Writing a play requires a skill set similar to other forms of creative writing, but there are several key differences.

Here are 9 factors that make a playwright effective:

  1. Knowledge of play structure.
  2. Open to feedback.
  3. Willingness to work on deep characters.
  4. Ability to write rich dialogue.
  5. Stage acting knowledge.
  6. Theater equipment knowledge.
  7. Life experience.
  8. Comfortable being alone.
  9. Work ethic.

Throughout the rest of the article, I’ll detail each factor and explain how they rank in order of importance. So stick around.

1. Knowledge of Play Structure and Plot

This gets the number one spot because there are so many different ways to structure a play. A playwright can choose the number of acts and the number of scenes within each act, and each choice has an impact. 

The three-act structure has been around since the days of Aristotle, but Shakespeare preferred five acts, not to mention the other varieties that all have strengths and weaknesses.

On top of the technical issue of structure, there’s also the plot within that structure. Any effective playwright will know how and when to introduce authentic conflict. They’ll know exactly how long exposition should be, when to introduce heated drama, and where to place crucial beats in the story. 

All of this comes with experience.

2. Open to Feedback

Being open to feedback probably comes in at number one on many people’s lists for qualities that a good writer must have, and it’s also true for playwrights. It’s rare that someone can create a perfectly crafted script independently. 

Great stories are usually a collaborative project involving multiple readers looking it over and offering suggestions.

It can be hard to take in feedback, but it’s crucial for any healthy creative endeavor. Whether that feedback comes from editors, directors, or actors who feel that a certain line doesn’t work, any good writer should listen at the very least. If it’s a good suggestion, it could improve the script.

3. Willingness To Work on Deep Characters

The key word here is “willingness.” By that, I mean the playwright must be willing to spend the time fleshing out each character to the point where they could be real people.

Actors famously like to create their own backstories for the characters they play, so the playwright doesn’t need to include all of the details in the script, but if the writer hasn’t thought deeply about their characters, it will show.

There are many ways to create rich characters, but it all comes down to being able to answer questions about them. How do they dress? What were their parents like?

A strong playwright will be able to answer these questions.

4. Ability To Write Rich Dialogue

Most plays involve characters interacting with each other in interesting ways. And for those conversations to have an impact when acted out, the playwright must be able to write them well in the first place.

There’s room for creativity with dialogue, especially on the stage, but it needs to be natural at heart.

That means that each character should have a unique lexicon. It also means that the exchanges with other characters should flow naturally, and the writer should be selective with monologues and soliloquies.

5. Stage Acting Knowledge

While a playwright doesn’t need to have experience acting on a stage, it doesn’t hurt. And if they don’t have that experience, they should at least have seen enough performances to understand some of the nuances of being on a stage.

Lines that work on the page may not have as much impact live. Complex actions may be difficult to choreograph on stage.

The playwright can accomplish a lot with a script, but there are limits.

6. Theater Equipment Knowledge

Just as knowledge of the limits of acting is vital, so is knowledge of the stage and theater equipment. How a play looks on stage comes down to what the director does with the script, but the playwright should also be able to write directions.

To write clearly, a playwright should know stage terminology and theater equipment so that actions are easier to understand. It’s also helpful if they know about different types of stage equipment, like curtains and lighting, and how production teams use them to enhance a story.

7. Life Experience

I doubt a single writer would argue that a lack of life experience is an asset. It’s possible to get away with it if you do your research, but having been through something brings a different degree of detail to any work.

It sounds a little cheesy, but having your heart broken, struggling and failing to get something you want, and experiencing the joys of life lead to a better story. 

And if it’s not vital, it makes it easier to imagine what your character is going through.

If you’re a young person, the good news is that you may already have more than enough experience to write the story you want to tell. Age doesn’t always mean experience.

8. Comfortable Being Alone

It’s not true of all playwrights, as some prefer more collaborative writing partnerships or rooms, but for most people writing is a lonely business. It involves sitting alone with your thoughts and a keyboard or pen for long stretches.

When you find yourself in a flow state, it can be great, but it’s not something that everyone enjoys. Otherwise, more people would be doing it. To be a great playwright, you’ll need to get comfortable being by yourself.

9. Work Ethic

To be an effective playwright, you must have discipline. There’s no way around that.

Sitting down at a desk and writing a story may come easier to some than others, but it’s a process that takes time. And it’s only the first step.

Once you’ve shaped your first draft, you should get second opinions. And once you have those, you may have to re-write parts of your script. You can repeat this several times.

If you’re a first-time playwright, you may have to work hard to get the play produced after you write it. That means looking for theaters that will stage it, directors who will direct, and possibly even actors. It takes a lot of work, which good playwrights are willing to do.

Categories: Playwriting

Ol Adams

Letter Review is currently edited by Ol Adams, who is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing, casual academic, and guest lecturer at the University of New South Wales. Ol Adams has had short stories published in leading literary journals such as Overland, Southerly, Seizure, and TEXT. Ol has had novels long listed for major awards such as the KYDUMA, has received government funding to produce plays from Create NSW and screenplays from Screen NSW, and has performed / produced professional work at major theatrical venues such as the Sydney Opera House.