Writing a play takes time and effort. It requires patience, perseverance and a thick skin when feedback/criticism starts knocking. It’s seldom rewarding until the hundredth hour—and even if the piece you finish is incredible, there’s no guarantee that anybody will see it. So why do it? Because it’s a uniquely rewarding experience, one that challenges you to think big thoughts and betters you as an actor, an artist a human being. If we haven’t scared you off already, let’s talk about how to write a play.
If you want to learn how to write a play, start writing and keep writing. All the elements you require—resonant themes, a compelling story world, distinct characters and a good plot—are secondary to the importance of pushing through your first draft from beginning to end. And no matter how terrible the play might read, once it’s written down you can begin the process of editing, fixing and refining. It only gets better from there.
In this article, we’ll take you through the steps of how to write a play. We’re going to skip over some of the basics you might find elsewhere—such as how to structure the perfect three-act plot—and focus on the inch-by-bloody-inch battle that is putting words on a page. Every time you spill some ink, you’re improving the skill of writing. And no matter how difficult, all skills can be learned and improved.
Updated 12th Feb, 2024.
Before You Begin Writing
Before you begin writing, think about the following questions. These are the kinds of ideas that will help ground you and grant you momentum when you first begin. Sometimes, your answer to these questions will be “I don’t know yet.” That’s okay: as long as you discover them at some point during the process. At this point, with a blank page in front of you and a Herculean task ahead, take whatever you can grab.
“What’s your play about?”
An awful question. Why on earth did we start here? Because one day you’ll be pitching it to a theatre company, or a producer, or applying for a grant and you’ll need to know. What’s more, you’ll need to sum it up in a sentence or two.
Sometimes you’ll have a vague idea: “Well, it’s sort of about my father…” “It’s based on a fairy tale but it’s kinda modern…” “Um, politics?” Again, that’s okay for now. But as you go through this process, try to find and refine an answer to this question. It’ll ensure that your final product speaks confidently and completely about something.
And remember: the more things a play is about, the less it tends to say about them.
“Who is your audience?”
Who is going to respond to your play? What demographic will be interested in the themes you’re going to explore? And what kind of experience will they have: will they be entertained, amused, shocked, confronted? While you don’t want to pigeon-hole yourself into writing for one group, it’s a good idea to think about who you want your play to resonate with, and what their experience might be.
If you’re unsure, you can never go wrong writing something for yourself: something you’d like to see and you’d hold to the highest possible standards. What’s lacking in the industry? Where might you find a gap in which your work can ‘sit’?
“Where are you hoping this play will go?”
Do you want it to be programmed by a major theatre company? Do you want to submit it to a writing award? Do you want it to be adapted into a feature film, or published and put in libraries? If you want to produce it yourself in the indie space, it’s good to think about that pathway early on—just so you don’t come up with a plot that requires 20 gold-plated elephants.
For first-time writers, approaching independent theatre companies is a great way to get your work noticed. Are there companies in your city that respond to this kind of play you’re writing? (See? Already we need to know what the play is about.) Pay attention to your local theatre scene.
How to Write a Play: The Bare Essentials
For all the planning and scheming, there comes a point where it’s time to write. Here’s the bare essentials on how to write a play:
- Think up a character. They can be simple or complex, good or evil, happy or sad, tall or short. At this point, who/what they are is a lower priority than what you’re about to give them: an objective that involves another person.
- Take that other person and turn them into a second character in the scene. Give them their own objective, something that clashes with the wants and needs of the first character.
- Start writing dialogue (and stage directions) with this as your golden rule: everything a character says or does has to push them towards them achieving their objective. If there’s no conflict, there’s no drama. If they achieve what they want, they have to want more or something else.
That’s it. That is, in its purest form, all drama written in the last few thousand years. Story world, subplots, setting, characterisation: these all work to support the primary drive of the play which is a person wants something and sets out to achieve it. And this is not to say that your work can’t be complex and contain multiple characters and timelines and worlds … but it all has to be driven by want.
Keep Your Characters Active
The desire of a character is what makes them interesting to an audience. Without a drive t0 fulfil this desire, without actively seeking out that which they want, audiences tend to have a hard time connecting with a character. No matter how impressive their backstory or clever their dialogue might be.
So at all times, keep your character ‘active’: keep them pursuing rather than responding (‘passive’). When things happen to them by external influence, or the actions of another character, don’t dwell on their emotions—think about what they plan to do about the way they feel. The great David Mamet said the three most important words for a playwright are: “What happens next?”
Find Distinct Character Voices
Once you have your characters fighting for what they want, pursuing their goals and bringing your world to life, find the differences in how they pursue their objectives. This will distinguish one character’s way of communicating from another. As they don’t operate in the same way, they won’t all end up sounding identical.
As an exercise, print out a page of your script with multiple characters and cover the names up. Can you still tell who says what? Or do they all sound the same? Remember that your character will pursue their wants differently based on factors such as personality, background and social standing. The more work you can do to build your character, the more nuanced your understanding will be.
Tell a Story, and Plot will Emerge
You might have noticed that we’ve said very little about plot. That’s because a lot of first-time playwrights get hung up on it. They’ll sketch out a character arc for weeks or months, plastering corkboards with post-its to determine exactly what goes on. But plot comes best when it unfolds due to the actions and efforts of characters. If your characters are fighting for objectives, the plot will be there.
If you’re working a more ambitious piece, or something non-linear/abstract, you may find it helpful to do more plotting. Indeed, we’re not here to tell you not to spend time on the narrative arc if that will make you feel more confident. But all plot can be related back to action/reaction of characters: who does what, how that impacts others and how they, in turn plan their next move.
Know Your First Few Seconds
Make you first scene an absolute banger. Get your reader, director, audience—whoever—involved and hooked from the get-go. Screenwriter/playwright Aaron Sorkin has a great knack for this: he likes to drop his audiences into the middle of a conversation, forcing them to sit up and take notice. You want to know what’s going on? Catch up!
One of the most over-used words by first-time playwrights is “Hello.” Don’t start scenes with characters being pleasant and talking about the weather. Take us straight into the action! And then never let us go.
The Drafting Process
Everything we’ve included so far is designed to get you to fulfil one goal: finishing draft number one. This is the most important part of the process, the thing that makes all the following steps easier and the whole damn experience worth it. After you finish the first draft of your play, your priority can switch to making what’s already there even better: by reading, refining, adding or cutting. Let’s break down the purpose of each draft you’ll make:
The First Draft
It’ll be messy. It’ll be too long. It won’t always make sense and it should never be seen by anyone else than you. But it exists: your play exists! And you’ll love it. The first draft should put everything you’ve thought of on the page. This will be your template for revisions, and the version you can always return to if you worry you’re losing your way.
The best piece of advice I was ever given about writing was also the hardest to follow: don’t revise your play until you finish the first draft. Ideally, you shouldn’t even read it back until you complete it! If you do, you’ll notice the things that don’t work, the things you’ve soured on our sobered up about. Resist the temptation to revise until the next iteration. Write until it’s done.
The Second Draft
Here’s where you start fixing things. Start by cutting anything unnecessary—superfluous scenes, overly flowery descriptions, ‘clever’ lines by the character that add nothing. Most problems will be solved by either removing things or swapping scenes/lines/plots around. Try not to add too much to what is already there: this usually leads to further complications rather than greater clarity.
Stephen King once claimed that all second drafts should be 10 percent shorter. It’s terrific advice when your goal is to refine the good ideas you’ve planted in your original writing efforts. Trust in the ideas that put you to work in the first place.
The Third Draft
Your third draft is the one you show other people: the version of your story with the plot holes plugged and the bad stuff (mostly) removed. Start with a trusted friend who gives useful feedback. Then, industry folk, or your acting peers. You could even organise a development or reading with people you know—it can be invaluable to actually hear the thing out loud.
Be ready for criticism, and for people to catch the problems with the play you’re yet to solve, or even notice. As you hear about what a terrible job you’ve done and how you should just give up, remember that whatever form criticism takes … the people telling you want you to succeed, and believe in the work enough to say so. There’s nothing more telling than sending a person your latest play, only to hear a half-assed “Good job!”
The Fourth Draft (And so on…)
The drafting process lasts as long as you want it to, for as many versions as required. After your first few plays, you’ll find that Draft Four or Five is usually all you’ll need. If you identify something to change or add in your third draft, try to fix it with minimal disruption to the rest of the text. Be surgical in your precision.
Know Your Voice
It’s incredible how much a playwright’s voice is able to carry over to stage, even with multiple actors portraying the story. This is because a playwright not only speaks through characters, but through the themes they explore, the stories they craft, the worlds they build. Your ‘voice’ as a writer is always there—as long as you are the one typing it all out. And the more practice you have, the more you will learn to trust that voice, and the instinct that comes from developing a skill through practice and focus.
For that reason, we’re leaving you with this: keep writing. Write great plays, write terrible ones. Write what you know, and write something so far away from your everyday existence you feel like an interloper. Just keep it up, and you’re bound to find something truly special.