When I was young and growing up in Washington, D.C., I was lucky enough to take advantage of the rich assortment of local theatre. While the changing sets and scenery rarely disappointed, it was the language of the plays that kept me enthralled. I realized that even though the visual component of the theatre was powerful, it was just another type of fiction writing and that, like in any fiction, if the words and story aren’t there, nothing is worth seeing.
Reading and writing plays can be an interesting way to hone your craft in a genre you may not have considered. Schools have always taught Shakespeare in literature classes because of his development of plot and characters, even inside the specific mechanism of the play, are so phenomenal. These are tools that are necessary no matter what you are writing.
The role of the narrator takes on an interesting shift in a play. In fiction, you choose a first, second, third, or sometimes even omniscient narrator (or a combination) to pull everything together and make clear what is going on. In a play the audience can see the events and action, so the role of narrator falls to the author as the one who silently brings everything together, slipping in hints and background where necessary.
The nature of drama brings to the relationship of writer and receiver to the forefront, allowing you to consider the power of the audience as real human beings experiencing the words you write. Because the words in a play are heard and not read, the visual component is on the action and not on words on a page. This also influences how you write a character. While your characters should be as rich and psychologically real and complex, the audience sometimes won’t have access to their inner thoughts as often as they would reading a first person account in a story. This puts a renewed importance on dialogue, and you’ll want to consider whether long, revealing monologues or shorter, more declarative statements are in order. Words in a play are not just words, they are speech. You’ll want to pay extra attention to tone and repetition, as your audience will be hearing these things out loud instead of reading them. The pace, passion and wit of a play is especially important-the audience’s attention must be held throughout. In his book, The Art and Craft of Playwriting, Jeffrey Hatcher invokes the idea that throughout one’s theatre going life, it is likely that by the time they reach 80 they will want some of that time back. As Hatcher says, “Our job in the theatre is to make that octogenarian regret not one moment he’s spent in the dark.”
While the language is the driving force, as a playwright you’ll need to consider the visual as well. It is important in fiction to set the scene, to describe reality and settings. Playwrights do this too, but the fruits of their effort are present in the set. Consider putting these ideas or descriptions in the stage directions. Instead of describing the scene, you’ll need to populate it with both real items and real emotion.
While the art of theatre is as old as writing, the themes and issues in modern playwriting are as dynamic and diverse as the writers who put them forward. Modern plays such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog, and John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt all connect with audiences by presenting issues both modern and timeless through prose that is both dynamic on stage and transformative on paper.
For more information and advice on playwriting try Hatcher’s book, The Dramatic Writer’s Companion: Tools to Develop Characters, Cause Scenes, and Build Stories, (Chicago Guides to Writing, Editing, and Publishing), by Will Dunne, or The Playwright’s Guidebook: An Insightful Primer on the Art of Dramatic Writing by Stuart Spencer.