have Susan do it.
Instead, I encourage you to create character-driven plays because they tend to be more believable.
When I say to keep characters in their own natures, I don’t mean to make them predictable because, yes, characters can change just like people do. In fact, it’s important that a key character changes in some measurable way from the start of the play until the end.
Yes, the actions of your characters can and should surprise people watching the play to keep them engaged. But these changes must be believable and serve a greater purpose than simply moving the plot along.
Everything has to make sense within the context of that character at that time—the character and his or her actions have to be consistent and understandable. Otherwise, your audience won’t identify with them.
10. How to Fix Plot Holes and Mistakes
When you find you’ve backed yourself into a corner, plot-wise, it can be a wonderful opportunity to add more depth to your play. So avoid giving your characters an easy way to get out of their entanglements.
In Freedom’s Light, I’d surrounded Nellie with slave-catching federal marshals, and it seemed impossible for her to escape. It wouldn’t make sense to suddenly give her incredible powers, nor did I want to back off the tension.
Instead, I thought about how the historical Robbins Burrell was never caught in his Underground Railroad activities, which greatly frustrated federal marshals. In the play, the marshals knew where Nellie was hiding, but decided to let her continue her journey to trap Robbins Burrell. When Robbins then outwitted the marshals, it was more believable because that’s exactly what he did, historically speaking.
Yet I didn’t allow Nellie to be a passive participant in her own fate. Key events in the play taught her to trust her own instincts, and how to do so, so she made the right decision in whom to trust.
11. Writing Great Dialogue and Speech
Your characters need to sound like real people—and especially like real people who came from their era and circumstances.
When I needed to write dialogue for enslaved characters, I read text written by journalists during the Great Depression when they interviewed former slaves—and when they recorded their words as they were spoken, not how they were supposed to be spelled. This allowed me to get a glimpse of how formerly enslaved people spoke in various parts of the country, and I tried to incorporate that dialect into my dialogue. This also helped me to understand how former slaves spoke about their former masters.
To write dialogue for Emma Gatewood, I first read snippets of her diaries to get a sense of how she expressed herself. I read 20 years’ worth of letters exchanged among Tempe Burrell and her daughters, and did my best to fairly portray how they would have spoken.
12. No Talking Heads
When Sisters Forever was being read by actors for the first time, it became apparent that I wasn’t really having them do anything.
Yes, it was an intimate family play, but they should still be moving around and doing something with their hands!
So I made sure that Tempe, the consummate volunteer, was wrapping bandages for the Red Cross while Virginia, the neat sister, would dust, straighten doilies, and so forth. Eleanor was a true hostess, so she served tea while Doris would smoke, type, and drink bourbon as she was wont to do.
13. Use Soliloquy Strategically
In Freedom’s Light, pregnant runaway Nellie would look to the sky and question why her lover, Big John, was caught when he tried to escape. She was not aware of the audience.
In contrast, in Sister’s Forever, Ken Burrell was fully aware of the audience when he made his comments, and would even engage with them, asking, for example, what they’d bought at the concession stand.
In Emma Gatewood, she believed that the audience had come to her house to hear stories of her hike, as many people historically did.
In each case, I was using the technique of soliloquy, when an actor shares his or her thoughts out loud—but the techniques I used with each were different. Every character and every play has a method that it “wants” to use—something that just feels right. Carefully examine your writing and your characters to determine which technique will fit best in this exact case.
14. Add Music to Your Play
Music adds so much to any play (although it’s important to use songs in the public domain or obtain permission to use the music). We’ve very sense-oriented creature, we humans, and music can enhance the drama, romance, humor, or tension of just about any scene, taking it to new levels.
Think about the “soundtrack” to your play when you’re writing—does this part have thundering bass? A soft string section? Club music?
When I wrote a play about the history of the Cleveland Metroparks System, set up like the finals of a game show, a songwriter wrote original music for the play. When the Emma Gatewood play was used as a foundation of a PBS documentary, the director got permission to use a variety of songs. Freedom’s Light used Negro spirituals and hymns in the public domain—and I listened to that music while I wrote the play, as well.
15. Enjoy the Process!
It can be so easy to think about getting the play “done” that you rush through the journey.
Yes, opening nights are magical in a way that’s hard to describe. But I encourage you to enjoy the entire process, starting with the moment you come up with the idea that gets under your skin, making your wrists tingle and causing characters to appear to you in dreams.
Revel in the in-between moments and marvel when you see your creation come to life under bright lights.
Using these 15 steps and adapting them for your specific needs and process, you can enhance your playwriting skills, create more gripping characters and plots, and most importantly, love the experience.
About the Author
Kelly Boyer Sagert is a freelance writer who lives just west of Cleveland, Ohio. She has a passion for giving voice to people whose voices were lost in time, and for helping other writers, just as she has been helped. You can contact her through her website or by emailing [email protected].
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