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You have an idea for a play script — perhaps a very good idea. You want to expand it into a comedic or dramatic story line, but how? Although you may want to dive right into the writing, your play will be much stronger if you spend a lot of time planning your story out before you start your first draft. Once you've brainstormed your narrative and outlined your structure, writing your play will seem a much less daunting task.

Part 1 : Brainstorming Your Narrative

1. Decide what kind of story you want to tell. Though every story is different, most plays fall into categories that help the audience understand how to interpret the relationships and events they see. Think about the characters you want to write, then consider how you want their stories to unfold. Do they:

  • Have to solve a mystery?
  • Go through a series of difficult events in order to achieve personal growth?
  • Come of age by transitioning from childlike innocence to worldly experience?
  • Go on a journey, like Odysseus’s perilous journey in the Odyssey
  • Bring order to chaos?
  • Overcome a series of obstacles to achieve a goal?

2. Brainstorm the basic parts of your narrative arc. The narrative arc is the progression of the play through beginning, middle, and end. The technical terms for these three parts are exposition, rising action, and resolution, and they always come in that order. Regardless of how long your play is or how many acts you have, a good play will develop all three pieces of this puzzle. Taken notes on how you want to flesh each one out before sitting down to write your play.

3. Decide what needs to be included in the exposition. Exposition opens a play by providing basic information needed to follow the story: When and where does this story take place? Who is the main character? Who are the secondary characters, including the antagonist (person who presents the main character with his or her central conflict), if you have one? What is the central conflict these characters will face? What is the mood of this play (comedy, romantic drama, tragedy)?

4. Transition the exposition into rising action. In the rising action, events unfold in a way that makes circumstances more difficult for the characters. The central conflict comes into focus as events raise the audience’s tension higher and higher. This conflict may be with another character (antagonist), with an external condition (war, poverty, separation from a loved one), or with oneself (having to overcome one’s own insecurities, for example). The rising action culminates in the story’s climax: the moment of highest tension, when the conflict comes to a head.

5. Decide how your conflict will resolve itself. The resolution releases the tension from the climactic conflict to end the narrative arc. You might have a happy ending, where the main character gets what he/she wants; a tragic ending where the audience learns something from the main character’s failure; or a denouement, in which all questions are answered.

6. Understand the difference between plot and story. The narrative of your play is made up of the plot and the story — two discrete elements that must be developed together to create a play that holds your audience’s attention. E.M. Forster defined story as what happens in the play — the chronological unfolding of events. Plot, on the other hand, can be thought of as the logic that links the events that unfold through the plot and make them emotionally powerful. An example of the difference is:

  • Story: The protagonist’s girlfriend broke up with him. Then the protagonist lost his job.
  • Plot: The protagonist’s girlfriend broke up with him. Heartbroken, he had an emotional breakdown at work that resulted in his firing.
  • You must develop a story that’s compelling and moves the action of the play along quickly enough to keep the audience’s attention. At the same time, you must show how the actions are all causally linked through your plot development. This is how you make the audience care about the events that are transpiring on stage.

7. Develop your story. You can’t deepen the emotional resonance of the plot until you have a good story in place. Brainstorm the basic elements of story before fleshing them out with your actual writing by answering the following questions:

  • Where does your story take place?
  • Who is your protagonist (main character), and who are the important secondary characters?
  • What is the central conflict these characters will have to deal with?
  • What is the “inciting incident” that sets off the main action of the play and leads up to that central conflict?
  • What happens to your characters as they deal with this conflict?
  • How is the conflict resolved at the end of the story? How does this impact the characters?

8. Deepen your story with plot development. Remember that the plot develops the relationship between all the elements of story that were listed in the previous step. As you think about plot, you should try to answer the following questions:

  • What are the relationships between the characters?
  • How do the characters interact with the central conflict? Which ones are most impacted by it, and how does it affect them?
  • How can you structure the story (events) to bring the necessary characters into contact with the central conflict?
  • What is the logical, casual progression that leads each event to the next one, building in a continuous flow toward the story’s climactic moment and resolution?