Comedy or tragedy, a good play sticks with you and makes you think. It may even inspire you to write a play of your own. But what do you do if you’re interested in writing a play but don’t have the background to get started? You begin with the basics, learning what makes a play a play and then putting that knowledge to use as you sit down to put your own dramatic story to the page, and eventually, the stage. From play structure to characters and dialogue, here’s a look at the fundamentals that you need to know to begin to write a play—including actionable tips for making your show a memorable one.
The 4 Main Types of Plays
Ask anyone how to write a play, and their first piece of advice may be to include a beginning, a middle, and an end. That’s good (and necessary) advice, but it’s important to take those three crucial play elements a step further and work them into the type of play that you want to create.
No two plays are completely alike, but there are some well-defined blueprints that you can follow insofar as how you shape your work. Choose the type of play that you want to write first, then adapt your idea to fit the length and style of that particular variety.
1. One-Act Play
A one-act play is just what it sounds like: a play with only one act. This singular act can run for any length of time (30 minutes or so tends to be standard) and may include multiple scenes or settings, though for logistical purposes it’s often easier to limit set changes in a one-act performance.
Famous One-Act Plays
- A Memory of Two Mondays by Arthur Miller
- A Marriage Proposal by Anton Chekhov
- No Exit by Jean-Paul Sartre
- The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy
2. 10-Minute Play
A 10-minute play is a type of one-act play with a set run time of ten minutes or less. This compact play type still has all of the play elements of a longer performance (i.e., that aforementioned beginning, middle, and end), but is condensed into one scene and with a play manuscript of no more than ten pages.
Famous 10-Minute Plays
- The Wedding Story by Julianne Homokay
- The Sculptor’s Funeral by Willa Cather
- While the Auto Waits by O. Henry
- The Serpent’s Tale by Leonid Andreyev
3. Musical Play
A musical is a play that includes music and lyrics in addition to—or in lieu of—spoken dialogue. Musical plays can be anything from a one-act performance to a full-length production, but most run anywhere from one and a half to three hours.
Famous Musical Plays
- Hamilton by Lin-Manuel Miranda
- Cats by T.S. Eliot
- Mamma Mia! by Catherine Johnson
- Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
4. Full-Length Play
A full-length play, also known as an evening-length play, contains multiple acts, each of which contains multiple scenes. Many are written using the three-act play structure, which we’ll explore in the next section. As far as running time, a full-length play is almost always going to be more than one hour long, since the idea is that it provides a whole evening’s worth of entertainment.
Famous Full-Length Plays
- Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare
- Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller
- The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde
- A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry
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Understanding the Three-Act Structure
The three-act play is a staple of the stage, as well as broader narrative storytelling. In a three-act play structure, the performance is divided into three distinct parts, each of which serves an essential role in moving the story forward. You’ll typically find three play acts in a full-length play or musical play, and if you pay close attention, you’ll notice just how distinct of a purpose each act serves.
Knowing how to write a play—or at least a long one—requires a base understanding of the three acts of a play and how they all work together. With that in mind, here’s a breakdown of the three-act play structure and how it’s organized.
Play Exposition: Protasis
The first act is the protasis, or the introduction. This is also referred to as the play exposition, since it’s where we meet the protagonist and learn about their world. In this opening act, the protagonist will face some sort of a cataclysmic event that will introduce drama to the play and (quite literally) set the stage for what’s to come.
Play Complication: Epitasis
The second act in a three-act play is the epitasis, which is when the main action will occur. In this act, the protagonist is acting on a decision made in act one and often facing some adversity along the way. This results in character development as the protagonist learns and evolves and ends in some sort of complication that makes the audience fear the protagonist will not be able to meet the goal that they are working toward.
Play Resolution: Catastrophe
The final act in a three-act play is when resolution occurs. The protagonist meets catastrophe, which is the climactic action in a play and the point at which the plot starts to wind down (think the death of Romeo and Juliet in the tomb). Resolution doesn’t mean that the story gets tied up in a neat bow—rather that the protagonist is irrevocably changed with no option of returning to who they were at the beginning of the play.
This three-act structure isn’t found only in plays. Many novels, poems, movies, and TV shows follow a similar structure, so keep an eye out and try to spot it when it occurs. You’ll get a better feel for how the acts of a play fit together, as well as how the main characters in a play develop from act to act.
Primary Elements of a Play
What does a play need to have? Aside from a cohesive and well-structured story, there are more functional elements of a play that a writer should be focusing on. As you begin thinking about how you’re going to write your play, make sure to account for each of these elements and how they are all going to come together.
Play scenes are subdivisions of the larger performance that take place in one setting and that usually involve one notable action. When writing your scenes, think about the setting, the play characters on the stage, and the purpose of both. A scene should move the plot forward in some way, whether that’s by creating or resolving conflict, instilling some sort of emotion in the audience, or showing a character arc. Don’t forget to think about how all of your scenes fit together, too—and to ensure that each scene serves a distinct purpose.
Play Scenes vs. Play Acts
A play contains one or more acts, each of which contains one or more scenes. To put it into perspective, think of an act like a week and scenes like the individual days in the week.
Some acts contain only one scene, such as those in a one-act or ten-minute play. Other times a play manuscript will contain many scenes per act. How many scenes and acts you have will depend on the length of the performance, as well as your budget.
Cast of Characters
The play cast refers to the characters in the performance. When you’re writing a play, create a short description for each character as they are introduced to the story. This will help you keep track of who everyone is and what their motivations are.
If you are actually going to be putting your play on the stage, you will need to hold auditions and hire actors and actresses for your cast of characters. For this reason, it may make sense to limit the number of play characters you have so you’re not left taking on more than you can handle or afford.
Your play dialogue is your script. Writing great dialogue is a skill, but it’s something that you can learn to do with practice.
All of the characters in a play should have their own distinct tone and way of speaking, just as all people do in real life. Be consistent in how you write dialogue for each character, and regularly edit your work to remove anything extraneous, such as small talk or any other sort of dialogue that doesn’t serve a direct purpose in the story.
Stage directions should guide performers so they know what they should be doing on the stage, and they should also make scenes more vibrant and realistic.
It’s your job as the playwright to use stage directions in such a way that they further your narrative without making them explicitly expositional. It’s all about showing, not telling, with your dialogue filling in the gaps your stage directions leave behind and vice versa. And while directions for what your play cast should be doing while reading their lines are important, don’t neglect other key directions, such as how characters should enter and exit the stage and how one scene should transition to the next.
Ready to Write a Play?
Now that you’re familiar with the various elements of a play, you can try your hand at writing one. How you format your play matters, so consider using pre-set templates or a play formatting program to lay out your dialogue and directions.
As for what kind of play you should tackle first, it’s up to you whether you start small with a 20-minute play or go all out with a full-length play or musical play. Follow the story and let it unfold in a way that makes sense, keeping in mind that you can always write freely and then edit it down into something workable. Look out for plot holes, and try to put yourself in your audience’s shoes to determine which questions you’ve left unanswered and what might need a bit more context.
Writing a play isn’t easy work. Do hit the ground running, but don’t worry yourself over trying to create something perfect from the get-go. Once you’ve got your first draft in place you can move on to fine-tuning the performance and turning it into something that’s worthy of a standing ovation.
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