Today you’re all in for a special treat in the form of a guest post by Aino Hyyryläinen of Infinitely Obscure. I’ve been reading Aino’s blog for some time and she graciously took time from her schedule to share some playwriting tips with you.
The stage is all yours, Aino!
Ever felt curious about playwriting? Good. Then this post is written for you. Actually, if you’re a writer and you want to learn more about writing dialogue, then this post is meant for you too, even if you have no interest in writing long plays.
In this post, I want to talk you through getting started with playwriting. I recommend that you teach yourself playwriting by writing one-scene plays. Here’s why:
- The length is easy to manage.
- You have freedom to experiment with plot structures.
- You can focus on creating credible characters.
- You learn how to write economically.
Plays that consist of one scene are like the short stories of plays. They’re excellent for warming up that playwriting muscle, or for getting started with the artform. Now, let me talk you through the four points I mentioned in detail.
1. The length is easy to manage.
Scenes in plays are very similar to scenes in novels, for example. There should be a scene change every time
- the setting changes.
- the time changes.
- a new character is introduced.
- a new event occurs.
A one-scene play is easy to manage (and an interesting challenge to write), because sometimes it means your characters have to stay in the situation they are in.
I’m sure most of us started writing fiction in short bits. (If the first thing you ever wrote was a novel, then wowee, you need to tell me how, because I’m still struggling!) I wrote fairytales and short stories as a child, and invented stories for games we played with friends.
If you’ve never written a play before, writing a 1-5 page play is a great way to start. You still have to manage everything as you would in a longer play, but in a more confined frame. On stage, one page of dialogue will last anywhere between 1-2 minutes, but this is very much dependent on how much action there is.
Sometimes limiting yourself to a certain length can actually feed your creativity, so don’t worry about giving yourself a maximum of five pages to get the story across. It might actually help you write a plot that packs a lot of punch.
2. You have freedom to experiment with plot structures.
Okay, so you have to keep your characters in one place and one time. Where’s the variety in that? Everywhere!
Is your plot closed or open-ended? What is your genre and how does that affect your scene? Writing a scene of sci-fi is very different from writing a scene of absurdist comedy or post-apocalyptic tragedy. Get acquainted with the structure of different plays and genres, and try them out in small scale.
Where does a short play start to have the most effect? Where does it end? Experiment as much as you want! When you’re writing short scenes, it doesn’t matter if something doesn’t work. You can conclude it was a good experiment and move on to the next one.
I have no idea how a scene would work where the traditional dramatic arch is completely reversed, but I could try it with a one-scene play, because I don’t have to commit to, say, a six-month writing process to see how it works. Actually, I might try that. If any of you have a go, let me know. I’m curious!
3. You can focus on creating credible characters.
A one-scene play operates best with a limited cast of characters. If you’re starting out, I recommend choosing anywhere between two to five characters. You want to add tension, and that usually works best when there are at least two characters. (Obviously tension will also work with one character. Monologues, however, are an artform of their own, so for the purposes of starting out with playwriting, let’s focus on dialogue.)
When you have a small cast of characters, focusing on what makes them unique is easier than trying to write, say, twenty different people into the story. Differentiate them by the way they speak and act in the story, and see where that takes you.
In one-scene plays, you also have to give background information about your characters as sneakily as possible. Think about the way they behave and what they say – are their actions in line with their words? Subtext is the playwright’s friend, because that way you are able to advance the plot, while giving information about the characters without having to explain their motives in detail.
4. You learn how to write economically.
Nowhere is economical writing more important than on stage. Anything that is not absolutely vital needs. to. go.
When you’ve got about five pages to get your story across, there is no room for blabber. There’s no time for sweet introductions, so you have to throw your characters into the events from line one. Your characters can’t give monologues on their backstory – little hints in subtext will have to do.
You get where I’m going with this. If subtext is a playwright’s best friend, “Show, don’t tell” is a BFF.
The best advice I’ve ever been given about dialogue is that every word should feel like a punch in the gut. Characters should only speak when it’s absolutely necessary – when action is enough, there’s no need for words.
Do you think you’ll give playwriting a go? If you have any questions about this post or playwriting in general, don’t hesitate to leave a comment here, or hop over to Infinitely Obscure for a discussion!
I’m Aino, and I’m a playwright, student, and blogger. My blog is for the creatives; for the optimists; for the dreamers who are ready to share the depths of their ever-creative minds. I believe we as artists can write the world more beautiful.