How to Write a Stage Play
Watching a play can provoke many emotions: happiness, sadness, even anger. You get far more creative license writing a play than you would a screenplay (compare Posh to The Riot Club, and you’ll see what I mean).
However, writing a play comes with its own challenges. You’re limited to setting, and staging some things (such as magic tricks) can be difficult. But they’re not impossible. A lot can be done with modern technology and a good imagination, so keep an open mind when writing but remember to be practical.
Much of the staging will be up to the director and set designer, but if there are certain things that are required (such as a door that opens and closes, or a table), make sure it’s included in the descriptions.
How to write a play
1. Create an interesting plot
If you don’t have a plot, you don’t have a play. The plot leads your story, taking you, your audience and your characters from the beginning to the end. It doesn’t have to be linear, but audiences should be able to follow it.
2. Add an appropriate subplot
If you’re writing a longer play, consider a subplot.
One of my favourite subplots is in Twelfth Night, when Maria and co. trick Malvolio. It’s an equally confusing plot line, but offers a different kind of humour to the main plot. Maria and co. intentionally deceive Malvolio, as they feel that he deserves his comeuppance. Viola, meanwhile, thinks life would be easier as a man and does not intentionally set out to cause any harm. The two plots work together to entertain/horrify/amuse the audience.
3. Decide on your structure
Stage plays are divided into acts, and each act is divided into scenes.
Writers used to go by the three act structure, but more recently writers have deviated away from it.
You have limited physical space with a stage play, so keep this in mind when structuring your play. You can only have a handful of locations compared to a novel, where you can have as many locations as you like. In a play, the more locations you have, the more difficult you make it to translate on to stage. No matter how great your story, if a company/director can’t envision how to stage what you’ve written, they’ll be less likely to want to bring it to life.
Go for locations that are easy to set up and for people to visualise when reading your script. The more complicated you make your structure and set design, the harder it will be for people to follow.
4. Decide how you want it to look
The design of your set can dramatically alter how actors perform your play.
There are several different types of theatre stage, so choose one and create a set around it. If you struggle to visualise your set, draw it out. This will help you to visualise it and give you a reference guide.
Make sure that the stage layout is easy to follow in your stage play, though: you don’t want to confuse set designers about how your play should look.
Try not to have too much going on at once—the more complicated you make the set design, the harder it will be for people to understand when they read your script. It will also make it more difficult for the audience to focus on what’s going on—you want them to focus on the actors, not their surroundings. You also want the audience to use their imagination to visualise what the characters see.
An eye-catching but not distracting backdrop can work better than lots of props on the stage, and is cheaper to produce, too. If you’re setting your play outside a coffee shop and the actors don’t go inside it, consider using a backdrop of a row of shops instead of creating the whole street/shop front. This will be much cheaper to produce, and therefore make your play more attractive to those who can bring it to life.
5. Know your audience
Your audience is important for a play because you need to be able to market it.
Think about the age, gender, demographic, class, background, education, and anything else (no matter how trivial it may seem), when picturing who you’re writing for. Come up with your perfect audience member, and tailor your script to them. The narrower your imaginary audience is, the easier it will be to write your script.
6. Lay it out correctly
Make sure your play is laid out correctly. There are different ways of laying a play out depending on if you’re British or American, or whether you’re a writer or an actor. For a writer in the UK, this is the one you should use.
Also make sure you don’t confuse a screenplay layout with a stage play one.
7. Create interesting characters
Like any other piece of writing, each of your characters should be unique and easy for the audience to identify. They also shouldn’t be walking stereotypes.
Many of your audience won’t be able to see your character, so it’s particularly important that they stand out in the way that they speak because there will be less visual cues, especially for those high up and/or with poor eyesight. The way your characters speak can tell your audience a variety of things including their class and educational level, and it’s therefore important to get this right.
8. Make your characters’ gestures grand
Facial expressions should be used sparingly when writing a play.Facial expressions should be used sparingly when writing a play. Click To Tweet
Saying that your character ‘raises an eyebrow’ is fine for a novel or screenplay, but this is a play: even the audience in the front row will struggle to see a raised eyebrow.
Write your stage directions so that they can be seen even from the gods. Use body language over facial expressions to show how your character is feeling: your audience will read it better than facial expressions anyway.
The way that you phrase your characters’ sentences should show the reader of your stage play exactly what your character is thinking/feeling. The actor will then be able to easily translate this on to the stage, using the tone of their voice to emphasise the dialogue.
To write a stage play, you have to be able to visualise how your play will appear on stage to audience members all over the theatre. Once you get into that mindset, it becomes easier.
If you’re struggling, watch a variety of plays at different theatres to see how things are done. Every theatre, writer and director handles situations and stories differently.
Over to You
How do you find writing stage plays? What do you think are the most important ingredients? Let me know in the comments below!