Theatre is a collaborative art form.
What that means is that a play, unlike a novel, short story or poem, is not meant to be read by one person, to stand alone based solely on the written words on a page. A play is meant to be performed by actors, directed (usually) by a director, to make use of the technical assistance of lights, sound, costumes, set, props and, possibly, special effects which are all created by designers. All of these people are meant to add their own visions to that of the playwright, finally creating a vision which encompasses all the creators which is what the audience finally sees.
Therefore, a play, as we usually think of it… that is, a script… is not a complete and finished product in and of itself. It is the foundation on which, the blueprint from which, the entire “play”, the theatrical event that the audience sees, is built.
A novelist has the luxury of description. That is s/he is free to use words to describe time, place, characters, relationships, even the inner thoughts of his characters. But the playwright, with the exception of a small amount of absolutely crucial stage directions (which most directors and actors use as a guide rather than and brief character or set descriptions here and there (which the audience never sees or hears except through the interpretation of the actors, directors and designers), must tell their story entirely through the use of dialogue. It is through this dialogue that the audience gets to know the characters, their relationships, what they think, what they do, what has come before to create the circumstances of the play. It is through this dialogue that the actions of the play are created, the plot is conveyed, the mood and style are defined. And all this while creating a unique voice for each character which, when combined, tell the story that the playwright wants to tell.
There are numerous things a playwright must accomplish when s/he writes: create a beginning, middle and end; create an arc of the action – that is the action must move from the beginning of the play to the end; create character arcs – each of the characters must move, change, evolve from the beginning of the play to the end; convey a mood, a style, a sense of time and place; convey vital expostitory information without it being obvious that s/he is doing so; establish the relationships between the character and the evolution of those relationships throughout the play. I believe the most vital of these is creating truthful, viable, believable characters since it is through these characters that all the rest is accomplished.
Most full length plays run about 2 hours (but that’s by no means a rule – there are 10 minute plays and plays that take 8 hours!). Most plays (nowadays) are written in 2-3 acts (again, not a rule – Shakespeare’s plays and others of his day are in 5 acts). Scenes encompass units of time and action that are more or less continuous. Scenes usually change when time, place or major characters change. Acts change usually when a major climax is reached (although there are other reasons and, again, there are no hard and fast rules).
As you can see, one of the reasons why it is so difficult to give a “brief overview” of techniques is that, while there are “rules”, this is an art, and the rules are as regularly broken as followed in pursuit of the best way to tell the story.
Parts of a Play
There are certain elements you’ll want to include if you want to make your play interesting and professional. One important concept to understand is the difference between the story and the plot. This difference is not always so easy to understand, however.
Story pertains to the things that really happen; it is the chain of events that take place according to a time sequence. Some of the story is fluff—it’s the filler that makes the drama interesting and keeps it flowing.
Plot refers to the skeleton of the story: the chain of events that shows causality. What does that mean?
A famous writer named E. M. Forester once clarified a plot and its relationship to causality by explaining:
“’The king died and then the queen died’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but their sense of causality overshadows it.”
The action and emotional ups and downs of a plot determine the plot type.
Plots have been classified in many ways, starting with the basic concept of comedies and tragedies used in ancient Greece. You can make up any type of plot, but a few examples might help you get started.
- Episodic: Episodic plots involve episodes: several events are linked together with each event or “episode” containing a possible climax.
- Rising Action: This plot contains a conflict, tension, and climax to resolve the conflict.
- Quest: This type involves an adventurer who sets off on a journey and reaches a goal.
- Transformation: In this variety of plot, a person changes character because of an experience.
- Revenge or Justice: In a revenge story, a bad thing happens, but eventually everything works out evenly.
The exposition is the part of the play (normally in the beginning) in which the writer “exposes” the background information that the audience needs to understand the story. It is an introduction to the setting and characters.
The dialogue of a play is the part that allows you to show your creativity. A play is carried along through conversations, called dialogue. Writing dialogue is a challenging task, but it is your chance to flaunt your artistic side.
Things to consider when writing dialogue are:
- Habits or accents that provide insight to the character
- Actions or behavior the character displays while talking
Many plots involve a struggle to make things interesting. This struggle or conflict can be anything from a concept in one person’s head to a battle between characters. Struggle can exist between good and evil, between one character and another, or between a dog and a cat.
If your story is going to have a conflict, it should also have complications that make the conflict even more interesting.
For instance, a struggle between a dog and a cat can be complicated by the fact that the dog falls in love with the cat. Or the fact that the cat lives in the house and the dog lives outside.
The climax happens when the conflict is resolved in some way. It is the most exciting part of a play, but the journey toward a climax can be choppy. A play can have a mini-climax, a setback, and then a bigger, final climax.
If you decide you enjoy the experience of writing scripts, you can go on to explore the art in college through elective or even major courses. There you will learn advanced practices and proper formatting for submitting a play for production some day