What You Need to Know About Playwriting

When discussing playwriting, I often tend to characterize it as screenwriting's "down-to-earth older sister." The primary reason for this is the pure freedom of playwriting, something that at first left me feeling confused as a screenwriter when I took my first playwriting class. "What do you mean I can do whatever I want and that there are no rules?" I asked my professor.

What You Need to Know About Playwriting

At first, this newfound freedom made me feel lost. However, with time, I began to appreciate playwriting as a sort of blend between screenwriting and prose and was able to see the advantages to writing a play over a script or short story. Primarily, playwriting is a place where I can still have an authorial voice in the description, dialogue and stage direction, but it's also a place where I hand off my writing to a director who interprets it on her own, making it highly collaborative and ever-evolving. For that reason, I encourage anyone who has dabbled in either screenwriting or prose to consider trying their hand at playwriting.

With that in mind, by knowing what exactly plays bring to the table that both film and fiction cannot, you'll be better equipped to determine why your story is made to be a play, and not either of the other mediums. If you're unsure about a story of your own, read the remainder of the post with a frequently adapted story in your mind, perhaps a folktale. Consider how this classic story would be different depending on what medium it would be adapted to as you go, with playwriting as the major emphasis.

How Playwriting Differs from Film

No Rules

Unlike with writing for film, playwriting is completely free form. This allows not only for more creativity, but also creates more room for interpretation from the directors and actors when reading the play.

While some people may stick to the general format, altering fonts or choosing different ways to display dialogue, for some this is a place to get really creative with formatting. Think of how authors in prose play with punctuation to change tone or meaning and you'll have a grasp of how artistic playwrights can be with simply laying out the story on the page.

Directors & Actors

If you have a story that you want to be influenced by collaboration, but that you also want to evolve and change, consider how the directorial influence might change your story with each retelling. With a film, there is one director for your piece, unless later in time it is remade for unforeseeable reasons.

However, with plays even those on Broadway change directors over time, lending a certain voice and, ahem, direction, to the story that will vary slightly with each person. This means you will see your story done in a variety of ways, something that would never be possible on film. The same exact things goes for actors in your play as well, though the actors are more of a vehicle for the story than the director is, making a more apparent change at first.

Imagination

No matter how grandiose the set, every play requires a little imagination because of the constraints of the stage. However, instead of seeing this as a negative, use playwriting to force your audience and yourself to be creative. In movies, imagination is stifled with answers in the form of special effects.

While that creates a more immersive atmosphere, if your story does not need to be literally traveling through space or submerged underwater, consider how a lack of those elements can bring life to your story. This will make you further question certain objects in your play and why they are so important, making it easy to weed out that which is unnecessary, therefore strengthening your story overall.

How Playwriting Differs from Prose

Dialogue

The most obvious differentiator between prose and playwriting is the the dialogue. In prose, there might be dialogue, but it is not the entire piece, only an aspect. However, for playwriting, dialogue is the play, or at least technically speaking, when one looks at a script, that is what they mostly will see. Because of this, if you feel you are weak at writing dialogue, playwriting is a great place to practice and do so quickly, as it does not require any sort of transitions in conversations.

Character

Because every theater may not be equipped with everything to make your story a reality, plays tend to be far more character focused instead of world or plot focused. This characteristic is further enhanced by the fact that the plot of a play is always explained via dialogue and therefore character. Even if there is a narrator attempting to fulfill the third-person narrator role, they still must be played by another person who gives the narration character. In turn, this makes playwriting a great place to understand characters in your stories deeply without the distractions of descriptions and whatnot. You are forced to convey character via words alone, just how we do in real life, and make each voice unique.

Differences from Both Film & Fiction

Live Performance

While plays can be recorded and even made for film, there's a reason people try to see the best plays in the theater, and that's for the live experience. Everyone knows there is something special about seeing a story unfold with real people in front of you. Think back to the times when your friend relayed an anecdote to you over drinks or your parents told you about their time as children.

Would those stories be nearly as good if they were written down and you had to read them? Likely not, and that's because with live performance, we are seeing the heart of the story acted out and told by another human being, giving us the most pure connection to the story we can find.

Not all stories need this, and for some stories it might even be tiresome, but for the right stories seeing them acted out in person can make all the difference.

Audience 

Perhaps my favorite aspect about playwriting is the consideration of the audience. Unlike the other mediums, with plays the characters can directly engage with the audience. Additionally, this audience is live, meaning people are responding to your story as it happens, which then feeds into how the actors feel about the story and creates a really amazing cycle of direct feedback determining the shape of the play.

While this obviously ties into the live performance bit about human connection, it also points to a new way to think when writing a story for a play. Both theater and film audiences are usually in groups. However, when writing a play, audience members cannot take the play home with them and watch it by themselves in bed on their laptop, making it more like reading a book. Instead with plays, the audience is forced to go out and see the show with other people, making the entire experience more communal, which is how stories first started to begin with!

Should Your Story be a Play?

When considering whether the story you have in mind should be a play, read over the differentiators I've listed above and consider how your story would be benefited or hindered by this medium. If you are not sure, I've listed some questions to get you started:

  1. Is your story character-driven? Or do characters represent ideas you are exploring? If so, could the story be stripped down so that all it needs are characters talking about something, leaving the rest to imagination?
  2. Do you want your story to be concrete, or change with new influences like a play? If you imagine it changing, how is the story flexible and yet still successful?
  3. Do you want to tell a story that must be experienced live? If so, how would the live setting determine how people perceive it versus a film or book?

If you find that after answering these questions, your story is still better suited for a book or movie, don't be quick to abandon the medium. For practice in your prose, take scenes and just write the dialogue to see how they hold up without all the "fluff." You'll be able to write stronger characters who have real conversations this way without cheating via pretty metaphors and lengthy descriptions. Feel free to include pauses in the dialogue or other brief actions, but try and omit anything else that an actor can't perform.

As for screenwriting and video game writing, whose formats are more emphatic on good dialogue, try taking scenes and writing them in a playwriting format, freeing yourself of the rules known to your medium. Write the scene as you would, but this time let yourself get descriptive and have fun. See where the lack of boundaries takes you in your scene this time. You might find some good details that might make it back into your script!


Have you written a play before? If so, what did you like about it? If not, try adapting your own work to a play and see how the story changes!