How Do I Start Writing a Play? | Tips for Beginning a New Work for Stage

How Do I Start Writing a Play?

Written by on | Acting Industry

This article is going to kick things off with a few assumptions about you, dear reader. It’s going to assume that you’ve got a killer idea for a play in your head. Fantastic! It’s also going to assume that the prospect of writing a full-length stage play is somewhat daunting. Now: you’re not wrong. But lucky for you, StageMilk is here to help. Let’s answer the question of “How do I start writing a play?”

To start writing a play, you need a solid idea in mind, anchored by characters with clear and achievable goals. Unlike film, formatting is yours to determine—although it should be as simple and elegant as possible. As with any writing task, ensure you have adequate time and energy to embark on the project, as well as a goal in mind for the finished product.

This is the second article in our series on starting writing projects, which rightfully acknowledge how damn awful it is to begin the process. Be sure to check out “How Do I Start Writing a Short Film?” for more tips on improving your writing skills and getting projects going on the right foot.

What You’ll Need to Write a Play

Before you start typing away, let’s talk about the equipment and set-up required for writing a play. Something we’re going to keep addressing in this article is the fact that playwriting doesn’t have one hundredth the rules of screenwriting. That’s not to say you shouldn’t approach with consideration, and a system in mind.

Equipment

Write on a computer: laptop or desktop. Yes, you’re not bound to screenwriting software like Final Draft, and you could technically do your first pass of the script with crayons and legal pads. But even using Google Docs will ensure that your editing process for subsequent drafts is far less of a headache.

If you’re the kind of writer who likes taking notes and making plans with post-its, that’s totally fine! But digitise as much of this as possible, so that you can take your work travelling if needed and aren’t bound by a cork-board in your home office.

Space

The ideal writing space depends on your and your personality; whether it’s public or private, zen-like or pumping with black metal, develop a space that feels right and comfortable for you.

One piece of advice we’ll repeat from our screenwriting article is this: ensure that your chosen space is used solely for writing. Don’t sit on your bed, or go to a favourite café you reserve for long, indulgent breakfasts. Pick a space you can arrive at to write and leave when you’re done—a designated creative zone.

Time

Another important factor for any writing project: set aside dedicated time to write. Mark it in a diary or on a calendar and render that time sacred. If you don’t take it seriously, nobody else will.

As plays unfold on the page with more freedom than a formatted film script, you may like to set yourself a slightly more ambitious page-a-day target. This can actually encourage the flow of ideas in a scene and get your characters really talking and interacting. You can always cut the superfluous stuff later.

Goals

Writing any project at all is easier with a set goal in mind: before you start writing a play, think about where you might take it and what purpose it might serve.

There aren’t as many opportunities to submit plays for online competitions like there are short films. However, you probably have a chance of sending the play to an indie theatre with a mind to getting it produced—at the very least read in front of an audience. If you are an actor writing a vehicle for yourself, a live reading of an original work is a great way to network and self-promote.

Ways to Start Writing a Play

Let’s assume you have an idea strong enough that it’s set you on this path. A lot of would-be writers pause proceedings at this juncture to plot out their story. While this can be helpful in solving plot problems, post-its on a wall do not equate actual writing: that can only be measured by words on the page.

Your goal should be to get to the end of a first draft, no matter how terrible it might seem in the moment. Words written down are worth a thousand times more than good ideas kinda floating around … if they aren’t perfect, keep on writing and label it a “second draft problem.”

#1 Know The World of the Play

If you’re stuck on how to begin your play, spend some time thinking where it’s set. Is there a single, prominent location where most of the action takes place? How do you make that place feel alive, and important to the journeys of your characters? Of course, you are allowed multiple locations in a play. But each one has to count for something and feel real—and too many tends to make a play feel like it was intended as a movie but the producer couldn’t raise the budget.

A common mistake for inexperienced playwrights is to speak too much about action or events happening off-stage. If you’re writing a play set at a house party and all the interesting stuff keeps happening back in the kitchen/laundry area … maybe the play is better set back there. Set your play where the drama can unfold in the moment, right there in front of the audience.

#2 Characters

Here’s how Western theatre has worked for the past few thousand years: Character A walks onto stage (the protagonist) and says their piece. Character B (the antagonist) walks out and disagrees. This creates conflict, which is the essence of all drama.

All good plays are driven by characters with wants. So if you’re stuck on how to begin your play, drop two characters onto the stage and give them conflicting objectives: goals that clash with one another. If a character’s goal is weak or unclear, it’ll show immediately, as they’ll lack the drive to move your story along. Consider adjusting the wants of your characters until they either conflict, or push the action in a more exciting, high-stakes direction.

This is especially important for secondary characters. Most writers have an understanding of what plagues their heroes and villains. However, every character needs to feel complete—and in pursuit of their own individual goals.

#3 Line By Line

Plot is good. Plot is important. Working on plot can feel incredibly helpful to the writing process, as you feel like you’re solving problems that might stump you down the line. However, plot doesn’t necessarily help getting words on the page.

Sometimes the sheer vastness, the ambition of a large story to tell, can paralyse an aspiring writer before they’ve even begun. So when you start writing a play, take the action line by line, bird by bird. What does character A say (or do) to achieve their objective? What does character B say (or do) in response, to further their own goal?

#4 Start Where It Gets Good

Start your play where things get interesting. That’s pretty much all of the advice, here. It’s very easy to think that time spent with characters before an inciting incident helps the audience get to know them, to sympathise with them. The truth is: characters are best discovered on the journey, not before it.

Playwright and screenwriter Aaron Sorkin talks about his love of dropping an audience right into the middle of a scene—forcing them to engage and ‘catch up’. (This always makes me think of that brilliant opening scene of The Social Network, and how quickly you are forced to acclimatise to the pace of the film and its characters.)

How late can you bring your audience into the narrative so that it still makes sense?

#5 Stage Directions

When you start writing a play, keep your stage directions minimal. The impulse is often to use a block of italicised text to set up the world and give the reader an idea of what they’ll see on stage. Unfortunately, this tends to bog down writer and reader alike with unnecessary details.

What’s the main difference between a screenplay and a stageplay? If you write a screenplay well enough to get it noticed and optioned and filmed … it becomes obsolete. The film becomes the definitive document, like a house from a blueprint. This is not true with a play, which will be produced (hopefully) hundreds of times over hundreds of years, in new and exciting ways.

So plan for longevity: don’t get slowed by details of how the stage will look, when you want directors for centuries to realise your words in new and exciting ways. Find those characters, find their wants, and let the drama unfold.

Just Keep Writing

When I was at drama school, my writing teacher made us follow a punishing strategy for developing drafts. We weren’t allowed to read the script back until it was done. Not so much as a glance until the whole story was told. This produced some interesting things in a screenplay I was developing, including a roommate who left for the kitchen area and never came back…

But it’s a great technique, and one to use if you’re feeling brave. The roommate disappeared from the face of the script because I didn’t need him. If he was so important, he’d have come back and furthered the story along!

Any any sense: just keep writing. Resist the temptation to go back and edit what you’ve already written once you have a few pages stashed away. You’ll stop adding new material or, and spend your designated writing time tinkering with what you have.

Done! Now to Drafting…

Your first draft of anything should be followed by a huge celebration and a week’s break from the project. After a pause in proceedings, you can read what you’ve written and the drafting process can begin.

Drafting is not the focus of this article, as it’s a topic unto itself. But keep in mind that future drafts will strengthen what you’re writing when you begin your play. Not everything needs to be neat, polished, refined, researched or necessarily coherent when you’re focusing on getting words out and onto the page.

As long as you take the time to address problems later on with the time and effort that your work deserves, the first draft of your play is allowed to be a little bit thin here and there. Realistically, it’s something that you and only you will ever see.

Conclusion

Writing anything is a serious challenge, and something every artist and actor should aspire to do. But while it does require extreme effort on the part of the would-be scribe, it’s not some magical gift that is bestowed on some and not others.

Writing is a skill. And all skills can be learned with time and patience and a good work ethic. And while it’s not necessarily the most fun thing ever when you’re in the thick of character/plot/emotional woes … it’s extremely satisfying to see a good story come together. And that’s before you even start to share it with others.

Just keep writing.

Good luck!

Additional Resources

Finally, take a look at some additional writing resources here on StageMilk:

About the Author

Alexander Lee-Rekers

Alexander Lee-Rekers is a Sydney-based writer, director and educator. He graduated from NIDA in 2017 with a Masters in Writing for Performance, and his career across theatre and television has seen him tackling projects as diverse as musical theatre, Shakespeare and Disney. He is the co-founder of theatre company Ratcatch (The Van De Maar Papers, The Linden Solution) and co-director of Bondi Kids Drama, a boutique drama school offering classes to young people in the Eastern Suburbs. Alexander is drawn to themes of family, ambition, failure and legacy: how human nature can flit with ease between compassion and cruelty. He also likes Celtic fiddle, mac & cheese and cats.

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