The Drama of Play-writing

So you have this great idea for a play. You’ve never written one before, but you’ve been to see them. You’ve read them in English Lit. You’ve got the format. All you have to do is reformat your usual description and dialogue. Instead of this:


You turn the description into stage directions and turn the dialogue into lines. Like this:


Voilà! A simple reformatting, and you know exactly what you’re doing. You’re ready to write a play.

Well, yes and no.

Yes, that is the basic formatting for a play; however, there are 2 facts you should know and accept before deciding to be a playwright.

  1. The stage directions are suggestions.
  2. It will never be performed the way it is in your head.

So… let’s talk about these.

  1. The stage directions are suggestions.

Let’s say that a theatre decides to perform your play. Or maybe you won a competition where your play was chosen to be performed. However it happened, someone is going to be doing your play.

The only parts they have to be true to are the lines.

It doesn’t matter how many detailed stage directions you write. They do not have to follow them.

You see, theatre is all about individual interpretation. The director chosen is going to read the script and get a picture in her head for what the performance is going to be like. If she decides to put your Colonial U.S.A. play on Mars, she can do it. So long as her interpretation makes general sense with the lines the characters say, she more or less has carte blanche.

So why bother writing stage directions?

Not all playwrights do. Oftentimes, when a play is first printed, the stage directions printed with it are a description of what the first production did. It’s there to help other productions get ideas and so that the play is easier to read.

You can still choose to write them. The most important idea to take from this is that if something is important or there’s something you really want to happen in the play put it in the lines. Have someone mention it. Have someone state it clearly. Have it be a question. If Character A says that Character B has a mustache and top hat, Character B pretty much has to have a mustache and top hat.

They have to use what the lines tell them. They can’t ignore the lines the way they can the stage directions (at least, they’re not supposed to).

  1. It will never be performed the way it is in your head.

I hate to say, “never.” Let’s just say that odds are against it.

Many writers have a very specific vision in their head of what happens in the story. What this character looks like, how so-in-so reacted emotionally in this scene, etc. It’s natural – it’s part of how we write the stories.

In theatre, there will be changes.

The actor picked for the lead may not match your vision. That action may be driven by rage rather than sadness. The setting may change completely (more likely in later performances than the original, but you never know). If the timing of something isn’t working, the director may even ask you to change some lines or add a small scene.

Here’s the conflict: the business side of you says, “Sure! Change whatever you want so long as you perform it!” The artist side of you says, “Are you kidding! Stop messing up my masterpiece!”

The old adage, “Pick your battles,” applies here. You have to decide what is important and cannot be changed. My best advice is to defend the parts that are integral to the plot and character integrity and let the little details that aren’t go. If you fight every change, your insistence that it is important to the story will have less power than if you only argue about stuff that truly is vital.

I can’t say these are the two most important facts you need to know about writing a play. For people who aren’t very close to the theatre world, however, these tend to be big shockers. It’s better to know and adjust to them ahead of time so that you’re prepared when the time comes. You may get lucky. The director’s vision may match yours. In case it doesn’t, well, now you know.

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