Writing a play gives a person a chance to create their own world. In a playwright's hands, characters, places and story all come to life. To create the most believable world possible, many playwrights perform extensive research before they put the pen to paper. They might do background work on historical events, time periods or attitudes of people to create a play that is convincing and engaging to an audience. Some playwrights choose to work with another person, called a dramaturg, as they craft the play. Dramaturgs ask the writer questions about the play and give feedback.
Parts of a Play
At its core, a play consists of two parts: plot and story. One way to think of the difference between those two parts is that the plot is the skeleton of the play and the story is the organs inside of the skeleton. The skeleton, or plot, holds the organs, or story, together. Alternatively, the story can be considered the events of the play and the plot, the ordering of those events.
The play's story can quite simply be just a string of events. Not all aspects of the story have to have great significance in the long run. Parts of the story can just be filler to keep the audience engaged and to help events progress. The plot of the play shows the connections between all the events of a story. An example of a story might be "the boy fell down the well, the dog ran home." An example of a plot might be "the boy fell down the well, so the dog ran home to get help."
A playwright can choose between a number of different plot structures when they write their script. Different plots have been popular throughout different periods in the history of theater. The thinker Aristotle was one of the first people to describe the structures of plot and to examine what made for a strong plot. The type of plot Aristotle described is known as a climatic or rising action plot.
A rising action or climatic plot builds to a climax, then contains a resolution or denouement to wrap up the play. Typically, rising action plots start in the middle or towards the end of the story. To inform the audience of important facts that won't be covered in the action of the play, the writer needs to include exposition, or basic information. The writer then introduces the conflict of the play. The climax of a rising action plot is the point at which events turn in favor of one resolution or another.
An episodic plot contains many different storylines, or episodes that build together to a larger climax or solution. Episodic plots typically start from the beginning of the story. Unlike a rising action plot, an episodic plot can take place over a long period of time and can feature a great number of characters. Examples of episodic plots are seen in the works of William Shakespeare.
Other plot structures include the quest, during which a character, or hero, sets off on a mission. The end of the play usually has the hero fulfilling a goal. A revenge plot examines the reaction to a negative event. It's also possible for a play to be a combination of an episodic plot and a rising action plot. Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard is an example of a play that combines the two structures.
Exposition is when the playwright provides the audience with necessary background information, usually at the beginning of the play. The information is needed by the audience to understand the story of the play. Unless the playwright puts it in the play, exposition won't otherwise be revealed. Examples of exposition include the relationship between the characters, the explanation of the play's setting, and prior events.
The dialogue of the play is the voice that the writer gives to their characters. Through dialogue, a playwright can bring the characters to life. Dialogue can take place between two characters, a group of characters, or a single character, in which case it is a monologue or soliloquy. When writing dialogue, a playwright can give each character specific traits, such as an accent, unique way of speaking, or interesting body movements.
Conflict & Complications
The conflict of a play is the tension or struggle that makes the play engaging. Conflict can range from an internal issue with one character, to an argument between characters. The conflict can be abstract and broad, such as a struggle between good and evil. Complications in the play are issues that further engage the audience with the conflict. An example of conflict and complications can be seen in Romeo and Juliet. The conflict is that Romeo and Juliet fall in love, although Juliet is meant to marry someone else. The complication is that their families happen to be in a feud.
The climax of a play is the turning point or the point when there's a resolution to the conflict. It's not the end of the play and it doesn't have to be the point of the high action of the play. It's simply when events turn toward one course of action or another. For example, in the play Oedipus , the climax is when Oedipus learns that he is not who he thought he was and is the one responsible for the plague.
Coming up with an idea for a first play can be tricky for new writers. One way to come up with ideas is to have a brainstorming session. Some playwrights like to clip newspaper stories that they think are interesting and craft plays from those stories. The length of the play is up to the writer. Some playwrights enjoy writing 10-minute or one-act plays while others want to dive in and create a full-length play.
University of North Carolina Writing Center: Drama
How to Write a Play
How to Write a Bestselling Play
Formatting Plays from Playwrights Center of San Francisco (PDF)
National Playwriting Month
Playwriting Tips from Destination Theater Company
Play and Screenwriting Vocabulary
Dramatic Structure: Climatic, Episodic, Other Forms
Tips for Playwrights
Tips for Playwriting from Playwright Chris Scott
Top Tips for Writers
Parts of a Play
Dramatic Plot Structure
Introduction to Theatre: Plot