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Part 3 : Writing Your Play

1. Outline your acts and scenes. In the first two sections of this article, you brainstormed your basic ideas about narrative arc, story and plot development, and play structure. Now, before sitting down to write the play, you should place all these ideas into a neat outline. For each act, lay out what happens in each scene.

  • When are important characters introduced?
  • How many different scenes do you have, and what specifically happens in each scene?
  • Make sure each scene’s events build toward the next scene to achieve plot development.
  • When might you need set changes? Costume changes? Take these kinds of technical elements into consideration when outlining how your story will unfold.

2. Flesh out your outline by writing your play. Once you have your outline, you can write your actual play. Just get your basic dialogue on the page at first, without worrying about how natural the dialogue sounds or how the actors will move about the stage and give their performances. In the first draft, you simply want to “get black on white,” as Guy de Maupassant said.

3. Work on creating natural dialogue. You want to give your actors a solid script, so they can deliver the lines in a way that seems human, real, and emotionally powerful. Record yourself reading the lines from your first draft aloud, then listen to the recording. Make note of points where you sound robotic or overly grand. Remember that even in literary plays, your characters still have to sound like normal people. They shouldn’t sound like they’re delivery fancy speeches when they’re complaining about their jobs over a dinner table.

4. Allow conversations to take tangents. When you’re talking with your friends, you rarely stick to a single subject with focused concentration. While in a play, the conversation must steer the characters toward the next conflict, you should allow small diversions to make it feel realistic. For example, in a discussion of why the protagonist’s girlfriend broke up with him, there might be a sequence of two or three lines where the speakers argue about how long they’d been dating in the first place.

5. Include interruptions in your dialogue. Even when we’re not being rude, people interrupt each other in conversation all the time — even if just to voice support with an “I get it, man” or a “No, you’re completely right.” People also interrupt themselves by changing track within their own sentences: “I just — I mean, I really don’t mind driving over there on a Saturday, it’s just that — listen, I’ve just been working really hard lately.”

  • Don’t be afraid to use sentence fragments, either. Although we’re trained never to use fragments in writing, we use them all the time when we’re speaking: “I hate dogs. All of them.”

6. Add stage directions. Stage directions let the actors understand your vision of what’s unfolding onstage. Use italics or brackets to set your stage directions apart from the spoken dialogue. While the actors will use their own creative license to bring your words to life, some specific directions you give might include:

  • Conversation cues: [long, awkward silence]
  • Physical actions: [Silas stands up and paces nervously]; [Margaret chews her nails]
  • Emotional states: [Anxiously], [Enthusiastically], [Picks up the dirty shirt as though disgusted by it]

7. Rewrite your draft as many times as needed. You’re not going to nail your play on the first draft. Even experienced writers need to write several drafts of a play before they’re satisfied with the final product. Don’t rush yourself! With each pass, add more detail that will help bring your production to life.

  • Even as you’re adding detail, remember that the delete key can be your best friend. As Donald Murray says, you must “cut what is bad, to reveal what is good.” Remove all dialogue and events that don’t add to the emotional resonance of the play.
  • The novelist Leonard Elmore’s advice applies to plays as well: “Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”