What's the Secret to Writing a Great Play?

by Troy M. Hughes
The Internet Writing Journal, August 1997

Blanche DuBois says, "I've always depended on the kindness of strangers." Linda Loman advises us that "Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person." As readers, theatre patrons, or moviegoers, we all know these lines. They seem so simple, yet their power and relevance have not diminished in hundreds of performances over the many years since Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller penned them.

Why? What is it that makes a great play great? Characters? Plots? Wisdom? Honesty?

It is all of these things and, of course, more.
"Avoid idealizing characters. The ideal person does not exist. Hamlet was a great guy. But let's admit it, the man had a problem making decisions."
But when we sit down with a play in mind, how do we put it to paper effectively? How, when the last page is done, do we know if we have a viable piece of work? While ultimately, this is subjective, there are many ways to approach writing a play which will facilitate finding out whether or not you achieved your goal of writing a great play.

First of all, as in all things, you must know your medium: the theatre. If you are a constant movie watcher, don't write plays. Even the largest stage cannot accommodate car chases and explosions.

And, for Heaven's sake, actually go see a play!

To write truly effective theatre, you must immerse yourself in the medium. Go to your local community theatre and volunteer to work backstage, or even just go to watch some rehearsals. Learn the limitations of space and live action; there are many. Learn that less is often more in the theatre. Learn that Johnny cannot turn into a werewolf in 5 minutes during a play; the make-up people will entertain murderous thoughts towards you, and it is highly unlikely that it can be done that quickly. Learn to give Johnny a good amount of time for his transformation. Use the intermission, or write plenty of good scenes in between. The more you know about theatre before you sit down to write your play, the better equipped you will be to begin.

In playwriting, less truly is more. Take a look at the Plays section of The Writers Market. A high percentage of the guidelines listed in this useful resource call for plays with only four to six characters: a very small number. Many of the companies buying rights to original plays are ensemble groups with a small core of actors -- and small budgets.

You will want to write small, as well. Think in terms of a singular setting. Consider some of the best plays of all time: Death of a Salesman, The Glass Menagerie, and Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? All of these plays take place in a single setting: one room, or one unchanging collection of rooms. Keep in mind the unities of Time, Place and Action. While theatrical aesthetics may change over time, you will find that people still love a play that begins at the beginning and proceeds in a linear fashion through to the end. Writing multiple scene changes, 10-year gaps in time and action will alienate your audience; they want to get to know and care about your characters.

Imagine hearing of a friend's crisis when it happens, then hearing only of the aftermath at a much later date. You have been "left hanging", wondering whatever happened. What was the resolution of the tragedy? You move on and later find out the ending. You would have missed primary developmental moments in your friend's life. He/she would be a different person, and you might not feel comfortable with them or, at the least, it would take awhile to catch up on past events. The same thing happens to theatre audiences. You only have a couple of hours. Don't waste them by alienating your audience with flashbacks, large time gaps, and other devices that are better suited to film or novels.

You now have characters, a setting, and an incredible idea for a plot. How do you start? Where do you start? Successful plays often start in the middle of something. In Tennessee Williams' short play The Lady of Larkspur Lotion we find our protagonist confronted by her landlady on the first page. The landlady is demanding the rent. This is an excellent device for introducing conflict and exposition. In the first moments of this play we learn about the landlady, the protagonist, and their relationship. The bonus is that we are immediately propelled into the action. People have to be interested in what is happening to really hear what you want to say. Get your audience into the action quickly and keep them there.

Characterization is crucial. Always remember that motivation is the key to strong characterization. Your characters must have a strong want or need that will enable them to take risks to get what they desire. Profile your characters before writing, so that you know them intimately. Avoid "author intrusion": imposing your will as an author on your characters. As a writer, you are in essence creating a life. Just as you would with your own children, you must allow them to be themselves. Always ask yourself, "Would my character really speak or behave that way?" You must not interfere with your characters' pursuit of their goals.

To test your dialogue, get to know some actors and ask them to read your work aloud. A good actor has a sense of character, and will tell you if what is on the page "feels right". You may not agree, however, the experience definitely will be useful. A play must be heard to really be understood. Hearing your words come to life will tell you whether or not you achieved what you had in mind.

In order to develop a character with a mind and a distinctive sense of self, you must know all there is to know about her/him. You must know where the character lives and why. What does he or she do for a living? Is the character educated? Age, religious beliefs, political leanings, and social behavior are all parts of a person. These items may not be revealed in the final work, but a strong character study enables you to create a round and dimensional character. Think of all the influences and experiences in your own life that brought you to where you are today. Every one affected you, and affects you still. This may require a great deal of research. You may need to write a character that is agoraphobic, while you intensely enjoy the outdoors and the company of others. You cannot be every character you write. While I believe that a piece of us resides in every character we develop, we are not effective if we write ourselves.

Avoid idealizing characters. The ideal person does not exist. Hamlet was a great guy. But let's admit it, the man had a problem making decisions. Othello trusted the wrong man; he had bad judgment. Don't be afraid of giving your characters a flaw, or even two. After all, nobody is perfect.

In my estimation, a good play says something to humanity about humanity. Family, love, death: these are things we all deal with and with which we identify. The pyrotechnics and helicopters of the large-scale musical theatre production have their place and are entertaining, but I still believe in the essential human desire to be touched and moved to catharsis. Read the play Night Mother, by Marsha Norman. It is a play with no intermission which takes us through a mother's struggle to convince her daughter not to commit suicide. It is cathartic in performance. People don't necessarily need to leave the theatre happy to have enjoyed the performance.

Finally, never forget the effectiveness of action. Think of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker, the story of Helen Keller. There is a very long non-verbal scene in Act II that is well-worth reviewing. Non-verbal action can reveal much about a character, as well as be intriguing to an audience. Look for it in plays you see, and use it in your writing.

As you know by now, writing is not easy. It can be a painful and trying experience, to say the least. But if you have the desire to be heard and a need to convey your vision, you will be successful. Remember to know your medium. Strive to write efficiently and from the heart. If a director can visualize your story and an actor wants to play the role, you will have an excellent chance of getting your play produced.

**Troy M. Hughes is a theatrical director and critic residing in the Detroit metropolitan area. His credits include: A Chorus Line, Broadway Bound, The Fantastiks, Ain't Misbehavin, Lend Me a Tenor, Pump Boys and Dinettes, and Eleemosynary.


Click here to return to the index of the August 1997 issue.

More from Writers Write