Playwriting Tutorial – Bob Young


The Playwriting Tutorial

I came to playwriting from being an amateur actor and out of the necessity of wanting to do theatre with other amateurs and with youth groups. There were some resources out there but there’s nothing like crafting your own material to meet the needs of your local situation. I needed pieces with small casts because our little troupe had only a few members.
You are coming to your playwriting moment out of your own needs and desires. What follows is a series of activities that should be added to your process.
But first a word about how our website works. You can choose one of the activities below and we’ll work together to build a list of objectives for that activity so that when we are done you will have an effective segment of your play built.

I will suggest a few attainable but checkable objectives for the activity. This structure will help you move forward.
If you would like some help with your play, you can simply use the “Leave A Reply” box below. You can just send me a section of your work in progress with a description of what kind of help you are looking for or you can ask me for an exercise for one of the six challenges that you want to start with. For each review or exercise the charge is $14.95 and you can buy that review or exercise in our store. In the store, there will be instructions on how to send a draft of your play if you are buying a review.

Structuring Your Story

Your subject matter needs to have a conscious dramatic structure. Your audiences will be looking for logic in the actions on the stage to lead them to an ending that makes a meaningful point. Sometimes that meaningful message is buried under laughter or violence or tragedy. But you can build the logic in the process of crafting your play so that you have the bones upon which to put the muscle of the characters, location, language, and suspense that is the music of the piece.

Answer these questions for yourself.

What is the premise? What is the action driving the beginning of the play?

What obstacle(s) fall in the way of your premise causing complications?

What actions resolve the obstacles and describes the new reality?

Writing Dialogue after all of the prose you have written all your life

Listen to an active conversation in your life. Notice that it is a series of partial thoughts between two people that eventually adds up to something “dramatic.” Your real conversation usually results in a mundane action, i.e., ordering that pizza, deciding who’s going to the PTA meeting, who is doing the grocery shopping, choosing the next vacation destination.

That style of clipped speech is your task as you build into the dialogue the meaning and the dramatic action of your structural logic.
Imbuing world view and psychological dynamics in your characters.

As I’ve written my novels, the advice I have received from our Writers Group and my beta readers about the psychological grounding of my characters has been crucial to the depth of the writing. “Why would he make such an unusual decision?” stops you in your tracks but strengthens your structural goals and allows you to deepen the dialogue so that hints at motivation are there for the audience to discover. Your story may beg for interesting psychological underpinnings or you may have to add actions that give more depth.

Using the set to advance the action / Planning the set for production simplicity

You may know where your play will be staged the first time and to be practical you are planning for that space. Although usually the director’s turf, a playwright can make suggestions about the physical setting as it informs the meaning of the play. An interesting choice is to make the set one of the characters in your play. The late Milwaukee playwright, Larry Shue wrote the set as a character into his show “The Foreigner.” If you’ve seen it, you know what I mean. If you haven’t seen it, I’m not going to spoil it for you. But French and British farces as a class use the multiple entrances in a one-set show to bring intrigue and humor to their scripts.
Table Readings to discover problems

I once had to write a play whose characters were all much younger than me and would be played by youth all over the country. I worked with an area church to recruit youth from their congregation to do a read through to test my dialogue. I asked the youth who participated to stop the reading whenever it became awkward for them. It was invaluable help. Your play may involve specific content that needs testing. Don’t hesitate to get readers to help you with it.

Don’t feel bad about writing a short play

One thing I find that is hard to do is to write a five act play. I’m a long way from being Shakespeare. But I do love to write short, pithy, surprising one acts. For my personal purposes, a good one act is enough for me. If you’ve got more in you, go for it. The current play I’m working on was pretty serious until I was on vacation in Seattle and my wife booked us into the 5th Avenue Theatre when it scheduled the local Gilbert and Sullivan Society to stage “The Pirates of Penzance.” I was blown away seeing it live. My very serious play is in the process of being transformed into a one act comic musical. I’m trying to persuade one of the members of the Writers Group who has composing skills to help me write the songs.

One of my plays is on the website for you to use as a learning tool. Depending upon what you want to work on, I may point you to moments in that play. It’s called “Four White Russians Make a Coctail.” The play is also available for playing through an arrangement with our website.

Please use the Leave A Reply box below. I look forward to your next step on your theatre project.