An Introduction to Playwriting


Writing for the stage can be fulfilling if the writer can accept that it is very different to novel writing.
Many writers never consider playwriting because they imagine the playwright to be a strange and effete beast, not to be compared to the vigorous novelist. In some cases the only time they have encountered stage drama is during school visits to see a Shakespeare standard, which they probably failed to understand.

This leaves a legacy of distrust for an art-form that can be both fulfilling and profitable. According to Neilsen Book Data the number of books published in the UK in 2009 was in excess of 130,000. Comparable figures aren’t easily available for performed or published plays but the assumption is that the number will be lower because people are more liable to read a book than visit a theatre.

This would seem to speak in the novelist’s favour but the obverse seems to imply that the world of the playwright is sparsely populated and offers opportunities to writers seeking an audience. But the world of the playwright is very different to that of the novelist and anyone making the transition must be prepared for a challenging learning curve.

Differences Between a Playscript and a Novel

The differences lie originally in the intrinsic differences between a playscript and a novel. The playwright must live in a smaller, more internalised life (unless he’s writing a musical extravaganza) but this does not mean that the play cannot be popular or even comedic. Stage reality demands however that the story must be character driven and whatever action is to take place must be accommodated within a proscenium arch.

Duels may be fought, maidens romanced, villains shot or knifed, and tea may even be served on the lawn, but spaceships landing on alien moons are a little more difficult.

But stage plays are dialogue driven and if the novice playwright does not master that, he will fail. Novels may permit an internal dialogue allowing the reader into the character’s thoughts but this jars when put on stage, even with the use of well-crafted asides to the audience. Better to retain the glass wall which separates the action from the audience. What works best on stage is smaller dramas, with a limited cast, affected by powerful emotions and relationships.

Theatre Is Collaborative

The second most important difference is in how collaborative producing a stage play is. The writer is only one cog in the machine that puts a performance on the stage. On acceptance of his script by a production company he will be put into the hands of a producer who will appoint a director, who will be in charge of a cast, a stage manager and, possibly, an artistic director. Behind the scenes there will be a set designer, a costume designer, a props buyer, a sound engineer, a lighting engineer and a publicist.

Not all of these will affect the playwright but they will all bring their creativity to the project and the novice must be ready for their intrusion.

The Director Decides

He will notice this especially during rehearsals, which he will be expected to attend, especially in the early stages. He will have attended auditions and his opinion will be sought in selecting a cast, but with the signing of the contract power has passed from his hands and what the director decides must be accepted. During rehearsals he may have concerns about how the cast are handling his text, but he is not permitted to speak to them. Rather he must pass notes to the director who, if he agrees with them, might pass them to the actors. This can be intensely frustrating but if all concerned are working towards the common cause of making the play a success it must be tolerated.

If all this sounds too far removed from the cosy world of the novelist who, at the very most, has to deal with an editor, there are compensations. Watching a live performance of one’s own script in front of an audience can be a moving experience and one the novelist will never have.