Tips for Playwrights

Dramatic Versus Narrative
Aristotle said, "All plays must be written in a dramatic, not in a narrative form."  There is a huge difference.  Narrative writing tells us something, whereas dramatic writing shows us something.  Here's an example from THE ART OF THE PLAYWRIGHT
by Bill Packard.  "A drunk is sitting in a bar and starts telling the audience the story of his life - anecdote after anecdote about how he has been misunderstood by everyone.  The stories are amusing and they illustrate the point that he has ended up hopeless and alone."  A fine example of Narrative Writing, since all the information comes through the telling.  But, "same drunk at the bar, doesn't say a word, takes a bottle and sends it smashing into the wall" is an example of Dramatic Writing, because we see the story.  The rule for playwrights is thus, DON'T TELL US - SHOW US.  Narrative writing always tells us something that happened in the past; Dramatic Writing always shows us something happening right now.  The problem for playwrights usually surfaces when writing Stage Directions:

Stage Directions

These "notes" are for directors, actors, and designers.  They do not go directly to the audience, as if they were to have a copy of the script at the performance.  Therefore, you only should put information in them that can be realized by actors in front of an audience.  It would be valuable to write, "John enters from the door, sits at the desk, and writes a letter."  An actor can do that so that the audience can see it.  But to write, "John enters and sits down, thinking about his long lost puppy, Fluffy, and wonders how they ever got separated," will only confuse the director.  How can an audience see his thinking?  Why not just have him say to an entering character, "I was just thinking about my lost puppy, Fluffy.  I wonder how we ever got separated."  Then, the audience will hear the idea through the dialogue.   So, don't assume you can write into stage directions what a novelist would write about a setting or a character.  Write in stage directions only ACTIONS that actors can do.  Any subtleties of relationship or character must go into the dialogue.

Dramatic Action

Action is someone wanting something.  Action is the strong objective that someone has in a beat or scene or act of a play.   Actions and characters run into obstacles.  Dramatic conflict begins when someone wants something but there is an obstacle (a strong resistance, an impediment, or another character's action).

Sense Memory and the Playwright:

By using vivid and concrete details, all writers allow their readers (or audiences) to experience the world more closely.
Train your own senses to be more aware of the details in the world around you.  In fact, the fear that you have nothing to write about can easily be dismissed by always choosing to simply go further into depth at moments you feel blocked.  Giving more details about a situation always draws the audience in.

In Marsha Norman's "Night Mother," we are immediately drawn into Mama's world as we watch her reaching for a Snowball (the sickeningly sweet version in plastic wrap).  We also get a clear glimpse of what Mama is all about in this "tightly drawn portrait" of a moment with the character.


Robert Hall writes, "There must be a character who wants something and who undertakes action to achieve that intention.  A hindrance to this intention creates conflict, which can be within the character, an object outside of the character, or another character."
If your scenes have conflict, then they should be able to answer the following evaluation questions positively:


The hardest task for the playwright is to write believable dialogue that reflects the world, the situation, and the character.  Develop your ear for how people speak.  Listen for the varied rates that people use, the pitch quality in their voices, and how each determines emphasis in their words differently.  Most importantly, try to indentify the tone of each speaker (Tired?  Angry?  Whiny?  Passionate?  Sarcastic?, etc.) and learn to incorporate a single tone to give focus for each of your characters.  Actors will love you.
When you re-read your scenes, ask yourself if the dialogue sounds like people actually talking, whether the language is appropriate for the characters in the scene, and whether the characters talk differently?  These are three essentail qualities of good dialogue.