... The Art of the Movie & Screenplay

A Step-By-Step Guide to Play Writing

By Robert Waldvogel


While prose and plays can be both written and published, there are several fundamental differences between them.

The play, first and foremost, is intended to be dramatized on a stage before an audience, and in written form is considered a "script" that provides the lines the actors must rehearse and memorize and the interactions the director must use to plan the overall production.

Secondly, there is little to no exposition, which is instead replaced by sparse, italicized instructions, such as "Sarah picks up glass" and "drinks slowly."

Thirdly, actions, interactions, and dialogue entirely carry the play's story, theme, and message without any narration.

Fourthly, interior monologue, or thoughts not articulated by the actors, cannot be expressed in the traditional-print way. Instead, they must be portrayed through action or otherwise demonstrated through expression and body language.

Finally, what can be achieved on screen or even on a page in a novel cannot necessarily be duplicated on a theater's stage, especially if it is a small one in a local community.

"It's hard to flash back in a play," wrote Stephen Dorf in his "Playwriting 101" blog. "Movies and novels can jump around almost effortlessly in time and place, but such transitions become more complicated in the theater, where live actors are performing on a stage. Plays therefore often take on a shorter period of time."


Although countless short stories, novels, memoirs, autobiographies, and creative nonfiction books have been adapted into visually viewable movies for both traditional theater houses and television, plays, while initially appearing in written-script form and read, are primarily intended to be performed.

"There is an immediacy and vitality about theater," according to Stephen Sossaman in his book, "Writing Your First Play" (Prentice-Hall, 2001, p. 2). "Characters are embodied in living human beings, not conjured up in a reader's imagination. Compare this to film, which is a very distancing art form. The greatest technique of film (such as jump cuts and varying camera angles) differ from our natural perception. We accept the conventions easy enough, and so can feel greater emotion while watching a film, but the form is very emotionally distancing compared with live theater."

Unlike other written genres, plays generally offer no narrator, whether in the first, second, or third person, or in the form of the omniscient presence. Instead, what occurs is the direct result of action and dialogue dramatized on stage.

"Theater necessarily uses direct presentation, regardless of whether the approach is realistic or stylized," Sossaman further stresses (Ibid, p. 3).

Despite what would be considered a rote memorization of a play's script, resulting in a precisely duplicated performance every time it is run, there are subtle variations. Actors' moods and emotional states change. On some days, they put on a stellar performance, yet on others just a professional one. They respond to the invisible, yet present energy of others in the cast and, to a degree, that in the audience. They sometimes forget lines or improvise. Script changes can occur as a result of playwright, director, and actor input. Performances are fleeting and perishable. Once the curtain is lowered, the play can never be exactly duplicated the next time.

While the playwright releases his script in what he considers complete, final, and polished form, the collaborative nature of directors and actors in live theater usually transform it into a "living" work that can change before the first performance has begun.

"Directors, designers, actors, and others can bring talents and visions to your work that you could not provide," Sossaman points out (ibid, p. 4). "If you don't accept this idea now, you will when one of your plays is powerfully encircled by a fine actor, set designer, or director."


Although readers pick up and put down books of any genre according to time, interest, attention span, and interruption, performed plays are continual, concentrated, and condensed, leaving those in the audience to experience them from beginning to end, often only with a brief intermission. Audience members have no "pause" or "reverse" buttons. Reading at home or on the train to work in the morning can lead to a distracted experience. In a theater, the viewer is removed from his routine world, the lights are low, and his cellphone is turned off.

In order to adapt a story into a script with the hope that it will be produced, the playwright must consider several factors.

Scenes, first and foremost, should be of a respectable length. Short and frequently modified ones require stage set changes, which takes time and may create some distraction and disconnection from the portrayed reality.

Difficult-to-dramatize actions, such as choreographed fist fights, car crashes, Civil War soldiers on horseback, and exploding volcanoes, should secondly be avoided, since few, if any theaters, would attempt to tackle such scenes.

Finally, anything that requires the technical and/or electronic equivalents used in movies should be eliminated.

"Most theaters do not have the machinery, equipment, budget, time, interest, or experience to produce the special effects theater found on Broadway," Sossaman advises (ibid, p. 8).


Because of time and audience interest and attention, most plays have two or, at most, three acts in which one or more scenes occur, run between 90 minutes and two and a half hours, and feature a single intermission during which drinks and snacks can be purchased in order to generate incremental theater revenue.

Except for Sunday matinees and rare, mid-week ones, most performances take place in the evening when actors and audiences alike are free from traditional work schedule constraints.

Theaters and spectators usually have little interest in very short, one-act plays, leaving the viewer less than satisfied with their entertainment experiences and ticket prices. Some venues avoid this potentiality either by rejecting such scripts or offering two or three one-act plays written by different authors during the same evening.


The playwright can prepare himself in several small ways before he even places his pen on paper for the first time.

Vital to the ultimate human behavior and action recreation he attempts through his script, he may, first and foremost, wish to observe and understand how and why people do what they do. Because plays, more than works of any other genre, entail live, on-stage actions, the playwright should be able to accurately recreate them.

"As a playwright, you must be keenly observant of people, perceptive about human psychology, and alert to the human condition, including yours... ," according to Sossaman (Ibid, p. 12). "You should be attentive to the ways in which people express and conceal their thoughts, their patterns of speech, (and) their ways of interacting with each other in a variety of situations."

Secondly, the playwright should read, observe, and assess other plays. Learning and inspiration result from exposure to his intended craft.

Thirdly, he should take the plunge and write his first draft. He should have little concern for final perfection at this point. Instead, he should just establish a foundation upon which it can be built. There is nothing that s person has created that he cannot improve.

In terms of his first draft, James Thurber once wrote, "Don't get it right. Get it written."

Finally, he should revise whatever that written form produced.


Whether the origin of a play idea is internal or external, it must entail the characters who will dramatize the story to which it led.

"Writing off the top of (your) head sometimes is great to capture a fleeting idea," wrote Dorf (op. cit.) "But real planning and preparation work can save the writer a lot of frustration and backpedaling at a later date. Outlining and breaking down the dramatic elements of a story are well worth the effort. By playing contrasts and conflict to maximum effect, the playwright can stir the primal in us."

As with most genres, plays involve an interesting, complex protagonist whose actions and obstacles are either supported by allies or opposed by antagonists, as he becomes motivated to achieve something. Interesting situations are dynamic, not static, and entail the conflicts created by others, circumstances, or personal restrictions, such as inabilities, fears, or flaws. What the main character does or does not do should reflect his personality and capabilities and lead to a climax and a resolution unforeseen or unpredicted.


Although plays, like works in most genres, can be either plot- or character-driven, the latter is more effective and realistic, since it provides a person the readers and spectators can focus on and the sequence of events become logical progressions of him based upon his choices.

"As you create your plot, it's crucial that you have your characters do what's in their natures to do... ," according to Kelly Boyer Saget, a freelance writer who lives west of Cleveland and has a passion for giving voice to people whose voices have been lost in time. "I encourage you to create character-driven plays because they tend to be more believable."

Plot-driven ones, on the other hand, may not necessarily coincide with the protagonist's personality strengths and weaknesses.

However, the two may not necessarily be mutually exclusive, since plot elements certainly unfold as a result of characters' decisions, yet events, especially those over which they have no control, can shape them and reveal their internal conflicts and other personality traits.

Two-dimensional characters can be fleshed out and can be perceived as "real people," but understanding what makes them tick and hence motivates or hinders them may not be entirely portrayed. Most people have one or more dominant personality traits and a few idiosyncrasies. The playwright and author of any other genre, for that matter, should never lose sight of the fact that there never has been nor ever will be a "perfect" human being on the planet, since no one is in a state of permanence or perfection in physical form on it. Therefore, trying to create one will result in a false representation no reader or audience spectator will ever believe.

Characters, particularly dramatized ones on stage, are brought to life through actions, mannerisms, expressions, dialogue, and interactions.

They should be complex and these complexities should be deep-rooted in childhood, often existing in dormant, but gradually revealed scenes and through their behaviors and attitudes. The true nature of a person is most accurately illustrated when he is confronted with a conflict, crisis, or adversity.

When characters first appear on stage, they do so only physically. During the remainder of the play, however, their actions and dialogue should reveal what lurks behind their facades.

"Stereotypes are not interesting," according to Sossaman (op. cit., p. 23). "The unique is interesting. The unusual is interesting. Uncommon combinations of interests and ideas are interesting. Combinations of strengths and weaknesses are interesting. Contradictions and inconsistences, if plausible, are interesting."


A play's main characters usually include the protagonist and antagonist.

The first, the protagonist, can be considered the main or central character-the one around whom the story revolves and the one who, through an inciting incident, sets the play's plot in motion and ultimately leads to its climax, resolution, and conclusion.

The second, the antagonist, is the person or even the circumstances that oppose him, providing hurdles and conflicts he must overcome to reach his goal.

Since few events in real life occur in a vacuum, support characters in a play consist of those who are instrumental in the story.


Since motivations fuel a protagonist's and even an antagonist's actions, understanding what they do is vital to creating and illustrating authentic, believable people. Integral to the former's quest toward a goal is the burning question that initiates it.

"... You should understand enough about your characters' world to have a question you know you want to answer," wrote Kelly Boyer Saget (op. cit.). "Identifying that burning question helps you stay on track as you write your play, serving as your guiding light."

In order to accurately illustrate this dynamic, the playwright should be cognizant of several facts.

Every character has a major motivation or objective.

Each may also have one or more minor ones. If a person's major objective is to drive to work after a snowstorm, for example, his minor ones may entail shoveling the driveway, clearing the windshield, and leaving early because he anticipates increased traffic.

Characters may not necessarily fully understand their motivations as the play's plot unfolds.

Motivations can have more than a single level or reason, only the most superficial one of which may be apparent to the character. He may, for instance, cite the reason behind his quest to achieve high grades as the need to be accepted into a prestigious university or attain a high-paying position, but his deeper motivation may be the self-esteem he seeks or the desire to please and prove himself to the parent who never praised or validated him during his upbringing.


A plot can be considered a play's story, subdivided into acts and scenes. It is the illustration and demonstration of the characters' journey from curtain rise to curtain fall, and entails their actions, dialogue, interactions, and even songs and dances if the production is a musical. Like a chain, the plot's events are linked by cause-and-effect, each cause sparking a consequent or succeeding action.

Plots themselves can contain two elements.

Suspense, the first of these, keeps the viewers interested, as they await the outcome. It contains apparent action and dialogue.

Emotion, the second, may not be directly stated, but it involves the human condition elements that fuel and play out during the plot's sequence of events.

Because of time and interest, not all events are enacted. If a scene ends with an executive seeking a higher position within his company, for instance, the interview and efforts he undertakes to achieve it do not necessarily have to be demonstrated. Instead, the next scene could involve a relative recradlling a telephone receiver and saying, "Martha, I have wonderful news. That was William. He was just accepted for the vice presidency position."

"Oh, I'm so happy for him," she could respond.


Several plot elements, as perhaps already alluded to, are integral to a play's story.

The inciting incident implies the action or circumstance that shatters the stasis or status quo of the characters' lives, creating a change and a new goal. It can be considered the spark that ignites the story and sets the plot in motion.

The moment the incident has occurred, usually in the middle of the characters' daily, routine lives, can be used as the play's opening. Inciting incidents, which must be integral to the person's life, are numerous, including the diagnosis of a fatal illness or the firing from a job or the discovery that a spouse has been secretly involved with someone else.

The production's dramatic question can be considered the quandary that synopsizes the journey, such as "Will doctors cure me in time so that I can enjoy my inheritance or will I die before I receive it?"

Tension, particularly in a drama, must continually rise, as one event leads to another, moving the plot toward its resolution and the answer to the dramatic question itself. Suspense increases as the climax nears.

Circumstances, antagonists, delays, and unexpected events, as occur in real life, create the complications and obstacles that impede the dramatic question's successful answer and serve as tension and suspense creators.

As the events reach a fever pitch, so, too, does the play reach its crisis. Will the dramatic question be answered and will the protagonist's goal be reached?

The climax marks the crucial moment when the outcome is revealed.

The denouement, or falling action, follows the pinnacle of tension. The spectators unwind, their questions have been answered, and they slowly emerge from the dream or alter-reality of the staged world, achieving resolution, closure, and satisfaction. The play's last line can be particularly important if it is resonant, since it can leave the audience with something to ponder, consider, and take away, especially if it is relevant to their own lives, such as "How important is success when it's achieved at the expense of others?"


Most contemporary plays are subdivided into two acts, with an interspersed intermission. Shorter plays of, say, an hour in duration, generally have only a single one. While most adhere to the former format, the first of the two acts is usually a little longer than the second of the two and should have, if at all possible, a logical point, or even subclimax, that precedes a new set of circumstances. Intermission is usually scheduled there.

"A new character's entrance immediately before the end of the act helps keep your audience interested during the intermission, as do that act's last lines... if they offer a surprise, a new development, or another new cause of tension," according to Sossaman (op. cit., p. 42).


A scene usually coincides with a change in time and/or place. The latter can also entail a set change. Scenes, which are integral elements of the play's overall plot and can be considered its necessary stepping stones, usually contain the aspects of the traditional story arc-that is, conflict, rising action, crisis, climax, and denouement.

Each major character in each scene should have an objective toward which his dialogue and actions lead.

In order to eliminate unnecessary aspects and reduce the length of each one, however, the playwright should begin them at their crucial points. Instead of having characters inquire as to how they are feeling and commenting that the weather "is getting a little nippy," for example, they should jump into the issues, as in "Did you hear from the lawyer about the estate?"


The playwright must provide information concerning the physical elements of his work, which theaters will use if it is produced.

The set, of course, is the physical location or locations in which a play's scenes take place. They can include a living room, a restaurant, a park, an office.

The props, such as furniture and trees, are the elements required to recreate the scenes, but they can also include lighting and costumes. The director will most likely take a great deal of license in determining the optimum scene-applicable atmosphere based upon availability, budget, and stage size.

"Stage locations, (another element), have different levels of importance and power," according to Sossaman. "For example, the center of the stage has more energy than upstage areas."

While the playwright should include pertinent stage directions, yet another aspect, the director will assuredly take the helm here.


Dialogue, as in most other genres, serves numerous purposes in a play: it reveals character, portrays mood or emotional state, demonstrates and changes according to character's relationships to each other, provides exposition, and foreshadows events.


Before the playwright captures his first word, still with an initial idea in mind, he must consider whether the play it leads to is applicable for stage production or if it would be more suitable to other genres, such as a short story or a novel.

In order to be appropriate for a stage, it should be theatrical in nature or offer some degree of human conflict between two or more people. It should additionally include emotion to emphasize its dramatic element, as well as containing a spectacle so that its visually embracing elements grip viewers. Any idea or theme it attempts to portray should explore some aspect of the human condition.

Some ideas or themes, despite logic to the contrary, are not always understood by the playwright, but his sheer exploration of them through stage enactment and can shed light on them.

"One of the great pleasures of writing, helping to compensate for its difficulty, is the joy of discovery," according to Sossaman (Ibid, p. 76). "Writers discover what they have to say by writing, not before writing. For this reason, you will probably benefit most from writing about an important matter that you haven't quite figured out yet."


Ten steps can be helpful in planning, plotting, and writing a play for a stage production.

1). Transform an idea into a plot that can be reproduced on stage.

2). Be cognizant of the need for a conflict.

3). Choose a working or final title.

4). Stories can be transferred into plots by subdividing them into their major events.

5). Select a protagonist or main character.

6). Identify the dramatic question---that is, the question that the audience hopes to have answered by the end of the play.

7). Determine the inciting incident that launches the plot.

8). Subdivide the plot into scenes and determine the one in which the crisis will occur.

9). Based upon the number of scenes, determine the number of sets required.

10). Finally, write your first draft.


Unlike prose, which contains paragraph formatting, dialogue encapsulated by quotation marks, dialogue tags, such as "John said," and expository writing, scripts for plays appear with capitalized names of the speaker centered and placed after skipped lines. A line should also be skipped between it and the dialogue of the speaker to which it refers.

Director and other information, which appears in italics, is minimal in detail and not necessarily in complete sentences.

Article Sources:

Dorf, Jonathan. "Playwriting 101."

Sossaman, Stephen. "Writing Your First Play." Saddle River, New Jersey: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 2001.

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