Practical Playwrighting

When writing your first play you’ll often get swept up in your own intensity as you make headway into your first artistic endeavour, which is all very well and good, until you have to hand it over to someone else and they have to make sense of all your scribblings.

Practical playwrighting is the cornerstone of any successful playwright’s career as they understand that they don’t just write for themselves – to get people to read your work you better try your hardest to make it easily digestible for them.

When I say easy to digest I don’t mean that the content itself needs to be as straightforward as possible – if you want to write yourself a 120-page mind-fuck you’re very welcome to do so – I mean that when your initial reader picks up the play they will be baffled if you fail to put any effort in when it comes to presentation.

Presentation goes a long way into making your play look as professional as possible, try to make any additional details you include as uncomplicated as possible. Here are some key ingredients for your play that you should put a lot of thought into when it comes down to the showing-draft.

Title Page

Overlooked by many because it might seem pretentious, but I would argue that every draft of your play needs its own title page – especially as it helps to keep track of which draft number is which if you add a helpful note at the bottom. Include the name of the play, your name, draft number and your contact details. Making it clear from the very start exactly what it is the person is looking at is the cornerstone of practical playwrighting.

Cast List

Including a cast list is vital for your play as it helps give the reader something to refer back to, though it pays to be sparing with details. If your character list reads more like an extended biography, where you pin point every meal your character has ever had whilst simultaneously explaining why their mother never really loved them, then you’ve gone too far.

Keeping the bare bones of character details in key here, so including objective truths is often the best way forward: “Lindsay. 29. Zoologist”. Details relevant to the script should also be incorporated here, so if on page 50 someone calls Lindsay a ‘ginger prick’ then you better think to include this character’s red-headedness within the cast list.

Action Keys

This is personal preference more than an absolute rule, but if your script contains action keys, for example, a dash (-) at the end of a sentence indicating an interruption by the other character, then make this clear before your play starts. Nicely bookend your ‘Key’ section between your cast list and your plays beginning.

Stage Directions

These truly are an art form. For better or worse, gone are the days of the long, meandering stage directions from plays – you’re welcome to try and bring them back into fashion, but many have tried and failed in the wake of Noel Coward and Arthur Miller. With your stage directions, treat them as if they are being spoken by an omniscient narrator within your play, the best playwrights manage to achieve a subtle sense of personality within their stage directions. Don’t ever waste a word, either, the words should be pure poetry so you must be as precise as possible.

Formatting

Everybody yawns anytime script formatting gets brought up in conversation, but if you don’t manage to nail down the format of your play then it will simply be unreadable. Use the BBC guides for formatting for tips on how to do it yourself if you want to get in touch with your practical playwrighting side. But if you’re lazy, like me, you’ll find that scriptwriting software, such as Final Draft or Fade In, will help do all the work for you – so you can concentrate on the much more important things.

Tom Chivers

The Founder of How To Do Theatre, Tom is heavily involved in all aspects of this online theatre magazine and wants to help create a fantastic resource for everyone who may need it. He is also a graduate of the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse Young Writers course so when not writing for this website he is off scribbling plays of his own.